Reinventing Your Freelance Science Writing Career — the apprentice view

The lead in: balance in freelance?

The "freelance dilemma" is characterized by a disconnection between idealistic vs. realistic allocation of time, according to Alan S. Brown, who moderated this session at the recent NASW annual meeting in Spokane. His informal pub survey results prescribe the solution. Instead of playing solitaire, sending useless emails, playing guitar and cooking — set a goal and construct a plan around it.

No hint of procrastination is evident among these panelists representing three corners of what is greater than a freelance triangle.

Corner 1: The "Niche Market Man"

Steve Miller (Freelance — Physical Sciences). This unpretentious medicinal chemist writes on specialized topics, e.g., superconductors, for trade magazines and writes test questions for middle school curriculum text publishers. He converted a part-time hobby writing for children's magazines into a full-time focus on materials sciences.

His approach? Get laid off, create your niche. Get paid by project-time (e.g., $50-100 is his target), but not by the word. Know the rules, and the lingo (e.g., rubric). If not, bluff first, learn it later. Join trade organizations (e.g., National Science Teacher's Association, Association of Educational Publishers) and attend their conferences. Prepare for lean times — do other non-niche work (e.g., grant editing) as backup. Be aware of potential niche contraction and expansion.

His nod to balance? By limiting topic scope, spend less time looking and more writing/earning. Request his book faves to fill in down time.

Corner 2: The "Science Refugee"

Rasmi Nemade (BioMedText, Inc.). This molecular/developmental biology PhD with NIH postdoctoral experience went from bench to freelance grant writing. At a time when she was "eating the ground," her online resume post led to contact by a professor at a nearby university. Ascent followed. Some major possibilities: National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants (Principal Investigator-driven), Department of Energy (DOE) contracts, NIH Small Business Research Innovation (SBIR) grants, institutional/facility (e.g., hospital) grants.

Her approach? Provide grant writing samples, whether funded or not. Know the grant guidelines. Know the lingo (e.g., Request for Proposal, RFP). Seek unexpected apertures (e.g., 3rd Frontier Initiative).

Her nod to balance? Leave the administrative portions (e.g., biosketches) to them. Get paid by the hour — and itemize it — or get paid in kind, if appealing.

Corner 3: The "Medical Writing Mint-Maker"

Emma Hitt (Emma Hitt Medical Writing, LLC). After finishing her PhD in molecular biology of cancer, Hitt abandoned the bench, but not her area of expertise. Why waste words and space? She'll email you her presentation. In short, there's a wide scope of options, the money is good. Check out the HittListTM and find Hitt's contact information at

Her approach? Determine area of expertise, get professional. Set up website, post writing samples (published or preferably, not). Send mass mailing periodically. Aim at excellence for repeat business.

Her nod to balance? Get advice from customers, not writers. Offer to travel to gain an assignment.

Wrap up.

Is this invention or reinvention? Either way, these panelists' messages converge into two key freelance mottos: Anything is negotiable. Anything can be learned.

Whisper that to yourself, at least until you can pay your bills.

Michele A. Zacks is a member of a virology research laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, a ceramic artist and is trying to be a freelance science writer in Galveston, Texas. Her interests are in things that swim, crawl, fly and hop and in using visual and audio material in science education.

Oct. 29, 2007

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