Science writers as entrepreneurs - how to find your voice

Having a strong online persona is about much more than just setting up a website with your best clips in the hope of landing another commission. When done properly, you can set yourself up as the go-to person in your niche or even earn money directly from your site.

The four panellists at UKCSJ's Entrepreneur session had some fantastic advice for writers wanting to develop their personal brand online, including choosing your niche, building a loyal following and finding your voice.

Subject matters

Finding your niche is vital for turning your science writing into a profitable business. If you're just spouting the same content as everyone else, nothing will distinguish you from the other more established writers out there. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, had some simple advice for science journalists looking to go it alone: "Find a niche and report the hell out of it!"

Don't be afraid of being pigeon-holed. National Geographic's creative director Jody Segrue said that in order to be successful you have to get obsessed with a subject that is uniquely yours. That means covering the topics you're passionate about, not the sexy fields that the rest of the science writing community is fighting over.

Get involved

We all know social media is a great tool for promoting your work but it doesn't stop there. Ivan encouraged the group to find people talking about your subject online, whether in forums or on social media, and let them know what you're interested in. You'll be inundated with new material on the subject before long, as well as building a following for your work.

Adam Smith, reporter for Research Fortnight, has put this advice into practice. He found a small group of people on Twitter passionately discussing science policy, the topic of his blog Purse String Theory. By building a relationship with this active community, his popularity quickly grew and in just seven months his blog was shortlisted for a BBC student journalist award, which led to him being offered a job as a reporter for Research Fortnight.

Develop your brand

Entrepreneurs think of themselves as a business, which means you'll need to develop your personal brand. Design a landing page for your website that sets the tone for your work, letting people know what to expect. National Geographic is a massive publication with a 125-year legacy, but Jody’s previous role there involved trying to define exactly what their online persona should be. The challenge, she said, is trying to figure out what you want to be versus what you're telling people you are. Don't try to please everyone; be consistent and you'll have a more loyal following in the end.

Finding your voice

It's important to develop your own voice in writing, a brand that is uniquely yours. There will always be someone working in a similar niche to you, but the trick is to find a different angle. Jim Giles found himself frustrated with science journalism because it lacked the narrative popular in other subject areas. He and a friend launched a very successful Kickstarter appeal to raise funding to launch Matter, an independent online publication specialising in long-form investigative journalism. The gap was there, the demand was there, and Jim's alternative format allowed him to build a popular subscription publication.

Think beyond the platform

Adam’s last piece of advice was to think beyond your platform. Would other types of media work for your format? Could you take your writing elsewhere, for example a blogging network or a magazine? Try out new and exciting projects and keep your brand growing in several directions at once.