Can you survive as a freelancer?

This document is the record of a discussion that took place on the nasw-freelance mailing list from January 19th through January 27th, 1998. It deals with a number of issues critical to anyone trying or hoping to make a living as a free-lance science writer.

Information on joining or participating in the nasw-freelance mailing list can be found here.

Bob Finn

The discussion started with this message from Mary Hoff:

Message From: "mary hoff" Date: Mon, 19 Jan 98 05:15:26 -0600 Subject: BD/CD

I've been freelancing for quite awhile but with very little business development or career development--mostly just snagging jobs that come my way. Now I realize I have been deficit spending and need to do some serious BD/CD to advance in this field. I'd appreciate hearing what other science-writer freelancers do for career development and business development, and also what you consider an appropriate allocation of time and money to these areas. If you reply to me personally, I'd be happy to summarize the results and post them to the list.

Thanks in advance for your advice!

Mary Hoff




Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 12:03:05 -0700 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Mary Hoff wrote:

>I've been freelancing for quite awhile but with very little business >development >or career development--mostly just snagging jobs that come my way. Now I >realize >I have been deficit spending and need to do some serious BD/CD to advance in >this field. I'd appreciate hearing what other science-writer freelancers >do for >career development and business development, and also what you consider an >appropriate allocation of time and money to these areas. If you reply to me >personally, I'd be happy to summarize the results and post them to the list. >

Well, Mary, that is our career development. You have just run into a widespread myth (promoted sometimes by j-schools and science writing programs) that you can make a living freelancing science writing for magazines and newspapers. With a few exceptions, you can't. The pay is too low, the risks too great. My experience and that of others I've surveyed indicates that from 1/3 to 1/2 the stories you get assigned come a-cropper for various reasons, some our fault, mostly not. And when they do come through, the pay is not enough to make up for the time spent. Magazines still pay the same rate they did 20 year ago, $1 a word if you can get it. Figure out the hourly rate for yourself. You will often find it not worth the effort if you are trying to run this as a business. It is a seriously stupid way to support yourself.

Almost every freelance writer I know either 1) has a day job with benefits; 2) has a spouse with a day job with benefits; 3) does corporate work on the side; 4) works much harder than any mortal should, or 5) barely scrapes by or loses money on the deal. Even writers with steady gigs find themselves being treated as employees, but without the benefits. If you have a family or thinking of having one, that's not a mnor matter.

Corporate work is interesting. It pays grandly and much of it is actually honorable. You don't even need to do public relations. Most freelances I know do it because it is the only way to make a living as a freelance. I am among them. I am sitting here writing this in a hotel in Salt Lake City under just such a contract and on an expense account. The corporate world often has a much higher regard for people who can write coherently than I suspected, and demonstrate far more respect than magazine publishers, oddly enough. You can regularly get better than $50 an hour, sometimes much more. Match that to your last magazine piece. ( I also have permanent benefits from my old job at Stanford, part of the early retirement buy-out, so I don't have to sweat that stuff.)

There are exceptions to all of the above and we will no doubt hear about them immediately, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

j

Joel N. Shurkin 500 Jupiter Terrace, Santa Cruz, California 95065

Science Writer, Journalist E-mail: joel@nasw.org http://web.wwnorton.com/engines.htm


Message From: Neala Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 14:56:36 -0500 (EST) Subject: Re: BD/CD

On Mon, 19 Jan 1998, Joel N. Shurkin wrote: > Well, Mary, that is our career development. You have just run into a > widespread myth (promoted sometimes by j-schools and science writing > programs) that you can make a living freelancing science writing for > magazines and newspapers. With a few exceptions, you can't. The pay is too snip

Oh, thank you for saying that. I've been doing freelance writing for years and haven't figured out how to support myself strictly by writing. Kept thinking there should be a way to do this.

> Corporate work is interesting. It pays grandly and much of it is actually > honorable. You don't even need to do public relations. Most freelances I

> know do it because it is the only way to make a living as a freelance. I am > among them. I am sitting here writing this in a hotel in Salt Lake City > under just such a contract and on an expense account. The corporate world > often has a much higher regard for people who can write coherently than I > suspected, and demonstrate far more respect than magazine publishers, oddly > enough. You can regularly get better than $50 an hour, sometimes much more. > Match that to your last magazine piece. ( I also have permanent benefits > from my old job at Stanford, part of the early retirement buy-out, so I > don't have to sweat that stuff.)

At the risk of asking something that's been asked (and answered) many times, how does one get corporate work? I know how to get freelance work...I query editors and cross my fingers. But I haven't a clue how to get the apparently much better paying corporate work. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Neala

Neala S. Schwartzberg, Ph.D. Nealas@panix.com


Message From: Rosie Mestel Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 14:46:02 -0800 Subject: Re: BD/CD

> > Mary Hoff wrote: > > >I've been freelancing for quite awhile but with very little business > >development > >or career development--mostly just snagging jobs that come my way. Now I realize I have been deficit spending and need to do some serious BD/CD to advance in this field. I'd appreciate hearing what other science-writer freelancers do for > >career development and business development, and also what you consider an appropriate allocation of time and money to these areas.

God, I am always battling between taking the easy route--writing more and more stories for mags where I already have good contacts--versus the hard stuff: taking the down-time and energy to work up shiny new contacts. I beat myself up about this all the time. My own vain, hopeful answer, silly as it may seem, was to get an office! After years of working from a home office and watching my work efficiency go down, and down, and dowwwn, I decided I needed a proper place to work. Away from the fridge! From home entertainments! But near enough to other working bods in adjacent offices so I can bug 'em whenever I need a quick break. And all for two hundred a month. This, I am utterly convinced, will change my life forever and open up vast swaths of time for career advancement. (Well, it was either the office or slogging through "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Freelancers" and I just couldn't stomach the latter)

Seriously, now (though I am not exactly UN-serious about the office, I mean a friend of mine once rented a huge house he couldn't afford in order to force himself to work like hell and thus expand his business) - -- maybe the approach is to sit down and brainstorm about what you need to do in order to advance your career. Then slice this scary big task into smaller, manageable tasks that can be done, one a day, say, while you're still chugging along with the money-makers. This is what I try to do.

Joel Shurkin wrote: > Well, Mary, that is our career development. You have just run into a > widespread myth (promoted sometimes by j-schools and science writing > programs) that you can make a living freelancing science writing for > magazines and newspapers. With a few exceptions, you can't.

Hmm. Am I one of the exceptions? I think freelancing is hard--I love the freedom, dislike the constant stress--but I HAVE managed to make a living writing for mags. The key, for me, is to have the kind of relationship with a number of mags where I can regularly place stories without having to write time-consuming formal queries. Either they come to me with an idea, or I can call em up and go "Hey, why don't I write a piece on such and such?" But yes, it IS hard work. It does tend to trap you, as I mentioned above. And I do wish I made more money.

  • --Rosie Mestel

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 17:56:04 -0700 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Rosie wrote:

>Hmm. Am I one of the exceptions? I think freelancing is hard--I love the >freedom, dislike the constant stress--but I HAVE managed to make a >living writing for mags. The key, for me, is to have the kind of >relationship with a number of mags where I can regularly place stories >without having to write time-consuming formal queries. Either they come >to me with an idea, or I can call em up and go "Hey, why don't I write a >piece on such and such?" >But yes, it IS hard work. It does tend to trap you, as I mentioned >above. And I do wish I made more money. >

You may well be an exception. But, and I now resort to something I do when I teach:, define "make a living." If you are single, healthy, relatively young and can get by on $20,000 a year and don't mind it, yes you can. If

you are married, have a family and need $50,000 a year or more (and benefits) most folks can't without outside help. It depends on your circumstances. I always ask my class to define "a living" and then we go point by point down what it takes. Do you want health insurance? Office space (incidentally, I agree with Rosie and hope to have an out-of-the-house office next year)? Cash flow? Do you have a signficant other with a job? Children? Got a mortgage? It all depends. "A living" is relative. I do not believe a person can support a family doing this by itself. It is not the way a responsible adults behaves. I do point out that most of us became writers because we did not want to be responsible adults, but never mind that.

Regular gigs like Rosie describes are key. But do keep in mind that you are being exploited. The magazines use contract writers in lieu of hiring staff for which they have to pay benefits. If you have benefits from other sources and a safety net when (not if) the regular gig goes south, there is no reason not to write for them.

I do urge everyone to think about time and money. How much is your time worth? Are you being paid reasonably for your time. In most - and I emphasize, not in ALL cases - you are probably not if you are writing for magazines. If you are getting less than $1 a word you are probably working below the minimum wage, unless the stuff just roars out of your word processor and you don't have to fiddle with it again and you have done a minimum of research. If you are knocking out stuff for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, you probably doing fine, but few of us can do that. It depends on what you need and what you think is a "living," and we all have different definitions.

j

Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 21:45:54 -0500 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Neala S. Schwartzberg, Ph.D. wrote: >>At the risk of asking something that's been asked (and answered) many times, how does one get corporate work? I know how to get freelance work...I query editors and cross my fingers. But I haven't a clue how to get the apparently much better payin g corporate work. Any suggestions would be appreciated.career development and business development, and also what you consider an >appropriate allocation of time and money to these areas. > >Mary Hoff >

I'm sorry to say that it's AT LEAST a quarter of your time, and 1/3 or even more is better. Some of this can be fun stuff, like reading absolutely everything in order to come up with ideas, and schmoozing at meetings (sometimes with scientists, for ideas, and sometimes with writers and editors, for networking.) But a lot of it has to be the awful stuff, like cold-calling editors to pitch them (and learning to love rejection), and writing proposals (many of which, face it, will go nowhere). It's self-marketing, plain and simple, and most of us don't have the temperament to like it or do it well.

I've been mulling over a column on this topic for SW, so I hope those of you who reply will NOT do so privately, but instead post to the list as an aid to my mulling (and your fellow scribes!). My usual rule applies: if I'd like to use anything you say in the column, I promise to get your permission first.

Thanking you in advance, I remain

Sincerely yours, &c

== Tammy =


Tabitha M. Powledge 25040 Old Brick Way tam@nasw.org Hollywood, MD 20636 301-373-5466 FAX 301-373-3788


Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 20:21:12 -0800 Subject: Re: BD/CD

>I do urge everyone to think about time and money. How much is your time

>worth? Are you being paid reasonably for your time. In most - and I >emphasize, not in ALL cases - you are probably not if you are writing for >magazines.... >j

Joel, I've done an interesting experiment in the last three months during a temporary gig at ABCNEWS.com, which will end this month.

Instead of my usual freelancer's pace, I've worked a bare minimum of some 50 hours a week, writing about 1,500 words in two to three pieces per week.

If I had made $1.00/word on every job and had work every day for 50 weeks a year, I'd gross $75,000. Out of that has to come benefits, social security, taxes, and business expenses, including computers, etc. That isn't counting any time for queries, travel, computer maintenance, doctor's appointments, power outages, etc.

Steve


Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 22:40:15 +0000 Subject: Re: BD/CD

At 12:03 19/01/1998 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote >Corporate work is interesting. It pays grandly and much of it is actually >honorable. You don't even need to do public relations. Most freelances I >know do it because it is the only way to make a living as a freelance. I am >among them.

I would put it higher than that. Some corporate work is positively creative and likely to have more impact than the more visible bylined publication stuff. I do a lot of it, and reckon to bring to it the same skills that go into journalism.

You go in there and they don't have a clue about their audience, or what they want to say. You have to guide them through it. Produce a coherent plan for a publication, say, and then guide them through the production processes.

Your name may never appear on the final product, but you know that it is a heck of a lot better than much of the corporate stuff churned out by the PR community.

To give one example, I recently was brought in to write a report for a small group of experts who were investigating an interesting area of technology, sensors. Eighteen months in and they didn't have a clue what they wanted to say. I sat in on their meetings, read all the paperwork, and boiled down there extended efforts into a 24-page report. I even had to guide them towards the conclusions and recommendations. Were I so inclined I could say it was my report.

They aren't all like that, but many approach it.

MK


_ Michael Kenward OBE / Phone: +44 (0)1444 400568 Fax: (0)1444 401064 Science Writer & / mailto:michael.kenward@dial.pipex.com Editorial Consultant / http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/michael.kenward/



Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 08:18:09 -0700 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Steve wrote:

> >Joel, I've done an interesting experiment in the last three months during a >temporary gig at ABCNEWS.com, which will end this month. > >Instead of my usual freelancer's pace, I've worked a bare minimum of some >50 hours a week, writing about 1,500 words in two to three pieces per week. > >If I had made $1.00/word on every job and had work every day for 50 weeks a >year, I'd gross $75,000. Out of that has to come benefits, social >security, taxes, and business expenses, including computers, etc. That >isn't counting any time for queries, travel, computer maintenance, doctor's >appointments, power outages, etc. >

Good stuff. I don't need to point out the impossibility of getting that much work, particularly without time for marketing, or the impossibility of having a life.

j

Message From: ADold Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 12:19:38 EST Subject: Re: BD/CD

Joel, Joel, Joel. :)

You seem awfully pessimistic about the whole freelancing life. It is NOT impossible! It's quite lovely, in my opinion.

I don't have a day job. I don't have a spouse with benefits (although I'm looking!).

I do work very hard. But it's all ultimately for MY benefit. If I work harder, I make more money.

I'm not just scraping by, by any means. I'm making a very nice living. Cash flow is fine. I buy my own health insurance and disability insurance (not to mention homeowners insurance and auto insurance and all that other grownup stuff). I recently bought a townhouse on the edge of the greenbelt in Boulder. I bought a new car two years ago. I eat regularly. My dog eats a premium brand of dog food. I don't wear rags. I take about six weeks of vacation a year. I go hiking in the middle of the day, and skiing in the middle of the week. Take a job? No thanks!

I DO do corporate work along with the magazine writing. But I don't think of

it as "on the side." It's freelance writing just the same as anything else. And it's not supporting my freelance work. I probably make about the same at each, and spend about half my time on each.

I don't feel that any magazine is exploiting me. (The ones that want all rights, yes. I don't put up with that, at least not often.) My philosophy is that I figure out what I want to earn per week. When I consider an assignment, I figure out just how long I can spend on it, given that weekly rate and how much research is needed to do a good job. It works out fine. (And I have occassionally turned down a magazine job because I knew it would not pay enuf to cover the time necessary.)

So please don't go telling all those students that this is an impossible way to make a living. It's maybe not something I would try right out of school. But it's not impossible. Lots of people do it.

To return to the original question of business development -- I write out a business plan every year. It's just a list of goals, really. How much I want to make. How much vacation time I want. Magazines I want to write for, and how many articles I'd like to do for each. Corporate clients I want to work for. New magazine and clients I want to approach. etc etc. In the last few months a couple of freelancer friends and I have also started meeting regularly to discuss our marketing plans. We pick apart each others' plans and encourage ourselves to actually get out there and market, rather than just relying on what comes in. We set deadlines. We have to report to each other. It's all very loose, really, but it seems to work.


Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 08:37:20 -0800 Subject: Re: BD/CD

>Good stuff. I don't need to point out the impossibility of getting that >much work, particularly without time for marketing, or the impossibility of >having a life. > >j

Maybe you do need to point it out. Figure a third less income because of time used to drum up business, more extensive rewrites usually required for magazines, computer maintenance and the fact that few of us enjoy perfect mental, physical and dental health. Some would claim that fully half a freelancer's time goes into overhead.

Steve


Message From: ADold Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 12:36:47 EST Subject: Re: BD/CD

Sorry folks, that last email slipped away before I could sign my name to it. And I hate that anonymous emails.

Cathy Dold freelance writer Boulder, CO


Message From: Eric Bobinsky Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 13:04:06 -0500 Subject: Re: BD/CD

At 10:40 PM 1/19/98 +0000, you wrote: >At 12:03 19/01/1998 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin and Michael Kenward wrote, among other things: >> >>Corporate work is interesting. It pays grandly and much of it is >actually >>honorable. You don't even need to do public relations. Most >freelances I >>know do it because it is the only way to make a living as a >freelance. I am >>among them.

Right-- it can be fascinating, particularly if you target areas that you are personally interested in. And you can steer clear of typical PR work if you want to (though, if you're any good, clients often keep asking you to do it).

I no longer waste time pitching magazine articles unless an editor asks me for something, or it's a project I really want to do. I just can't afford to spend time writing queries, researching and writing articles at the "hobby wages" most publications are willing to pay. One caveat is that it's almost always work-made-for-hire, but I find this acceptable for a sufficient level of payment. So, don't be surprised to find your work ending up on corporate web pages, flyers, press releases, and anywhere else they feel like using it.

But, be warned, corporate writing makes you a Grade B pariah in the NASW! (kidding!!)

>Some corporate work is positively >creative and likely to have more impact than the more visible bylined >publication stuff. >Your name may never appear on the final product, but you know that it >is a heck of a lot better than much of the corporate stuff churned >out by the PR community. >

I've usually been able to get a byline-- even if in microfont somewhere on the publication. If not, I insist on getting some kind of written affirmation that I actually wrote the thing that I can use as a "credit" in pursuit of other work (but I use it with discretion, as some clients are sensitive about such things).

Eric ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Eric Bobinsky Science & Technology Writer/Editor

Tel: (440) 243-2992 Post Office Box 10 Fax: (440) 243-2934 Berea, OH 44017

Int'l: +1 243 2992/2934 USA Internet: ericb@nasw.org ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


Message From: Jim Kling Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 10:06:26 +0000 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Stephen Hart wrote: > > >Good stuff. I don't need to point out the impossibility of getting that > >much work, particularly without time for marketing, or the impossibility of > >having a life. > > > >j > > Maybe you do need to point it out. Figure a third less income because of > time used to drum up business, more extensive rewrites usually required for > magazines, computer maintenance and the fact that few of us enjoy perfect > mental, physical and dental health. Some would claim that fully half a > freelancer's time goes into overhead.

Not in my experience. I worked probably 30-35 hours a week last year, and I earned a salary roughly comparable to what I made as a pharmaceutical chemist a few years ago. I'd like to have earned more, but I attribute my lesser income to some burn-out in the second half of the year. As a result of that burn-out, I've changed my business plan (see below) -- but that's another story.

I must confess that I don't spend anywhere near the 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 of my time marketing that was quoted by some as a requirement to make it as a freelancer. Rather, I like ADold's comments (Catherine? Damn my lousy memory) that business plans are crucial. I went in to this with the determination that I wouldn't work with abusive clients, I wouldn't work for a pittance, and I wouldn't spend a lot of time chasing dead-end story ideas. Instead I've cultivated relationships with good editors who assign lots of stories, specialized in particular areas so that I can sell my expertise to particular clients, and steadfastly refused to work the long hours that I understand plague other freelancers. My attitude has always been: I'll do this my way -- if I find my way doesn't work, I'll find a job that I like instead. And I've stuck to my guns.

I agree with ADold that the best advice is to decide precisely what you want out of this line of work. Then, don't compromise. You will find that, if you have talent and contribute clean copy on deadline, editors will indeed accommodate your demands for respect. Most of the time. Those that don't, you don't want to work for anyway. And I've severed my relationships with a few of those.

Jim


Jim Kling Writer and Consultant jkling@nasw.org http://nasw.org/users/jkling

also volunteer Public Relations Guy the Creative Concepts Ice Project ?building a community for youth through hockey? http://nasw.org/users/jkling/creativeconcepts.html


Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 10:14:27 -0800 Subject: Re: BD/CD

ADold wrote: >So please don't go telling all those students that this is an impossible way >to make a living. It's maybe not something I would try right out of school. >But it's not impossible. Lots of people do it.

I don't think Joel, or anyone else said freelancing is impossible. Joel was talking about freelancing exclusively for magazines, and, I believe, emphasized a family income. But even adding in a wide variety of other jobs, I question your conclusion that "lots" of people make a decent, independent living freelancing. I'd like to see some numbers.

My guess is that no more than 1 in 10 science freelancers make a decent living at freelancing (I'm not counting those with telecommuting positions or correspondent gigs, which are jobs.) Many of the freelancers I know, like me have a spouse with a steady income and complete family benefits. Outside of science writing, the numbers are probably far smaller than 1 in 10. I believe the NWU Freelance guide had some really depressing figures, but I can't take the time to look them up just now. Gotta write.

None of this is to say that making a business plan is a bad idea. It's great. But no business plan should be based on fantasy or on the experiences of the 10 or 20 people earning the most in your chosen profession.

Steve


Message From: David Malakoff Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 14:26:04 -0500 Subject: first vote to archive this thread

I hereby propose that Bob Finn consider packaging and posting on the NASW web page the recent, and fascinating, discussion about whether you can make a living as a freelancer under the title "Can you survive as a freelancer?" (if and when the discussion finally fades away).

Any seconds?

It has certainly stimulated my own thinking about whether I want to continue freelancing (with 3 kids) or not.

David Malakoff Freelance Science Journalist 31 Eagle Lake Road

Bar Harbor ME 04609 (207) 288-0107 (fax) 288-1004 Email: dmalakoff@nasw.org


Message From: Bob Finn Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 11:53:08 -0800 Subject: Re: first vote to archive this thread

At 02:26 PM 1/20/98 -0500, David Malakoff wrote: >I hereby propose that Bob Finn consider packaging and posting on the NASW >web page the recent, and fascinating, discussion about whether you can make >a living as a freelancer under the title "Can you survive as a freelancer?" >(if and when the discussion finally fades away). > >Any seconds? >

I'm willing to second (and to edit the posts) so there's no need for any further voting. I'll wait until I'm certain the conversation on this subject has died down.

Bob


Bob Finn cybrarian@nasw.org


Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 12:58:35 -0700 Subject: Re: first vote to archive this thread

David wrote:

>I hereby propose that Bob Finn consider packaging and posting on the NASW >web page the recent, and fascinating, discussion about whether you can make >a living as a freelancer under the title "Can you survive as a freelancer?" >(if and when the discussion finally fades away). > >Any seconds? > >It has certainly stimulated my own thinking about whether I want to >continue freelancing (with 3 kids) or not.

I agree. Maybe we ought to call it "The Emperor Has No Clothes." Also the discussion on home offices is fascinating and worth the price of admission. I was far more productive at home when I had an office job. Now with a 4-year-old running around the house, it is less so, hence my thoughts about getting an office. Whatever. There's always kindergarten.

j

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 13:01:15 -0700 Subject: Re: BD/CD

>Joel, Joel, Joel. :) > >You seem awfully pessimistic about the whole freelancing life. It is NOT >impossible! It's quite lovely, in my opinion. > >I don't have a day job. I don't have a spouse with benefits (although I'm >looking!). > >I do work very hard. But it's all ultimately for MY benefit. If I work harder, >I make more money. > >I'm not just scraping by, by any means. I'm making a very nice living. Cash >flow is fine. I buy my own health insurance and disability insurance (not to >mention homeowners insurance and auto insurance and all that other grownup >stuff). I recently bought a townhouse on the edge of the greenbelt in Boulder. >I bought a new car two years ago. I eat regularly. My dog eats a premium brand >of dog food. I don't wear rags. I take about six weeks of vacation a year. I >go hiking in the middle of the day, and skiing in the middle of the week. Take >a job? No thanks! > >I DO do corporate work along with the magazine writing. But I don't think of >it as "on the side." It's freelance writing just the same as anything else. >And it's not supporting my freelance work. I probably make about the same at >each, and spend about half my time on each. > - --------------

Ah, but you made my point. You do corporate work about half your time. I said it can't be done doing just magazines alone and I think it can't, with a few exceptions. Steve's numbers prove it. You lead the ideal freelance life because you supplement your journalistic work with corporate work. So do I.

j

Message From: "Edward s. Susman" Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 15:47:03 -0500 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Cathy, Just to let others know that I agree with you. There is a very lucrative side of freelancing, especially if you spend more time writing and less time discussing it on-line. Ed Susman


Message From: "Maury M. Breecher" Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 17:05:45 -0800 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Bill Thomasson wrote: > > Neala S. Schwartzberg, Ph.D. wrote: >>At the risk of asking something > that's been asked (and answered) many times, how does one get corporate > work? I know how to get freelance work...I query editors and cross my > fingers. But I haven't a clue how to get the apparently much better paying > corporate work. Any suggestions would be appreciated. > If you do medical writing, join the American Medical Writers Association. > Ten times a year (IIRC) you get a Job Market Sheet with a Freelance > Opportunities section. Most of the listings are for corporate work -- > although the majority of those relate to writing INDs/NDAs, for which the > companies typically want experience writing INDs/NDAs. > > Making the right contacts with other types of science-based companies isn't > so easy. One option -- a lot of hard work -- is cold calls to the Director > of Corporate Communications and/or the editor of the company publication

> (if any). It might also help to check out the possibility of joining the > International Association of Business Communicators (although I have never > been a member, so I can't swear how useful that might be). > > Hope this helps. > > Bill Thomasson > ********************************************************************** Ah, at last someone answered Neala's specific question. Thank you Bill. It used to be that most NASW members were journalists. I doubt that is the situation now. If, Neala, you go into corporate writing, you may not be able to think of yourself as a science journalist anymore. On the other hand, unless you have a good relationship with several well-paying magazines you'll find it hard to make a good living. I wouldn't encourage anyone to attempt it.

On the other hand, the sense of freedom--of being one's own boss--is exhilarating. It is easier to make it as a freelance writer if one does corporate writing. However, although similar skills are called for, in my opinion most corporate writing isn't journalism. As a result, I have done little of that kind of writing. I am lucky. I don't have to make $50,000 a year any more because my children are grown and the ex-wives are remarried. My spouse, bless her, provides the health insurance and her share of our living expenses. Thus, I have the opportunity to rekindle my freelance career including taking the chance that the health books I write will be well-received, useful and profitable.

Academia is tempting. Just think of being able to research and write onn topics without having to find paying markets. As a doctoral graduate student, I spent months doing research for presentations and articles that didn't sell, yet they will remain in the literature and be cited for years to come. So there is an appeal to that road. However, while my wife Rebecca continues to be happy doing her tenued faculty/associate dean thing, I'll continue be a freelance journalist. It's part of who I am. If in deep financial need, I, perhaps, will one day mine the rich vein of corporate writing.It's good to know it's there.

For those of you who want more specific advice on how to make it as a freelance corporate writer, I recommend "Secrets of a Freelance Writer" by Robertr W. Bly. My shelf copy of his 1988 edition is subtitled "How to Make $85,000 a Year." Bly probably has increased that figure in the subtitle of his most recent addition. Bly gives very good, specific advice on how to break into corporate writing. However, in most cases the corporate writing he recommends is not journalism thus it has not been my cup of tea. If I was facing the challenge of supporting a family today on my writing, I wouldn't be so picky. Good luck to all you younger writers, but remember we make our own luck. Remember to pamper your regular clients with your best efforts and try opening try opening up new ones before the old ones go away.

Regards, Maury M. Breecher


Message From: KScogna Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 19:15:11 -0500 Subject: BD/CD

Gotta jump in here--because although I'd love to make a living writing, I

tried, believe me. Most of my freelance income is from developmental editing for textbook companies. I do some writing, but it accounts for only 30% of my income. I've told fledging science writers that it's very , very tough to break into the writing thing as a full-time freelance. Whe n I started freelancing, I had 5 years of editing experience and thought I' d do that as a "sideline" to writing; it has turned out to be just the opposite.

And corporate writing is GREAT!! They pay well, they are grateful, they call you again and again. I can't say enough good things about corporate

clients. The suggestion about the American Medical Writers Association i s right on target. I've gotten some lucrative jobs from their Jobsheet.

Good luck Neala!

Kathleen Scogna


Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 22:53:22 +0000 Subject: Re: BD/CD

At 13:01 20/01/1998 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote said it can't be done doing just magazines alone and I think it can't, with

If you think magazines pay badly, try newspapers! I do it for the PR. Two pieces in the Financial Times last week. About as much effort as a job finished today that coined 10 times as much. Then again, one FT piece came out of a feature for a well paid house magazine. (Yes, the FT did know this.)

MK

Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 09:10:43 +0000 Subject: Re: BD/CD

At 19:15 20/01/1998 -0500, KScogna wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote only 30% of my income. I've told fledging science writers that it's very, >very tough to break into the writing thing as a full-time freelance. When

This is, I believe, the crux of the matter. Those of us who have boasted hereabouts of their lifestyle -- I also got a new car last year -- are not newcomers to the business.

Trying to break in as a freelance is probably a sure route to the soup kitchen. I did it after 20 years on the corporate chain gang. I know many of the shakers and movers of British science, having plagued them in my previous incarnation.

I know how to bullshit my way into corporate boardrooms without being intimidated. I also have enough media contacts, often with people who have worked with/for me, to be able to get the bylines that are an important part of the visibility game.

Longevity, experience, whatever you call it, also bring that essential ingredient, knowledge, I won't say wisdom. I have seen several cycles in management fashion, for example.

The average 20 something is way behind on the learning curve, even if their short term memory is better than mine. The freelance life is something for the experienced hand who has seen the world and does not want to rule it.

MK

Message From: ADold Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 10:50:59 EST Subject: re: BD/CD

Joel wrote:

>Ah, but you made my point. You do corporate work about half your time. I said it can't be done doing just magazines alone and I think it can't, with a few exceptions. Steve's numbers prove it. You lead the ideal freelance life because you supplement your journalistic work with corporate work. So do I. Ok. You've got me there. I do a fair amount of corporate stuff. It pays well >and I like it. But as you said, it supplements my magazine stuff. I think >some interpret that as supporting my magazine stuff, which is not the case. >I earn about the same from each. Actually, using my handy-dandy Quicken >program I figured out that last year my income was 50% magazines, 35% book and >web work, and 15% corporate. Next year I'm sure it will be completely >different. > >No, freelancing is not easy. And corporate stuff might probably necessary. >(Surely no one could survive on newspaper work alone!) But it is possible to >live nicely as a freelancer. I wasn't trying to boast about my lifestyle, but >just to show that one can live a middle-class life without spousal support or >a full time job.

You can make a living freelancing - I am - but not doing journalism as we usually define it, or not keeping your virginity. You have to do commercial work (not necessarily p.r.) to make a living unless you are into a minimalist life. I found, so late in the sunset of my career, that the amount of money I make is indirectly proportional to the amount of magazine work I do. It will be forever thus until magazines begin paying adult wages. I still do magazines, and enjoy it, because I restrict myself to stories I really want to do, for editors I know and trust, and for publications that have a contract that treats me like a professional. There are still some out there, just a minority.

j

Message From: Barrett & Marquart Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 10:50:01 -0600 Subject: Re: nasw-freelance V3 #15

Michael Kenward wrote:

>Trying to break in as a freelance is probably a sure route to the >soup kitchen. I did it after 20 years on the corporate chain gang. ... >Longevity, experience, whatever you call it, also bring that >essential ingredient, knowledge, I won't say wisdom. I have seen >several cycles in management fashion, for example. > >The average 20 something is way behind on the learning curve, even if >their short term memory is better than mine. The freelance life is >something for the experienced hand who has seen the world and does >not want to rule it. > >MK

Well. The path you took to freelancing sounds great--in fact, it's along the lines of what I had planned. As a twenty-something finishing grad school, I wanted to find a regular job, put in a bunch of years, and then freelance. Alas, plans of mice and men, the plan was derailed from day 1, because I could not find a job where I live and I could not move. I grimly accepted limited-term employment with the state simply to afford rent and student loan payments.

While toiling as an LTE for 2 1/2 years (and becoming a thirty-something!), I managed to build up at least part time freelance work and bailed from state gov't employment last summer. Since I've only been freelancing full time since June 1997, it's too soon to call the endeavor an unqualified success. However, I've never been without work, and sometimes I've had too much.

I don't tout my path into freelancing as the ideal, but then how many freelancers arrive at where they are through an ideal plan versus a strange/lucky series of events? I'm an accidental freelancer, but I really enjoy it. I've got a solid science education and I've seen a fair amount of the world. More experience and more money would be nice, but those are things I can work toward. I'm young, I can wait. In the mean time, I'll make do by relying on whatever gumption I can call my own.

regards, Julia

P.S. The only visits I've made to the soup kitchen have been to drop off veggies that my husband and I grew in our garden. :-)


Message From: Henry Lansford Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 10:52:38 -0700 Subject: Re: BD/CD

Mike wrote:

>Trying to break in as a freelance is probably a sure route to the >soup kitchen. I did it after 20 years on the corporate chain gang.

My sentence to full-time institutional servitude was shorter, but my experience was somewhart similar to Mike's up to a point. In the late 1970s, I left a full-time PIO job with a national research center that I had held for 13 years to start making my living from freelance magazine writing and contract work for institutions, primarily nonprofits and government agencies rather than for-profit corporations. A lot of my

contract work came through contacts I had made on the job.

After about eight years of fairly volatile income fluctuations, I found a part-time salaried job that provided a steady base income and good benefits. The work was flexible enough to allow me to take on a variety of contract jobs, including one that took me out of the country for several weeks as media relations coordinator for a big international field experiment in the tropical Pacific. The organization that paid my salary, a small university research group, had no objection to my using the office that went with the job as a base for my other work. The university (actually the university's research foundation, as our group was supported by soft money from grants and contracts) also participated in the same retirement plan (TIAA/CREF) where I had built up a good equity while working for the research center.

Serendipity obviously played a major role in my finding a job that allowed me to combine a steady income, medical insurance and a retirement plan with a lot of freedom to pursue other work. But if the combination sounds attractive to any of you out there, you may want keep an eye open for that kind of job. It probably will turn up at a university, nonprofit or small company rather than a big corporation.

Cheers, Henry

Message From: Charles Seife Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 14:58:41 -0500 Subject: Freelancing virginity...

At 06:10 PM 1/21/98 -0800, Joel Shurkin wrote: >You can make a living freelancing - I am - but not doing journalism as we >usually define it, or not keeping your virginity. You have to do commercial >work (not necessarily p.r.) to make a living unless you are into a >minimalist life. I found, so late in the sunset of my career, that the >amount of money I make is indirectly proportional to the amount of magazine >work I do. It will be forever thus until magazines begin paying adult >wages. I still do magazines, and enjoy it, because I restrict myself to >stories I really want to do, for editors I know and trust, and for >publications that have a contract that treats me like a professional. There >are still some out there, just a minority.

I beg to differ... I made a living by freelancing for over a year and kept my science-writing virginity. Perhaps my situation was an anomaly, but I was able to maintain a more-than-minimalist lifestyle on non-commercial freelancing. My bread and butter was ScienceNow, Science magazine's daily news website. The wages weren't great, but it was real journalism and sheer bulk helped a lot. I did three or more pieces a week, and between the money from ScienceNow and the magazine articles that came out of that work, I was doing quite well. Though I recently opted for a "real" job, I had no doubts that I could have continued living on a freelance salary indefinitely.

I don't think the situation is as bleak as you've been portraying it -- though it's true that magazine salaries are pretty poor, a freelancer need not starve to keep his "virginity."

Cheers, Charles


Charles Seife, US Correspondent New Scientist magazine +1 202 331 1051 (work/voice) +1 202 331 2082 (work/fax) +1 202 237 8490 (home/voice) +1 202 237 8491 (home/fax) cgseife@nasw.org http://www.cloud9.net/~cgseife/


Message From: Rosie Mestel Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 13:28:49 -0800 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

Charles Seife wrote: > > At 06:10 PM 1/21/98 -0800, Joel Shurkin wrote: > >You can make a living freelancing - I am - but not doing journalism as we > >usually define it, or not keeping your virginity. You have to do commercial > >work (not necessarily p.r.) to make a living unless you are into a > >minimalist life. I found, so late in the sunset of my career, that the > >amount of money I make is indirectly proportional to the amount of magazine > >work I do. It will be forever thus until magazines begin paying adult > >wages. I still do magazines, and enjoy it, because I restrict myself to > >stories I really want to do, for editors I know and trust, and for > >publications that have a contract that treats me like a professional. There > >are still some out there, just a minority. > > I beg to differ... I made a living by freelancing for over a year and kept > my science-writing virginity. Perhaps my situation was an anomaly, but I > was able to maintain a more-than-minimalist lifestyle on non-commercial > freelancing. ...... > I don't think the situation is as bleak as you've been portraying it -- > though it's true that magazine salaries are pretty poor, a freelancer need > not starve to keep his "virginity." > > Cheers, > Charles > I agree absolutely with Charles. I make a reasonable income off of magazine freelancing. And I am still (blush) a virgin.

Rosie


Message From: Karla Harby Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 08:19:17 -0500 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

>>You can make a living freelancing - I am - but not doing journalism as we >>usually define it, or not keeping your virginity. You have to do commercial >>work (not necessarily p.r.) to make a living... --Joel Shurkin

>I beg to differ... I made a living by freelancing for over a year and kept >my science-writing virginity. Perhaps my situation was an anomaly, ...My >bread >and butter was ScienceNow....I did three or more pieces a week,.... >--Charles >Seife

>I agree absolutely with Charles. I make a reasonable income off of >magazine freelancing.... --Rosie Mestel

I'm sorry, Joel, but you're just wrong about this one. As we used to say in grad school when we started arguing, this is an empirical question, and I am convinced the data support what these folks and others are saying.

About five years ago I consciously decided to write nothing but journalism, after having done a mixture of journalism, corporate work and ghostwriting for years. After an initial dip my income didn't even fall off, in fact it went up every year until 1997, when I started turning assignments down right and left to work on my still-unfinished (sigh) book proposal.

The secret is to have a steady gig, or two or three or four or more, as Charles suggests. This means you have to either keep coming up with stories, or have editors who love you enough to keep assigning you things.

I've been at this for 10 years now, and I've noticed that the free lances who can't cut it financially either lack business or people skills, or they lack the flexibility to write articles that can satisfy a wide variety of editorial tastes and expectations. You do have to be a bit of a literary chameleon.

Charles also made another excellent point, in that you don't have to limit yourself to the slicks on the rack at Border's. There is plenty of great journalism going on at trade publications--there are some excellent ones that pay well and still maintain a solid Church-State wall unlike, apparently, the LA Times--as well as on-line publications, subscriber-paid newsletters, and overseas magazines. (I don't write for national newspapers because they don't pay enough and they grab the copyright.)

While I'm on this soapbox, did I mention photos? I just bought a new Nikon for under $600 and I expect to pay for it, at least, in photo fees this year. Today's cameras are technically idiot-proof and if I can learn photo composition well enough to be a published photog, anybody can. The minimum pay for photos also seems to be going up -- $75 each is not unusual, even at very small publications.

There are many, many people in metro New York who do this. It might be more difficult to succeed from Santa Cruz, I just don't know.

Also, I don't think it's right to observe that most free lances are married to people with jobs and then cite that as evidence that free lancing (in journalism only or otherwise) isn't financially viable. Most families in this country are two-career families, period.

Finally, I do agree with the idea that students usually can't succeed at free lancing straight out of school. When I was at that stage, a kindly headhunter, when she heard of my free lance ambitions, advised me to spend a few years working on staff first. That was the best advice I ever got about free lancing.

Cheers, - --Karla.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Karla Harby, Writer 11 Vernon Avenue, Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York 11570, USA Tel. (516) 764 8132; Fax: (516) 763 1021 (24 hours); kharby@pipeline.com


Message From: Jim Kling Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 08:19:21 -0700 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

Karla Harby wrote:

> Finally, I do agree with the idea that students usually can't succeed at > free lancing straight out of school. When I was at that stage, a kindly > headhunter, when she heard of my free lance ambitions, advised me to spend > a few years working on staff first. That was the best advice I ever got > about free lancing.

Well, in the spirit of dissension, and to add another voice against Joel's statement -- I'll disagree with you too, Karla. (Hah!). I came out of an internship at the Cancer Research Institute (after completing a master's degree in organic chemistry) and went freelance immediately. I just scraped by my first year (I didn't go very far into debt either, much less than I would have in a year at J-school), but supported myself very nicely in 1997.

Staff experience would have no doubt helped, but you don't need contacts in the beginning to be successful. You just have to be aggressive in pursuing initial markets and then conscientious in turning

out good copy.

Jim


Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 08:46:24 -0800 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

>The secret is to have a steady gig, or two or three or four or more, as >- --Karla.

I don't remember how virginity got into this discussion. I believe it started out with a comment that it's hard to make a living doing only magazine freelancing, responding to someone thinking of making a business plan to start freelane magazine writing.

I'm sure you're right about business sense, Karla, (not having any, I'll have to take your word) and I'm sure you're right about writing ability (ditto). I think I said early on that my guess was that no more than 1 in 10 sceince freelancers make a good living writing magazine articles. I'm clearly one of the 9, having to fill in with developmental editing and other demijobs. I've also devoted lots of time to rearing children and trying to finish my house.

Everytime I try to do the math, though, it comes up short. Take, for example, $1.00/word, 3,000-word-long features. How many can a freelancer plan on doing in a year? What does that add up to as a gross income? What's the net cost of doing business after reimbursement? Let's say you planned a two-week vacation, and queried, researched wrote and final edited a 3,000-word feature every two weeks. That's a gross of 75,000. Benefits (25%) and the extra social security a self-employed person pays (7.5%) effectively cut that by a third. $50,000 in regular job terms. Not bad if you don't have to buy much equipment that year, and get all travel reimbursed.

Of course that also requires that you never get sick, no one in your family gets sick, and, , that nary a week goes by without an assignment. I don't think I could keep up that schedule even in a good year.

For someone making a business plan to start freelancing, though--that's what started this thread--I'd humbly suggest that that's unrealistic. In other businesses the same thing applies. Some novelists make a great income. The vast majority don't, even many that write great novels. I think most of us would be exstatic over getting a $100,000 non-fiction book advance. But if it takes 2 years to write, you have a $50,000 gross--if you get the advance in a timely manner. (The book world is full of horror stories, an nearly everyone who writes books does it as a sideline.) Remember the Icon magazine story--one person got one assignment at $1.00/word. 75 people who queried didn't. And remember all those job ads you've seen that expect 1,200 words for $300.

I agree with Cathy Dold that perpetuating the story that no one makes money freelancing is bad for all freelancers.

But I also worry that some of this discussion could be read as labelling anyone who doesn't make a full-time income writing for magazines a loser. (I'm not accusing anyone here of doing that. I'm merely stating my personal opinion about a hypothetical attitude.)

Steve


Message From: Eric Bobinsky Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 13:18:17 -0500 Subject: Business Plans (was something about virgins...)

It's quite possible to develop a sound business plan for freelancers. I know; I have one and it works (but, as some folks have pointed out, the "numbers" aren't always pretty; a good BP will let you know when you lost money on that article you just had to write!).

Turns out that freelancing and consulting are virtually identical in terms of business operation. A freelancer is, in effect, just a type of consultant whose deliverable is a written product. I'd recommend taking a look at consulting books that discuss business plans. Holtz's How to succeed as an independent consultant is pretty good and can be readily applied to freelancing. Another book that might be of interest to sciwriters is Kaye's Inside the Technical Consulting Business.

The key point is that the consultant's "billable hours" are exactly the same as the hours spent researching and writing an article. And, like a consultant, you have to establish a minimum hourly rate based on your salary/benefit requirements, overhead, and (realistic) sales expectations.

Even if you (or the consultant) are working for a fixed price, you still use that hourly rate to estimate the minimum fee you must get for a given project to make a profit. You might find that you sometimes have to turn down assignments that don't meet that fee (or subsidize them with other, more profitable jobs).

Most importantly, if based on honest assumptions, a business plan will indicate whether you, personally, can make a go of freelancing. Everyone will have different levels of productivity, better or worse acceptance rates, financial needs, etc. The business plan approach isn't a panacea,

but does give you a rational basis for making a determination of whether full-time freelancing is a viable option for you or not.

Just some thoughts,

Eric


Message From: Rosie Mestel Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 11:10:16 -0800 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

Stephen Hart wrote:

> I agree with Cathy Dold that perpetuating the story that no one makes > money freelancing is bad for all freelancers. > > But I also worry that some of this discussion could be read as labelling > anyone who doesn't make a full-time income writing for magazines a loser. > (I'm not accusing anyone here of doing that. I'm merely stating my personal > opinion about a hypothetical attitude.) > > Steve >

Steve, I'm not trying to brand anybody else a failure. I don't think someone's a failure if they do corporate work. I'm not saying I won't ever do it myself. I'm just responding to some rather rigid remarks that were made about what can and can't be done--remarks that don't gel with my own personal experience. A few years back, my only two choices were to attempt freelancing or to take a pr job at a university. I really wanted to write for magazines. The PR job would have given me security but no happiness. I opted for freelancing and I'm glad that I did. I would hate to overly discourage someone in a similar situation from at least TRYING to go where their heart was. That is my own small concern about this discussion.

Dat's all

rosie


Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 10:26:46 -0800 Subject: Re: Freelancing virginity...

Charles Seife wrote: >

> > I don't think the situation is as bleak as you've been portraying it -- > though it's true that magazine salaries are pretty poor, a freelancer need > not starve to keep his "virginity." > > Cheers,

Troops:

If this message doesn't make any sense please keep in mind I had surgery yesterday and am now happily floating on a narcotic-induced cloud. Chirp! I had a herniated pupick. That's a medical term.

There are exceptions to everything I said. Hell, there are exceptions to everything in journalism. My comment was that it is almost impossible to make a living writing for magazines and I stick by that. Make it trade magazines, if you prefer. I think again we need to define "a living." It depends on who you are and what you want in life. I will not ask those of you who say you are doing it to reveal your income; it surely is none of our business. But I bet there is a conceptual gap here. If you are young, healthy and married to someone with a productive day job, you can make "a living." If you are married with a family, a mortgage, car payments, and have slick idea you need health insurance, and want to live in a nice place, it is virtually impossible, not when you are doing stories for $1 a word or less. $30,000 may be a living to you; it isn't for me. I would like those of you who took exception to my comments to tell me how you do it. Steve's numbers are real.

Someone mentioned that in this world you need two incomes to get along and that's absolutely true, writer or otherwise. That doesn't change my argument, however. Someone else said you can do straight journalism (keep your virginity, in my words) and suggested trade magazines. That is debatable. Some trade magazines (Aviation Week to name one) are superb journalistic endeavors. Many, perhaps most trade magazines, certainly in the computer field, are nothing of the sort. They produce grey matter to fill in between the ads and forget any chance of writing something the advertisers won't like. Some essentially reprint press releases. That fits my definition of journalistic deflowering. I know that, because I've quit a few.

You absolutely need regular gigs to survive as a freelance. I actually don't know any other way of doing it. The

Jan. 27, 1998

Drexel University online

2019 AIP Science Communication Awards

Acoustic Society of America 2019 science communication awards