Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Freelancing (2)

See the first part of this story on FREELANCING HERE.

If you take a stab at freelancing, here are Christie Aschwanden’s tips for pitching:

  • READ A LOT: “I can’t emphasize enough how important reading is,” especially reading those publications where you want to publish your work. You want to get a sense of the mindsets and formulas. Popular Science and Scientific American don’t do exactly the same thing, and you don’t want to pitch a story the magazine covered last month or yesterday.
  • FIND THE RIGHT AUDIENCE: Look at the ads to see who’s expected to read a given magazine
  • PITCH: 1) What’s the story? (Not what’s the topic?) 2) Why this publication? 3) Why this story now? 4) Why you for this story?

Aschwanden also recommends that every freelancer consider the following three goals when deciding whether to pursue a particular story or assignment:

  • It feeds your passion.
  • It furthers your career.
  • It pays well.

If the project serves two out of these three goals, she says it’s worth it. And if it pays really, really well, then the other two goals might not matter for that assignment.

If an editor says yes to your pitch, know what’s in the contract you sign. The first contract you sign sets the stage for future contracts with that publication and probably sets a standard in your own mind. Look for the following information in your contract:

  • RATE: Most places pay by the word. Aschwanden suggests starting at $1/word, though you need to consider the three goals above because you may sometimes write for free if it feeds your passion and furthers your career. You may make more money doing many short pieces than a few long, involved articles.
  • EXPENSES: What expenses are covered? Make sure expenses are approved upfront, and save all receipts for approved expenses.
  • KILL FEE: If the writer doesn’t deliver the story or if the story falls through (say, the event you’re covering gets canceled), the writer is usually entitled to partial payment. If the magazine kills the story that the writer delivers, the writer should get the full fee, though the magazine looks for loopholes, which is another good reason to meet deadlines.
  • PAYMENT ON ACCEPTANCE: It can take months or even years for some publications to publish an article, so try to make sure your contract states that you’ll be paid when you deliver the article to the editor. If the contract doesn’t state that, ask, as many magazines will negotiate parts of the contract.
  • FIRST NORTH AMERICAN RIGHTS: These rights are that standard ones purchased by a magazine.
  • WORK MADE FOR HIRE: Avoid this! You sign away too many rights.

Aschwanden recommends having software to support your writing process. She especially likes OneTab and Scrivener. As necessary as she finds being online, she says, “The internet is kryptonite for writers.” To battle internet binges, she uses software that temporarily disables her network connectivity.

The Rio Grande in Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier shares its northern border with Los Alamos National Laboratory.

She tries to be in her office by 9:00 am, after walking her dogs with her husband. She chunks her day, using a couple of morning hours for whatever specific task is most at hand. Then, she takes a lunch break and works a couple more hours in the afternoon. By 3:00 pm, she checks email, goes for a run, or fits in some reading time because she has trouble focusing on writing by that point in the day

But she’s back at it after dinner, and finds that she does the most writing at 9:00-midnight. By the end of a long day, she’s moved among many tasks and several projects, but she makes sure that she finishes one thing on her list of things to do. It’s a different kind of workaday life, and Aschwanden has made a great go of it.

If you’re serious about science writing, take a look at our whole series “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular.”


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