This entry is being written in response to a reader comment/question re: my recent post “For Love or Money.” The title is ripped off from Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer whose works I admire. The rest of it is mine.
The specific comment/question Shen wrote was:
I have an interest in space writing as well…Do you have any recommendations of breaking into the business?
I’m going to assume you mean writing in or about the aerospace business professionally. Either way, it’s a bit of a niche market because aerospace is becoming an endangered industry. But I’ll think optimistically and assume that NASA, Boeing/Lockheed, SpaceX, Space.com, or other organizations will continue to need content writers for some time to come. How does one break into this line of work?
First, the good news: if you can write well and are willing to learn the language of aerospace engineering, you stand a good chance of obtaining some job security. What follows next is not a long list of bad news, but just some food for thought.
My path to aerospace writing was not direct, by any wild stretch. If you’re serious and are young enough to still be in school, get a technical writing degree. I got an English literature degree, thereby assuring myself a long detour from want to have. Just for grins, take a look at the “About Bart Leahy” tab, above. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, so you’ve read that and perhaps asked yourself, “Do I have to go through all THAT before I get a job writing about space for pay?” Again, the good news is, no, you don’t. If you start with a technical degree and still have a knack/taste for writing, you’ll jump to the head of the pack. If I’d been smarter, I’d have taken that route because most tech writing job postings are seeking engineers who can write, not English majors who are interested in technology.
But let’s say you’re more of a literary sort than that rare engineer who can write and do so with pleasure (a small minority, for which I’m duly grateful). Your volunteer(?) work writing for AIAA is a good start because it shows your willingness to do the work for free. That sort of volunteer effort looks good on the resume, and it helps you build up a portfolio of space-related works you can show prospective employers. You do have a portfolio, correct? If not, start assembling one. I’ll write a different blog about that some other time.
My initial space-writing forays were letters to the editor of (at the time) the Orlando Sentinel. I’m certain I gave the NASA Public Affairs Office fits, because I was very much in favor of the sorts of things that are going on now–extreme privatization, downsizing the workforce, closing down the Shuttle, what have you. As I recall, when an interview finally came up my mother asked me, “Given your views, are you sure you can work for them?” I was a little more concerned that they’d be willing to hire me. The point, anyway, was that in addition to adding more items to the portfolio, I also was developing a distinctive literary “voice,” a set of opinions about space, and a willingness to express those opinions in a public forum. By the time I left Orlando, the Sentinel editor was calling me for op-ed submissions and was sorry to see me go.
Another thing that helps–which you’re doing–is writing a blog, preferably about one topic. I learned that lesson the hard way as well. My personal blog is all over the place content-wise, ranging from politics to technology to space to culture to my vacations to the Science Cheerleaders to the occasional book review or interview. The style is consistent, but the topics vary so greatly that people who like my space stuff will tune out if I start talking about books, or people who like my Science Cheerleader stuff go to sleep when I start talking politics. This blog, which is relatively new, is just about technical communication, and so is likely to develop a specific, dependably sized audience.
Speaking of blogs, it probably couldn’t hurt to stay current on what the most widely read space web sites and blogs are saying. These would include:
Those are the blogs I sift through on a regular basis to keep up on what’s happening in the world of human spaceflight. Undoubtedly there are others, and I’m certain if any of my fellow space writers are following this blog and find that I’ve neglected to mention their site, I’ll be so informed. But that’ll do for a start. These blogs cover the broad and diverse waterfront of the human space community.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention joining a pro-space organization that fits your philosophy. The largest ones are The Planetary Society, the National Space Society (NSS), the Mars Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). These groups all have websites, but also magazines (print, electronic, or otherwise), conventions, and local chapters, which encourage grass-roots participation in public outreach. The National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC), which I just chaired this past May, is probably the largest, most diverse gathering of citizen space advocates and professionals in the world. Face-to-face networking still matters.
So those are some starting points for you to ponder: do you have the skills? Do you have the education/experience? Do you write about space topics often and have a portfolio of your work? Do you have the drive/determination to get into the business? Do you have connections in the space business or space advocacy community who can point you in the right direction? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, you’re well on your way.