Guide for freelancers
The majority of the news section of New Scientist magazine is written by staffers but we are always on the lookout for exciting freelance pieces. On the other hand, features are mostly written by freelancers. This document is intended to outline what the editors are looking for, how to go about pitching and writing stories and what our conditions are. Most of it should be obvious to experienced journalists, but these guidelines should help ensure that pitches or articles provided by you, a freelancer, meet our editorial standards.
Read the magazine
Before sending in your idea, make sure it is the kind of story we are after.
In general, we are looking for science and technology stories from around the world that will intrigue, entertain and inform the widest possible audience, be they physicists, biologists or people with no science background at all. We cover fascinating bits of pure science with no possible application as well as high-impact stories such as weapons technology and the psychology of terrorism. Besides reporting the latest research, we also try to find interesting scientific or technological angles on major news events.
We want stories that are relevant. Ask yourself why our readers (around the world) would care about what you’re going to tell them. We do not cover developments of interest only to specialists, such as new animal models of a disease or the opening of new science research centres. Nor do we cover policy issues affecting only scientists, such as funding policies or the appointment of institute heads. We want stories that move science on, not incremental advances.
New Scientist publishes new research – in the news section that means either exclusive research or that presented in the public domain within the past week. We do not publish news articles about research presented one month ago, unless there is a justifiable news hook. Check our archive – very often we will already have written about the same story.
Features may publish material that is less time-sensitive, but only if it is a critical step in an as yet untold story detailing a new idea.
Find exclusive stories
New Scientist has a team of around 40 editorial staff. We get press releases from the major journals and institutions, attend many conferences and scour the obvious sources of science stories.
That means there’s little point in pitching stories from major journals such as Nature and Science, or from press sites such as Newswise or EurekAlert! We will have seen them already, and generally ask staffers to write them. Only pitch from these sources if you have an exclusive angle on the research, its context or implications that others will not.
Try to find stories that none of our editors or reporters are likely to have spotted, and that haven’t been covered by the mainstream media in the UK, the US or Australia.
Pitching news stories
When suggesting a story, send us a paragraph or two describing exactly what the story is and why it’s significant. If it’s not obvious, spell out how it is different to what’s been done before. The story has to make us go “wow!” – is it something you’d tell your friends down the pub? The pub test is a good way to assess the interest in a story.
Send in focused pitches relating to one or two story ideas, rather than pitching many less well-informed ideas at once. Make sure it is a good story and explain why it is a good story – remember, your story is competing for coverage against tens or hundreds of others each week. Send us a top line that makes it stand out.
Tell us about your angle or added extra. Perhaps you have exclusive video, or exclusive access to a hard-to-reach scientist. Tell us about the special extra.
Do include details such as the names of the researchers and organisations involved, where you came across it, what – if any – media coverage the story has had and, in the case of journals, the title and date, and if there is any embargo. This makes it easier to decide whether it’s worth covering and to schedule it.
If you haven’t written for New Scientist before, it’s helpful to tell us a bit about your background and writing experience as well. And don’t forget to include your phone number and email address.
First and foremost, a New Scientist feature is an article that people will love to read. New Scientist is not intended as required reading for professional scientists, as a public service or as an educational tool. Our features are informative, thought-provoking and scrupulously researched, but must also stand alone as entertaining pieces of journalism.
We do not run features on new research just because it is worthy or important to the researchers involved. Your feature needs an angle, implications, people, a storyline and a payoff. Its content should be new to the vast majority of our readers, or there should be some timely reason for covering the subject. Above all, it will aspire to be the best, most incisive, insightful and enjoyable piece of writing on the subject anywhere.
The ideal pitch is just a few paragraphs long. It should quickly tell an editor what the story is, what’s new and why New Scientist should cover it. It should be well written and give a flavour of the tone of the finished feature.
Bear in mind that New Scientist features are stories, and follow a narrative structure. Make sure you not only tell us what the story is, but also how you plan to tell that story in a compelling way.
We strongly advise that you show an awareness of the magazine, website and our readers. It’s worth repeating that before you send a pitch, please check the New Scientist online archive to see what we’ve done in the area in the past.
Above all, we are looking for imaginative treatments and high-quality writing. A pitch that conveys the promise of something original and different is more likely to catch an editor’s eye.
A typical weekly issue of New Scientist will contain three feature articles ranging in length from two to six pages, with four pages being the most common length. A list of the most recent articles can be found here. Variety is the keyword, but a successful feature will generally fall into one of the following categories (note that a subscription is required to access most individual articles):
- Ideas or discoveries that overturn important scientific ideas or common assumptions
- Ideas or discoveries that make you go WOW!
- Discoveries that answer long-standing scientific questions
- Authoritative reporting on the science behind stories of public concern
- Things that are great or helpful to know, often related to health or self-improvement
- Technology trends poised to change the way the world works
- The definitive guide to….
- Fun, quirky or unusual stories with a science or technology angle
What sort of features are we not looking for?
- A step forward that non-specialists neither know nor care about (eg New fossil forces radical rethink in mudstone geology)
- An incremental discovery in an important area of science (eg cancer vaccine shown to work in rare form of carcinoma)
- A progress report on some area of science that has been ticking along nicely but uneventfully for years (eg recent progress in the neurobiology of vision)
- An extraordinary idea that isn’t backed by a genuine researcher and/or a peer reviewed paper (eg dark matter might be pollution from alien quantum computers)
- Stories that are about projects or techniques, rather than results (eg new remote sensing satellite invented that can measure CO2 emissions from factories)
- Parochial stories without global interest (eg Britain’s marshlands are making a comeback / Plan to introduce rural broadband in US)
- General themes, topics or fields (eg an overview of machine learning, space junk, a new area of cancer research)
- Science shoehorned where it doesn’t belong (eg The immune challenges to being born in a stable / the science of any sci-fi TV show or film)
An example of a pitch that was commissioned
Folklore and anthropology report many instances of voodoo death: superstitious individuals who died inexplicably after being cursed by witch doctors. Can words really kill?
In this feature I will look at voodoo death and tell the story of an Alabama man rendered near death after a late night argument with a witch doctor. His decline and subsequent recovery brought about by a giant green placebo lizard, mark extremes of related phenomena – nocebo and placebo – the ability of dummy pills or suggestion to worsen or benefit health.
While placebos are well known, the influence of its evil twin, nocebo, is unclear. As well as causing patient distress and skewing clinical trial results, nocebo could be costing the health care industry big bucks in terms of inexplicable side effects.
I’ll give real life examples of nocebo, from the man who almost put himself in a coma after ‘overdosing’ on placebo anti-depressants, to the patient mis-diagnosed with liver cancer who died tumour-free within the three months he was told he had left to live.
Studies on nocebo are still in their infancy, largely because experiments designed to harm are an ethical no-go. But there are a few, which I’ll describe. And researchers are starting to get a handle on the underlying mechanisms. Expectation and conditioning influence the nocebo response, and there are possible sex differences. Key brain regions have been identified by imaging studies, as have key neurochemical pathways bringing about the possibility of using drugs to block the nocebo effect. And finally, I have people who will speculate on how the neuro mechanisms come together with whole body physiology to explain how voodoo death might just happen.
Who to send ideas to
Email one of the specialist editors:
Individual editors on the New Scientist features team tend to cover different beats, although these often overlap. A broad outline is given below. If you are in doubt who to pitch to, the chief features editor, Richard Webb, can forward pitches to the most appropriate editor
Life, human sciences and medicine
Physical sciences, maths and technology
New Scientist is constantly striving to improve the quality of our content and writing. Reporters are expected to interview primary sources, to ask critical questions, to check for any related research or studies where relevant, and to seek the views of independent experts. Reworking secondary sources such as press releases is not acceptable.
Our readers are a smart bunch, and expect stories to be intelligently written, and to include the context needed to understand their significance. Stories should provide enough detail for readers to understand how things work, but also be accessible to as wide an audience as possible and free of jargon. The should also be well structured, internally consistent, and engaging.
We pay per words published, which will normally be about the same as the number of words commissioned. The editor handling a story can tell you the going rate. Payment will be sent to the address you give us within a month or so.
Let us know about potential exclusives even if you are unable to write them yourself. We will usually pay a tip-off fee if we use the idea.
Before we can publish any article, the writer must sign a copyright agreement giving our publisher all rights to the article. This covers “the form of words used”, which means you can’t sell the same article to other publications. You can, however, still write a different article on the same subject for them.