LWON is a group blog run semi-anarchically by 12 science writers. If you think that sounds like a recipe for chaos, just contemplate SciLance, an even more anarchic group of 35 science writers. Usually, SciLance is just a discussion group, so the chaos is relatively subdued. But last week, the writers of SciLance published their first group project – The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age. We thought we’d celebrate this triumph over entropy with blurred lines and convergent chaos. To wit: the 12 members of LWON interview the 3 LWONians who are also SciLancers. What could possibly go wrong?
Ann: By “group project,” do you mean “book?” You do, don’t you.
Tom: Yes, we do mean book — a nice, fat 320-page book published by Da Capo Press.
Ann: You and Michelle edited it, Tom, right? And after somebody thought of it and everybody else said “Oh my, what a good idea,” why didn’t the book just die? Did one person sort of take charge?
Tom: It actually did die after everyone said “what a good idea.” It died at least once, and I think probably twice, for all the reasons you would expect — it really was a good idea, but one that we all knew would take a ton of work, and since most of us are freelancers, the opportunity costs of working on a book seemed too high. But then Amanda Mascarelli had the great idea of applying for an NASW ideas grant to get started. Several of us, including Michelle and me, did exactly that. When our grant was fully funded, we experienced The Fear on a deep level. Thenceforth the power of guilt and obligation quickly outstripped distraction and procrastination.
Michelle: Yep, as we freelancers well know, money and deadlines are excellent motivators. About a half-dozen of us did step up to steer the project — to edit, manage the finances, build the website, and generally keep everyone in line — but it was and is a true group project, with everyone in the group pitching in on writing, marketing, and cheerleading.
Ann: So the LWONian SciLancers are Tom, Michelle, and Cameron? Was Christie involved?
Tom: All the early discussions about the book happened on the SciLance listserv, and there were a couple of epic brainstorming sessions on that medium. As I remember it, Christie was an essential part of those early discussions, in both enthusiasm and ideas. Christie later left SciLance before the book project entered its for-real phase, but she was an important part of it regardless — especially since a lot of the attitude and approach of the book grew out of the preceding years of conversation within SciLance.
Ann: Was Erika — your wife, Tom, and an eminent science writer — ever involved? Or are you two a closed-system marital relationship?
Tom: Oh yes, Erika was involved too. For one thing, she made my participation possible by taking up the slack on the many occasions when editing intruded on family life, and putting up with — nay, encouraging — some pretty extreme editing measures on my part. She actually wrote a sidebar about being married to a freelancer, too, back when the book was mostly focused on freelancing. We changed the focus to science writing broadly, so unfortunately Erika’s sidebar didn’t make it into the final book.
Michelle: Yes, Tom had to kill his own wife’s sidebar, which I imagine was a bracing experience for everyone.
Cameron: Oh, you started going in the direction of my question, so I’ll follow you! You said over at The Open Notebook that Erika’s chapter was cut for “space”– did she actually reveal the horror of being a SciLance spouse?
Tom: Pretty obviously, Erika is going to have to answer here!
Cameron: Oh goody!
Erika: Being married to Tom is an unmitigated joy, and I imagine this would also be true for all of the other SciLancers. However, if you’re seriously contemplating becoming a freelancer, you should know that freelancing is a lifestyle, not just a profession. Bryn Nelson’s chapter, “Avoiding Domestic Disasters,” is an invaluable guide about what that will mean for you and your family.
Tom: Note to would-be freelancers: find a generous, supportive and loving partner, as I did, and you’ll be just fine.
Sally: Is there any information in the book for science writers based outside of the US, say freelancers in Sweden or Germany? And the reverse: what about tips for US science writers wanting to get into those markets (say the UK or Germany)?
Tom: A great deal of what we cover is applicable to science writers living anywhere from Atlanta to Mars. We do delve into some American particularities though, especially in the business chapters. There aren’t many countries where freelance science writers have to develop expertise on changing health care laws for personal reasons, rather than in the pursuit of a story. Another sadly cut sidebar, Andreas von Bubnoff reported on German journalism collectives, as a model for others to consider. Fortunately Andreas is writing about other issues from an overseas perspective for the Handbook’s website, at pitchpublishprosper.com. And we’d welcome questions about breaking into overseas markets there, as part of our “Ask SciLance” series.
Sally: Is freelance (science) writing a good way to make a living, when all is said and done?
Tom: I’ll point out that the book is about science writing broadly, not just freelancing. Every science writer, it seems, has a short bio that takes the form of “writer tk has reported from far-off here to exotic there, and eaten tk unexpected creature, handled tk expensive technology and slept in tk uncomfortable situation, all in the name of journalism.” I’ve got those too — from Patagonia to the Canadian Arctic; piranha in the Peruvian Amazon; driving an armored personnel carrier in Texas; under my desk too many nights, for not nearly enough hours on too many stories. But none of that compares to the time I managed to coerce famed marine conservationist Sylvia Earle to have lunch with me at a Red Lobster in suburban Virginia, for a story on over-fishing. I had the Captain’s Platter, or whatever it’s called, and she had a salad.
Ann: Adventuresome and enlightening, Tom, but you didn’t answer the question: can a freelance science writer make a LIVING?
Michelle: Ha, sounds like Tom’s been learning from his sources about how to dodge a question.
Tom: Now just a second — someone has been messing with the shared document! I swear there was a different question here, before you all started monkeying around with it — it was about career highlights or something. Now I look like an ass.
Cassie: Yes, and please give a detailed description of how. And please set up a Hayden-Check-Hayden mentorship program and select me as your first mentee. I am willing to relocate, but I will have to bring my science writer husband.
Tom: Well that was your first mistake, Cassie, entering into a two-science writer relationship. On hard days, Erika and I exchange resentful glances which we both understand to mean some version of “Really, you couldn’t have just gone to medical school in your 20s?”
Michelle: I’ll use another answer-avoiding technique learned from troublesome sources and reframe a bit. Yes, a freelance science writer can make a living, and one of the main arguments of our book is that if you’re passionate about science writing, you should acquire some freelance survival skills. Both freelance and staff writers need to know how to pitch stories, network, find ideas, and market themselves — staff writers can make use of those skills within their own offices, and can keep them in reserve in case their steady staff jobs get run over by a fast-changing industry. But — and now I’ll really answer the question, or try to — it is very possible to make a decent (if not plush) living as a freelance writer, especially if you keep your overhead low, manage your finances well, and maintain a diversity of clients. And read our brilliant book, of course!
Cassie: I’ve heard over and over again that freelancers have to run their operations like a serious business, with all sorts of bookkeeping and numbers and such. I’m sort of running my operation like a roadside vegetable stand. Any advice on how to do better?
Cameron: I have a stand next to yours, Cassie, where I’m making crepes and trying to hula hoop at the same time. But there’s a chapter (called “Minding the Business”) by two people I really admire for their business sense–Anne Sasso and Emily Gertz–that I’ve been reading. I even figured out what kind of bookkeeping system I’m using (I thought it was just a spreadsheet that someone had given me, but it’s apparently called single-entry accrual. I think.)
Cassie: Should science writers develop a beat or diversify? Do you think specializing is more important if you’re a freelancer?
Michelle: I think it’s useful and almost inevitable for science writers to develop a beat, or at least a bundle of beats. I know a few experienced writers who are generalists, but they really specialize in generalizing, if that makes sense — they develop their skills so that they’re especially speedy and good at diving into completely new subjects. “Brand” is kind of an icky word, but to my mind it’s really just marketing-speak for a beat, and for a freelancer a beat functions a lot like a brand — it gives your editors and readers a sense of your experience and what they can expect from you, and gives you some goggles to wear when you’re looking for story ideas to pursue. That said, I think it’s important not to be *too* predictable — detours can be invigorating for a writer, and a pleasant surprise for readers. (That’s one of the reasons I love LWON — even the wildest detours are permitted and encouraged.)
[[Questioner?]] What are the highlights of your freelancing careers? Low points?
Tom: See! I told you there had been a question about highlights. I can’t believe some coward removed his or her name.
Richard: Tom, you said in an email to the rest of us at LWON that you have a few interesting stories to tell, but that you won’t tell them unless we ask the right questions. So here goes: Can you please tell us an interesting story? And then another one? And then, if possible, another one, and so on, until you’ve emptied your Warehouse of Interesting Stories?
Tom: I keep telling you Richard, I’m just not that easy. But Michelle might be willing to dish.
Ann: Why isn’t it that easy, Tom? Was mayhem involved? Behavior that if revealed would seriously disrupt someone’s career? Goings-on in a closet? Are these questions specific enough?
Richard: Maybe Michelle has an interesting story about Tom.
Tom: Getting warmer…
Richard: Tom has an interesting story about Michelle?
Ann: And Michelle is now mysteriously On Travel and unable to participate in this discussion?
Michelle: Tom sent me such a delicious box of chocolate that I can’t possibly say anything. Well, I’m kidding, partially. I don’t have any good dirt — just some extremely tasty chocolate sent by a kind co-editor. (But wait a minute … goings-on in a closet? Is there something I should know?!)
Tom: I consider the chocolate a very sound investment in silence. And a closet can be a comfortable place to sit and cry. I don’t know a single successful science writer who doesn’t need a quiet place to sit and cry every little once in a while.
Image: Media scrum around Thai prime ministerial candidate Yingluck Shinawatra, 2011. From The Nation, Bangkok’s English language daily.