To earn a living in the hectic world of freelance writing takes a certain set of skills and an understanding of the field. Some of these abilities you can pick up in books and courses, while others only come with experience and learning from others. Here, then, are some tips and advice from folks -- myself included -- who have gone down the hectic path of freelancing, and have learned how to survive.
A strong desire to seek out stories and learn new things is a common thread amongst science writers. Freelancers I talked to say that there is no simple recipe for becoming a science writer, but everyone agrees that success depends on creativity, commitment, and willingness to take risks. With more than 7 years of experience with many publications in Science and the online medical reference site WebMD, Dan Ferber believes that it's essential to "be curious about the world around you," and that to grow as a writer you need to challenge your writing abilities and "leave your comfort zone" every once in a while.
Most freelancers admit that it takes a certain type of person to eek out a living in this realm. Except for occasional conferences and face-to-face interviews, my life as a writer has been spent at the computer and phone in a home office. While careers in research science depend on working in teams, usually in a central laboratory, independent science writers spend most of their working time alone. For me this usually means hours stuck indoors feverishly typing. This is important: Solitude is important for getting the writing done. But the loneliness of writing can be difficult. When I feel that I am going stir-crazy or have hit a writer's block, I head out for some fresh air or to do some chores around the house to clear my head.
Everyone has their own way to cope with stress. Tim Lougheed, an Ontario-based freelancer since 1986 with publications in venues like Canadian Geographica, Ottawa Citizen, and the Medical Post, jokes, "My editorial staff consists of two golden retrievers, which should be standard issue for anyone setting up a home office."
Some deal with the isolation by making a point of getting out of the house at least once a day for a walk or a run, while others may set up office at a local coffee shop for an afternoon and enjoy the noise of the crowd. Most writers, however, do welcome the quietness of their jobs. Most of the time.
Ferber says he has developed "great tolerance and love for solitude." For Charles Choi -- who has been successfully freelancing fulltime for four years -- the time alone became easier to accept when he began to hear from other writers what some workplaces were like. "They weren't happy fun places like they are in sitcoms, where everyone's friends, and where politicking and incompetence, or just plain drudgery and mediocrity, are not unknown," he observes.
Because writers work alone, the hardest part of this lifestyle is discipline. "There is no shortage of ways to waste time, and for freelancers, time is money. No one's going to keep you on track except yourself," warns Ferber.
The business of contract work
In the freelancing business, money only comes in when you have a contract. So it's important to always try and keep story ideas in the hopper, the more the better. That means freelancers have to be able to juggle pitches, research, and actual writing.
Assuming you've got the juggling part down, who do you pitch to? A key to long-term survival and success, I have found, is to gather a regular roster of clients and develop relationships with editors. Choi, who has written for Scientific American and The New York Times, agrees. "I survive lean times by relying on these bread-and-butter gigs. I also try to write as much as possible, feasts in anticipation of inevitable famines."
You have to be prepared to weather the inevitable dry times. I've slowly built up a small nest egg to help tide me over those periods. I also do some teaching gigs at local colleges and lecture at libraries and other community centres.
Never take a rejection of a query personally; likely as not, the editor just decided that your idea does not suit their current needs, or the magazine may have already covered it in another form recently. I have found that the more I stories I pitch, the more contracts I end up getting. You have to be expecting rejection, however. If I get rejected once, I just shrug and repackage the idea for another outlet. One feature story I had published recently had been rejected by two different magazines, and then, because the editor had changed at the first magazine, I took a chance and resubmitted. It finally got published almost two and half years after I first pitched it. Persistence usually pays off.
Fiona Proffit, a freelancer with many stories published on the ScienceNow Web site has been pitching stories fulltime for only 6 months, but is quickly learning how to cope with the realities of the business. "It's easy to get insecure when you're working on your own. You just have to keep in mind that most pitches are going to be unsuccessful and keep trying." A commonly cited estimate (which may or may not be accurate) is that about 90% of pitches do get rejected.
Sharron-Ann Holgate, an 8 year-veteran freelancer from the United Kingdom with a children's science book and numerous news articles to her credit, believes that it's important to do your homework before making a pitch. "You can minimize the likelihood of rejection by studying the newspaper or magazine that you intend to pitch to, and make sure your idea fits with the sorts of articles they normally carry."
I like to have many irons in the fire and always have multiple stories in development simultaneously. Never just sit and wait for an editor to respond to a pitch. Start working on your next story idea and pitch, pitch, pitch. Expect it: Most of those pitches will be rejected.
That can really drag a writer down; it happens to the best us. So how do you stay motivated times like these? I go down to my local newsstand and flip through publications in which I would like to see my name in print someday. That usually gets me brainstorming, and soon I'm writing new query letters.
Some writers stay motivated by looking over their previous successes, while others just read the latest science discoveries. Choi finds motivation in more basic thoughts. "The fear of not being able to pay rent, and thus having to move back in with my parents, is pretty good motivation."
So what's the key? As with any other self-directed profession, attitude is important. Besides optimism and flexibility, I always have to remain aware that even 4 years into my writing career I am still learning and growing as a writer. Seasoned writers say you need to have "thick skin" and be able to "park your ego at the door" when dealing with editors. I agree. "Knowing what your market is and how to sell to it. Being organized and self-disciplined. Being 100% reliable -- making sure you deliver what your editor wants, when they want it," adds Profitt.
I am always hunting down my next story, pitching another idea to an editor, while hammering out drafts and revisions of articles. In the end, a freelancer is a project manager, employee, and salesperson, all rolled into one. The trick to survival, I and others have found, is to keep juggling all three, being careful never to drop any one role.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.