Thoughts about Writing

I often get asked about being a freelance science writer, and can no longer answer every inquiry. Instead, I’ve collected some of the questions I get most often, with the answers I typically give. I hope to expand this page over time, and that it’s helpful to people considering this career path.

Should I become a freelance science writer?

Freelance science writing has many benefits, but also some significant drawbacks.

I suggest asking yourself if you like the following:

Writing. This may seem obvious, but think hard about it. Are you considering this career path because writing is really what you want to do, or because you want to escape another career path such as research? Do you actually like the process of constructing and reconstructing sentences and paragraphs? Try giving yourself an assignment and seeing if you enjoy the process.

Exploring and experimenting. Again, you might say, who doesn’t like exploring?! But do you really want to follow your own interests down whatever paths they may take, or would you feel more comfortable having a regular beat and story format? The latter can still be done as a freelancer, of course, but may be a better fit for a staff writer. I find that the real joy of freelancing — what gets me up in the morning — is the freedom to explore, experiment and follow my own interests without being limited by a specific publication’s sensibility or a specific editor’s interests. Many writers are more prolific than I am, but far fewer have written as wide a range of pieces for as wide a range of outlets and audiences.

Listening more than talking. Can you stay engaged while listening to someone else talk for an hour or more, and not saying a word about yourself?

Working alone. Do you need frequent social interaction or affirmation, or are you OK with long periods of solitude?

Setting your own schedule. Can you wake up every morning, put your butt in a chair and keep it there? (And not spend the whole day on social media?)

Financial uncertainty. OK, maybe nobody likes financial uncertainty, but are you OK with it? Do you need a steady paycheck or can you stomach ups and downs in income?

Cold emailing and calling people. Are you comfortable bothering busy people for their time and attention? (Politely, of course!)

Diversifying your skill set. It would be nice if I could be only a science writer. But I’m also my own marketer, social media guru, website manager, tech support, accountant, scheduler and more things that I’m probably forgetting. I’m not saying I’m exceptional at all these things, but I’ve taken enough of an interest in them to become at least halfway competent.

Is it really possible to make a living?

YES! I have made a decent (though not luxurious) salary for several years and even bought a house in the DC area.

Doesn’t it get lonely?

Yes, it does. That said, one benefit of being a journalist is that I’m frequently on the phone with sources and (less frequently) editors. This is certainly better than eight hours staring at  a screen, though it’s obviously not a total substitute for real human contact. (I do have a cat who I can annoy as needed — and I make sure to see actual flesh-and-blood people on a daily basis.)

On the plus side, there is a good community of freelance science writers out there and most are happy to connect with fellow travelers on this offbeat career path.

Should I take a “side gig” to make ends meet?

Obviously this depends a lot on your personal financial situation and needs. But if you really want to be a freelance science writer, and you have a financial cushion, my advice is to go all in! I’ve observed anecdotally that writers who also do a side gig often (not always) give short shrift to their freelance work. On the other hand, for some people having a mix might work best.

What advice do you have for pitching stories?

Lots! Here is some, with more to follow at a later time:

Don’t undersell your story. What is the biggest-name publication you can imagine reading your story in? Pitch it there first. If they don’t accept it (likely), you can always re-pitch elsewhere.

This advice may not apply if the story is time-sensitive.

Don’t wait until you have a perfect pitch. You will never get there. Write a good pitch, polish it up, and send it to an editor. One of two things can happen from there. Either the editor will accept the pitch, in which case it was obviously good enough! Or they won’t accept it, but you might get some feedback on how to improve it. Even if you don’t (all too often the case), when you reread the pitch after some time away from it, you will see all kinds of ways to improve it that are so obvious you won’t believe you didn’t see them the first time. Revise your pitch and send it to another editor. Repeat as needed.

Show the editor what material you have, even if it means writing long. Others may disagree with this, but I have found, especially when pitching a new editor, that writing long pitches that showcases the material I have often works well. It may take the editor a bit longer to respond, but it’s worth it if you get the assignment in the end.

Don’t spend a lot of time writing about yourself. One short paragraph at the end of the pitch with a few relevant clips and a link to your website is sufficient.

Follow up. Everything I’ve ever heard from editors suggests that they really mean to reply to all pitches, and if they don’t, it’s simply for lack of time. And I’ve never heard anyone say don’t follow up (after a reasonable period of time, of course). For a feature pitch, I recommend waiting one to two weeks, depending on time sensitivity, the length/complexity of the pitch, and other factors. For a news story, one to two days. If you still don’t hear back after follow-up, it’s probably time to pitch to another outlet.

What is your process?

OK, now that I’m done laughing, I’ll answer this question. I was laughing because I have no process. I look around, talk to people, find something interesting and think about how to make a story out of it and who might be interested in running . Sometimes this happens fairly deliberately; many other times it is very stochastic. There are times I’ve read a paper or article and within an hour or two, pitched a story. Other times I’ve slowly and methodically built the case for a story.