Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Freelancing (1)

According to Christie Aschwanden, you need the following traits to succeed and find happiness as a freelance writer:

  • AN ABUNDANCE OF IDEAS: “Ideas are the currency.”
  • THE ABILITY TO PITCH AND SELL IDEAS: “[Freelance writing] is really a business transaction.”
  • PERSISTENCE: Aschwanden estimates that her pitch success has reached 50%, which means she sells an idea half the time. If you’re not the sort of person who can see that rate as a glass half-full, you’re not ready for freelance work.
  • MULTITASKING: “I usually have at least a dozen projects,” Aschwanden said, though those projects are at various stages of development.
  • SELF-MOTIVATION: The freelance writer must tell herself when to get to work.
  • MONEY MANAGEMENT SKILLS: The freelance writer runs his own business. You need a business plan, with an income goal and the steps to get there.
  • ADAPTABILITY: Asxhwanden emphasized that adapting to an editor’s needs is a job requirement. If you’re not willing to shift your angle or if you’re not open to being edited, freelance work is probably not going to work.
  • COMFORT WITH UNCERTAINTY: Which pitch will sell? Into how many baskets can you put an egg? What if every editor passes on your ideas for a month? What if you go five months without a check coming in, as Aschwanden has?

If you do have these qualities, Aschwanden encourages you to go for it. “One of the things I like about freelancing is that I can write whatever I want,” she said. “I can be a generalist.” She had articles in O Magazine and Cell in the same month

Of course, “you can set your own schedule.” Even more important, perhaps, “Contrary to popular notions, you can make good money.”

It’s not an easy career, and there are drawbacks specific to the freelancing lifestyle. The sporadic income is probably the biggest challenge. Health insurance is also a big issue for freelancers, though Aschwanden said that the new healthcare reforms are helping. There’s no tech support when your computer crashes. She is also mentioned the obvious: freelancing is a lonely life in which your UPS delivery person may be the one person with whom you talk on any given day. And “if you want a paid vacation, you have to write about it.”

If you’re interested in freelance science writing, check out Part 2 of our take on Aschwanden’s talk at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Also, take a look at The Science Writer’s Handbook for lots of good advice. And of course, browse through all the posts about Science Writing  at Lofty Ambitions.


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