On Being Freelance

Setup
That work space looks unusually tidy

I was laid off from my communications job at Sanford Burnham in 2011, the collateral damage from a grant funding crisis. Theoretically, I could have gotten a similar position at Salk, TSRI or UC San Diego, but I was concerned the same funding issues would catch up with me. When my risk-averse wife gave her blessing, I decided to go freelance.

A number of people warned me against it, but they were all former journalists and knew it would be challenging to make a living pitching publications. I had a different model in mind: working for universities, research institutes, biotechs and nonprofits. I occasionally perform random acts of journalism, but mostly I work for organizations.

The slow economy was a concern but that may have been an advantage. Companies lay off full timers, but they still need the work done. Signs are pointing towards another economic downturn, which could really test that hypothesis.

In the Beginning
I started by calling everyone I knew who could either hire or refer me. Not really a pitch so much as just letting them know I was freelancing. I hated calling like that, but almost everyone was supportive, and I was incredibly fortunate to get a project that week. Networking is a long game – some of those calls generated business two years later – but it’s good to be lucky.

When people want advice on freelancing, I always ask what their Rolodex looks like. My experience with Sanford Burnham, and Scripps Health before that, gave me lots of contacts who knew my work. Otherwise, it’s just pure cold calling. Some people are good at that, even enjoy it. But if that’s not you, give it some thought.

I also ask what kinds of samples prospective freelancers have – prospective clients will definitely want to see your work. There’s lots of ways to create samples: blog, volunteer at a nonprofit, write random spec pieces.

The Work
My first rule is: Always show up. That means meeting deadlines, responding to calls and emails within a few hours, communicating with clients if there’s a problem and generally being transparent.

This may seem like no-brainer advice, but it’s not. There are lots of flaky freelancers. Every couple of years, I get a call from someone who has lost their writer – they have literally gone MIA – and the deadline is coming up. I always say yes, it’s a function of my hero complex.

As a consultant, my job is to solve my clients’ problem(s). That means showing them the work is in good hands. From the moment they make the assignment, I want them to feel confident they can cross it off their list.

What I’ve Learned

Dodger
Long-suffering colleague

Working at home was hard at first, but it’s grown on me over the years. Being alone means fewer distractions. As an FTE, there are always meetings, urgent email strings, birthday parties, fires to put out. Sometimes, it’s hard to get to the actual work, even if you love it.

Some people worry that being at home will present its own distractions. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m not the type to clean my house to avoid work.

The flexibility is wonderful. My kids were 10 and 7 when I went on my own, so I got to be there when they came home from school, or I could carve out 20 minutes for an impromptu game of street football, or take them to the orthodontist. It all worked, as long as I got my projects done on time.

Is it feast or famine? Sometimes. Being slow is frightening. Nobody likes waiting for the phone to ring. Being busy can also be scary. Sometimes multiple deadlines fall on the same day. But fear is a great motivator, and it has made me a better writer. On a professional level, that may be the best win of all.

December Updates

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Sorry for the prosaic title, things are hectic.

First, you may have noticed the groovy new SANDSWA logo. Many thanks to Sanford Burnham Prebys science writer Monica May for the concept and graphic designer Priyanka Paurana for the finished product. For her creativity, Monica won a year’s membership in SANDSWA – nice.

On January 3, SANDSWA members are getting a free Ruben H. Fleet Science Center tour, featuring CEO Steven Snyder, PhD, and marketing director Wendy Grant. Not a member? That’s easily remedied: JOIN NOW.

Happy-Hour.jpgThere was another awesome happy hour at AleSmith on December 4. We’re sad if you missed it, but there will be another one coming up in February. We’re open to location suggestions.

Want to improve your science writing chops? SANDSWA board members Heather Buschman and Tiffany Fox are teaching UC San Diego Extension’s Science Writing I, Tuesday evenings January 15 through March 12. This course changes lives. Check it out.

And finally, do you feel like SANDSWA’s blog posts have gotten a little monochrome (exhibit A)? That’s okay, you can help fix it. We are constantly looking for guest bloggers to add new ideas into the mix. Send us a note, we’re always open.

 

What’s Happening at SANDSWA

Happy Folks
Josh, Ramin and Steve bring home the hardware at the recent SD Press Club Awards

There’s a lot going on at SANDSWA, and so little time to cover it, so here’s a quick summary to keep you up to date.

The 45th Annual San Diego Press Club awards ceremony was held on October 30 and SANDSWA members swept the Magazines, Science/Technology/Biotech category. Congrats to Steve Murray, Ramin Skibba and Josh Baxt (now referring to himself in the third person). Steve earned multiple honors that night, and Ramin – our fearless leader – received the Rising Star award.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference was held this past October in Washington, DC, and Heather Buschman, Patricia Fernandez, Lynne Friedmann, Katherine Leitzell and Ramin Skibba kindly reported out during our most recent happy hour. Here are some highlights:

  • Delegates from 12 regional groups attended the first science writer group congress. They discussed funding sources, events, recruitment, mentoring and leadership.
  • How do we teach scientists to communicate clearly? No surprise, scientists like data.
  • How do we write about gloomy problems like climate change? People may not like the raw science, but they will respond to characters, narrative and suspense.
  • Make sure your writing is culturally competent. Try to walk in another culture’s shoes. Proper spelling means including the appropriate accents (In Spanish año means year; ano means anus). No “Columbusing,” check your writing for references that might devalue formerly colonized people.
  • Embrace video (show, don’t tell)

Of course, this is a summary of a summary, so a tertiary source? Anyway, I know you want more, so check out our fabulous slides.

The Society for Neuroscience conference is having a press reception at the convention center on Sunday, November 4 at 4 pm in room 22. SANDSWA is plotting to pack the event. You can apply for press registration here.

SANDWA’s next awesome happy hour will be held at AleSmith on Tuesday, December 4, at 5:30. You know the drill: drink, chat, eat, network.

 

The Public Good

Drosophila
Drosophila melanogaster

There may be science writers who do it for the paycheck. I don’t know any, but I assume they’re out there. The science writers I know do it because they love science and want to spread that joy. They are constantly amazed by the new information.

But there’s also a sense of public responsibility. Science shouldn’t be a private thing that only a few people understand. We need to spread the word.

Politicians sometimes cherry-pick a specific research project to mock as wasteful. Sarah Palin famously took on fruit fly research in 2008. She was probably talking about a $211,000 effort to study Bactrocera oleae, a pest that strikes olive trees, in an effort to support the California olive industry. Still, a lot of Drosophila melanogaster researchers bristled at the attack.

This kind of rhetoric is hard to combat – sound bites are much easier than science. If she was talking about Drosophila, it would be hard to go on CNN and explain the value of model organisms without getting too far into the weeds.

Like so many other things, we need to be proactive. These attacks stick because people often lack the fundamental scientific understanding to recognize their flaws. We probably can’t remedy that entirely, some people refuse to be informed, but we can at least create a knowledge base to help people understand.

We live in a time when people often dismiss science – the one discipline that has the best chance to help us through our many crises. That’s discouraging, but it doesn’t mean we’re not making a difference.

Which is basically what we’re doing in our day jobs. Every time we post an article or news release or blog post, we’re adding to that knowledge base. We’re creating a firewall against bad information with accessible science. Perhaps someone is interested in understanding the argument and a Google search leads to your explainer. That’s a win.

 

 

Happy Hour at White Labs

Erik
Erik Fowler styles us out with information and beer.

Beer is four things: water, barley, hops and yeast. We hear a little about barley and a lot about hops – it’s San Diego and we’ve been IPA’d to death. But yeast, not so much. Maybe we’re a little squeamish because it’s a microorganism.

Regardless, a squad of intrepid SANDSWArs paid a visit to White Labs last Wednesday to learn about the company, the yeast and the beer. Continue reading “Happy Hour at White Labs”

Happy Hour, etc.

Happy Hour3Last Wednesday, we hung out with 40 of our closest friends at AleSmith, off Miramar Rd. We quaffed a beer or two, talked shop and watched Marine Ospreys land at the nearby airbase. Thanks everyone who came and sorry if you missed it. Don’t worry, more on the way.

There’s a rumor going around that one of our attendees received a job offer mid-happy hour. That’s some next-level networking, and we applaud the effort. More on that as new information comes in, but I think it’s just one more proof point that SANDSWA is the nexus of all things good in the world.

On a related note, Salk Institute is looking for a science writer. I relay this with some reluctance, since I freelance for them and a new FTE means less Salk for me. Still, must look beyond my own selfish self-interest and encourage qualified people to apply. They have an awesome comms team and cool faculty.

SANDSWA is up to 43 members – including eight newbies on Wednesday. Thanks everyone for joining. For those who are not members yet, please peruse our member benefits and immediately sign up. We will be your friends forever and ever.

What’s next? On September 26, we’re doing a tour and tasting at White Labs in Mira Mesa. Better yeast means better beer and White Labs is on top of it. The event starts at 5:30 and costs $10. We will have the registration up shortly. And, no, we do not drink too much. We drink exactly the right amount.

You should follow us on Facebook and Twitter – your productivity has been way too high lately.

What’s Next for SANDSWA

36978837_10216168953047461_5130917847635066880_o1.jpgWe’ve received a lot of positive feedback on our recent happy hour, so it makes sense to have another. Hope to see everyone on August 15, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at AleSmith Brewing Company for our second event.

We would also like to encourage everyone to become a member. It’s only $25 a year, $15 for students. We’re putting together a nice membership package, which is expanding by the minute:

  • Regular newsletters with event notifications, job openings, member news and more
  • Invitations to special quarterly events, lectures, workshops, field trips
  • Opportunities to write a blog post or be featured in our blog and newsletter
  • Access to member directory
  • Opportunity to take a leadership role in organization – professional development and community service

So, you can serve your community, network like crazy and enhance your personal brand. What could possibly be better?

On the member event front, we are looking into potential tours at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, White Labs and other sites, as well as satellite events with some of the many scientific conferences that come to San Diego.

But what would you like us to do? Feel free to share in the comments below, through Twitter @SANDSWA2 or on our Facebook group. See you on 8/15.