Whether you are navigating getting a COVID-19 vaccine, helping children return to school or determining if you should go back to the office in person, we know this is a busy time.
In an effort to share insights with club members who weren’t able to make it to the March meeting of the SANDSWA Social Justice in Science Writing Club, here are highlights of our discussion that may be helpful.
This is Part One in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Check back soon for Part Two!
By Tiffany Fox
Quotations (also known in journalism as direct quotes and indirect quotes) help to humanize science and often add much-needed emotional contrast. They provide a sense for the “characters” in our stories – what drives them, how they speak and how they relate to the world. Many times – especially when a source is particularly charismatic or cantankerous – the use of quotes can mean the difference between a stuffy, boring technical piece and a story that vibrates with life. But it’s important to know how to use quotes effectively, and for that, we offer these tips: Continue reading “How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part One”
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.
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
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.
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.”