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.

 

How Science Writers Help Scientists to Think More Deeply

hand raised

I recently came across a compelling passage (below) from computer scientist Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo and CAPTCHA, among other things. What struck me was how accurately his words reflect what we as science writers do each time we say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain that to me?” As von Ahn notes, asking for an explanation can have the effect of helping scientists (and others) to think more deeply about what they do, and how what they do might fit into a larger context.

And that, when it comes down to it, is how science (and humanity) progress.

Here’s what von Ahn has to say:

“My PhD advisor [at Carnegie Mellon was] a guy named Manuel Blum, who many people consider the father of cryptography [encryption, etc.]. He’s amazing and he’s very funny. I learned a lot from him. When I met him, which was like 15 years ago, I guess he was in his 60s, but he always acted way older than he actually was. He just acted as if he forgot everything. . . .

“I had to explain to him what I was working on, which at the time was CAPTCHA, these distorted characters that you have to type all over the Internet. It’s very annoying. That was the thing I was working on [later acquired by Google], and I had to explain it to him. It was very funny, because usually I would start explaining something, and in the first sentence he would say, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ and then I would try to find another way of saying it, and a whole hour would pass and I could not get past the first sentence. He would say, ‘Well, the hour’s over. Let’s meet next week.’ This must have happened for months, and at some point I started thinking, ‘I don’t know why people think this guy’s so smart.’

Later, [I understood what he was doing]. This is basically just an act. Essentially, I was being unclear about what I was saying, and I did not fully understand what I was trying to explain to him. He was just drilling deeper and deeper and deeper until I realized, every time, that there was actually something I didn’t have clear in my mind. He really taught me to think deeply about things, and I think that’s something I have not forgotten.”

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”