Spinning A Specialty

Specializing should also help you make more money. It saves you time because you don't have to start your research from scratch. You already know the technical stuff, the issues, and the sources. You may even be able to run a piece through your computer more than once, turning it into different strokes for different folks. When it happens, that last trick yields one of freelancing's few opportunities for something approaching found money. But it is rarer than we would like.

A 1999 NASW science writing workshop in Anaheim featured four freelances (with specialties in): Beryl Benderly (mostly articles and books), Deborah Blum (mostly books and a journalism prof), Jim Kling (mostly articles), and Jane Stevens (mostly multimedia).

They have all developed that essential tool, the specialty. Deborah Blum's subjects — the animal rights movement, animal behavior, and sex differences — may seem diverse, but she insists they are all a product of her curiosity about behavior, and that she hasn't yet run out of questions about that very broad topic. She is adept at digging through one subject for the seedling of another. A recent piece on neglected children, for example, has led to one on bullies.

Jane Stevens attributes her ability to (as she calls it) slice-and-dice one topic into different chunks for different audiences — newspapers, magazines, nonprofits — and to a California house with a big California mortgage. "I always regarded freelancing as a business first," she says. One example: After selling articles on the epidemiology of violence to magazines and newspapers, she got a grant to write a book for journalists on how to report violence.

Her most notable triumph, a continuing series of trips to Antarctica, began with a little bit of luck — plus her astute recognition that the continent was literally terra incognito, a great story that hadn't yet been told. She has sold that story to, among others, the New York Times, the Discovery Channel and — despite their obvious skepticism and an assignment bestowed only at the cliff-hanging last minute — National Geographic. The Discovery Channel owns long-term rights to her story for them, so she has not been able to resell it. But with Web sites it is possible, she says, to build the kind of story that will need additional updates — for additional money.

Jim Kling's background is in chemistry, and he went directly into freelancing, with no intermediate stops in salaried writing jobs to amass contacts. He hasn't yet decided whether that makes him brave or foolish. The key, he says, is to make a plan before you start, because it is too easy to flounder around and lose your way. Because of his background, he has pitched mostly to trade magazines, and always aims for writing the same thing for two different audiences. Any topic can be handled that way, he contends, and you can even use the same interviews. The secret is to have good relationships with editors at different magazines that have different audiences.

Beryl Benderly began her writing career on what she calls "an unemployment fellowship." She thinks the best way to spin a specialty is to write a book because you end up with a mountain of material, much of which you haven't even used. Her "fellowship" became a chance to write a book on deafness, which led not just to articles, but also to scripts and annual reports. Her advice echoes Deborah Blum's — be deep in a subject that interests you. "I think research is why you're a freelance," she says. Even if you haven't written about a subject for a while, you can catch up pretty quickly if you knew it well to begin with.

Blum's advice is stay in a niche. It saves you time because it saves you research effort. And you'll get more work because you will be a recognized voice, the voice of an authority. On the other hand, being an authority worries her too. Scientists are sometimes annoyed when she is presented as an expert. An interesting problem for science journalists, she notes, and a wonderful ethical question. Both Benderly and Stevens say they often dodge that bullet by referring people with questions to real experts.

Copyright: Tabitha M. Powledge, ScienceWriters 1998

December 31, 1997

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