How to write an email to a researcher you’ve never spoken to before

Since I’ve gotten asked about careers in science writing/journalism twice in the past week, I’ve been hunting down basic resources (what is science writing, how to pitch, where a science writing career stats) from excellent sites like The Open Notebook to help get folks started.

But this is a particularly basic question—so basic that people usually don’t ask it and (IMO) it doesn’t get a lot of good answers. Here’s my take.

SUBJECT LINE

Media Inquiry: Interesting Research

You want to clearly label your email as a media email—ideally from a specific publication, but if you’re a freelancer and not sure where it will appear, “Media” is just fine. You also want to make the topic of the email clear. Specific keywords that are relevant to their specific research are often helpful. For example, it might be better to include “Penrose process” than just “black hole” in the subject line. A more specific topic is more relevant to them and means your email is more likely to be read.

GREETING

Dear Dr. So and So,

Titles can be tricky. On first contact, I always use Dr. (as opposed to Prof.) unless I am positive they don’t have a PhD. If there are three people or fewer, use Drs. If for some reason there are more than three you can address it to “all.” Keep in mind that you generally want to avoid sending a single email to more than 3 or so researchers—things get messy. (One or two really is best.) Make sure to double check that you have spelled their name(s) correctly before sending.

INTRODUCTION

My name is Dan Garisto and I’m a freelance science journalist currently on assignment with Such and Such publication writing about [topic of interest].

You want to convey who you are and what you’re knocking on their door about, generally within a sentence or two. Often you’ll want to add a clarifying sentence about the article you’re writing.

In particular, I’m hoping to give readers a glimpse of [topic] from [relatively under-reported angle].

Sometimes, but not always, you’ll want to prove your credentials upfront with the appropriate links.

I’ve previously written about [topic] here, here, and here.

REASON FOR CONTACT

I’m reaching out because of your work on [topic of interest], especially [somewhat recent paper].

In some ways, this is the most important sentence of your entire email. It’s one thing to receive a cold email from a science writer asking to talk; it’s another if they link to a highly specific (and relevant!) paper you published 18 months ago which has 3 citations. Linking to their relevant research demonstrates that you’ve actually done your homework. It’s an investment of your time into them; it shows you have genuine interest. They are so much more likely to respond if you do this.

Another possible reason:
I’m emailing because So and So said you were the expert to talk to about [topic].

Slightly less good:
Your university bio said you had expertise in [topic] and [related topic].

ASK

I was hoping to speak with you about topic.

This is maybe the least important sentence of the entire email. Don’t spend too much time on it. That you want their time is implicit; how you explicitly state that you want it is somewhat less important. That said, a couple variants to keep in mind:

I was wondering if you’d be willing to look over [forthcoming paper from another researcher] and share your thoughts with me.

Rather than emailing multiple people, it’s often easier to put this request in the ask. Also a good way to diversify your sources.
Would you or someone in your lab/one of your coauthors have time to chat?

LOGISTICS
My schedule is pretty flexible later this week and I’m available via Skype/Zoom/phone. Could you let me know if there are any times that work for you?

Be clear about your availability, but on the first email, don’t list every time that you’re available. It’s messy and presumes a bit too much. Sometimes you’re in a crunch. Be upfront about that too.

Unfortunately I’m on deadline and I really need to get a draft to my editor by tomorrow morning or she’ll have my hide. I know this is a tough ask, but would you have time later today?

There are dozens of other permutations here, but the important thing is to remember to be gracious. Nobody owes you their time.

CLOSING

Looking forward to hearing from you.

This one is totally up to you. “Thanks for your time” works just as well.

Best/Sincerely/Cheers/Regards/Toodlepip,

Dan


PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Media Inquiry: Interesting Research

Dear Dr. So and So,

My name is Dan Garisto and I’m a freelance science journalist currently on assignment with Such and Such publication writing about [topic of interest]. In particular, I’m hoping to give readers a glimpse of [topic] from [relatively under-reported angle].

I’m reaching out because of your work on [topic of interest], especially [somewhat recent paper].

I was wondering if you’d be willing to look over [forthcoming paper from another researcher] and share your thoughts with me.

My schedule is pretty flexible later this week and I’m available via Skype/Zoom/phone. Could you let me know if there are any times that work for you?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Cheers,
Dan

I’ll update this later if I think of stuff. But for now, that’s it.

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