Survey reveals two distinct types

"Yes, NASW, a science writer can make a living as a freelance." That long-awaited answer to a perennial question on the freelance Listserv emerged from NASW's first-ever survey of its freelance members. The responses also made clear, however, that only a minority of NASW freelances support themselves through self-employment.

The survey identified two distinct categories of self-employed science writers: full-timers earning all or nearly all their writing income as independent entrepreneurs and part-timers mostly devoting fewer than half their working hours to self-employment. The largest group of freelance respondents, 47 percent, are self-employed full-time. (Percentages in this article are rounded to the nearest whole number).

The next largest group, 38 percent, spend under a quarter of their time on freelance assignments. Six percent devote between a quarter and a half of their working time to freelancing.

The two worlds of science writing

Income. Asked for their average freelance earnings over the last five years, respondents reported sums ranging from less than $5,000 to more than $50,000. A reticent 10 percent, however, declined to answer this question. The figures revealed that those identifying themselves as full-time freelances have a much bigger economic stake in self-employment than do part-timers. Ninety-five percent of the full-timers earned their entire income from freelance work. In contrast, 74 percent of part-timers get less than 25 percent of their income from freelance assignments.

Among those who freelance full time, 43 percent made between $25,000 and $50,000; 20 percent made more than $50,000,and 11 percent made between $15,000 and $25,000. Seventy-one percent of part-timers, on the other hand, had freelance incomes under $15,000 per year, although 7 percent made more than $50,000 from freelance work.

Two hundred twenty-seven individuals, or 69 percent of the full survey's total of 327 respondents, indicated that they freelance either full or part time. This number represents 27 percent of the approximately 850 NASWers whose membership applications identify them as freelances. In contrast, only 14 percent of NASW's total membership of nearly 2,400 and 7 percent of its non-freelancing members completed the survey. Freelance Committee chair Beryl Benderly compiled the questions with the help of NASWers on and off the committee. Committee member Dan Ferber analyzed the results.

7 of 10 NASW members who responded do freelancing

Eighty-one percent of NASW freelances write for magazines and 59 percent for Web sites. Thirty-nine percent write for trade publications (which may well overlap with other categories such as magazines or Web sites) and 37 percent for newspapers. Significant numbers of NASW freelances do PR work: 17 percent for universities, 11 percent for other research institutions, 10 percent for medical centers, and 9 percent for biotech companies. Technical writing is another market for NASWers, with 9 percent doing it for biotech clients and 7 percent for computer companies. Smaller numbers engage in work on grant writing, encyclopedias, journal and academic writing, and writing for other types of corporations. Full-timers and part-timers seem to have similar distributions of work among magazines, newspapers, Web, and other venues.

Books. Forty-six percent of the freelance respondents have written books, and many of these NASWers are multi-talented authors at home in multiple genres. Thirty-five percent have penned a single volume, 21 percent have done two, 17 percent have done five to seven, and 7 percent have done more than 10. One super-achiever has authored more than 30 different titles. Just under three quarters of the book writers have published as sole authors, 54 percent as credited coauthors, and 10 percent as uncredited ghosts.

Just under two-thirds of the authors have composed tomes in the adult trade category and 22 percent have done books for children. Fourteen percent have done textbooks, 11 percent have done technical books, and 17 percent have done other kinds of books, including reference works, manuals, guides, and novels, especially science fiction.

Sixty-two percent of the freelances who responded offer editorial services in addition to writing. Ninety percent of these NASWers do editing, which includes substantive editing for scientists (28 percent), for books (22 percent) and for serials (15 percent) as well as copyediting for scientists (21 percent), for books (13 percent) and for serials (12 percent). Nine percent do indexing, 5 percent do graphic design, and one or two members each offer a variety of other services including html, Webmastering, scriptwriting, photography, research, translation, creative direction, and proofreading.

Thirty-one percent of freelance respondents have a major client. A third of those with this arrangement earn between a quarter and a half of their income from that source. For 24 percent this client accounts for a quarter of income or less. On the other hand, 18 percent of the writers with this arrangement earn up to three quarters of their income from the major client and another 18 percent, between three quarters and 99 percent of their freelance income. For 6 percent, the major client provides their entire freelance income. In addition, 37 percent of those who freelance have part-time jobs or consultancies. For 62 percent of these writers, however, that job or consultancy accounts for less than 25 percent of their time.

Though clearly not a high-paying profession, freelance writing nonetheless appears to be a satisfying one for many NASWers. Fifty-nine percent of full-timers and 53 percent of part-timers have been at it for more than 5 years. Another 22 percent of the total freelance respondents have racked up between two and five years as freelances. Fourteen percent were in their second year freelancing, and 9 percent in their first. Thirty-five percent of freelance respondents thought that NASW effectively serves freelance interests, and an additional 59 percent thought it did so sometimes, with only 7 percent saying that the organization does not serve their interests. Part-time freelances seemed somewhat more satisfied with the organization; 38 percent of them, as opposed to 29 percent of the full-timers, gave an unequivocal "Yes."

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance health and behavior writer in Washington, D.C. Dan Ferber is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.

Survey results

Time & Money

Do you freelance, either full-time or part-time?

Yes 227 69.4%

No 91 27.8%

Left blank 9 2.8%


What percentage of your working time is spent freelancing?

100% 106 46.7%

76% to 99% 4 1.8%

51% to 75% 3 1.3%

26% to 50% 22 9.7%

1% to 25% 89 39.2%


What percentage of your writing income derives from freelance work?

100% 112 50.9%

76% to 99% 7 3.2%

51% to 75% 2 0.9%

26% to 50% 13 5.9%

1% to 25% 86 39.1%

What kind of writing do you do?

News or feature writing for:




Web sites*13358.60%



Trade publications8838.80%

*includes 1 classified as "other"


Public relations writing for:



Medical centers229.70%

Other research institutions2511.00%

Other nonprofit organizations41.80%


Technical writing for:

Computer companies167.00%

Biotech companies208.80%

Grant writing83.50%


Other writing

Universities/research institutions31.30%

Other companies**52.20%

University case study10.40%

Trade union10.40%

Journal contributor10.40%


Academic writing10.40%

**medical device, science education, technology companies, medical consulting, medical education.

Freelances & books

Have you written books?





If 'yes,' how many books have you written?

1 book3634.60%




5 to 71817.30%

8 to 1032.90%

11 to 1543.80%

16 to 2011.00%

more than 2021.90%


What type of books have you written?

Adult trade6865.40%





***reference/trade (3); fiction/novels (2); science fiction, manuals/guides (2); history, non-fiction science/kids, adult non-fiction, self help/art, vanity pub by a doc, biography, companion to documentary, academic, science careers, health policy, NSF showpiece, "it's in progress."


How did you do the writing?

As sole author7774.00%

As credited author5653.80%

As uncredited ghost writer109.60%

Other editorial services

Do you provide other editorial services?





If 'yes,' please check all that apply:


Copyediting for serials1611.90%

Copyediting for books1813.30%

Copyediting for scientists, others2921.50%

Substantive editing for serials2014.80%

Substantive editing for books2820.70%

Substantive editing for scientists, others3828.10%



Graphic design75.20%


****Web design/html layout (2), editing web site, html layout, Webmaster, online, information services, writing for nonprofits, copyediting science journals, TV and film scriptwriting, ghostwriting, product development, conference volumes, photography/multimedia, photography, research, creative design/direction, conference proceedings, translations for magazines, proofreading, editing for grants, "not enough room."


Do you have one major client?




If 'yes,' what proportion of your income do you earn from your major client?


76% to 99%1217.40%

51% to 75%1217.40%

26% to 50%2231.90%

1% to 25%1623.20%


Do you have continuing part-time consultancies or jobs with particular clients?




If 'yes,' what proportion of your working time do you devote to that work?


76% to 99%67.10%

51% to 75%56.00%

26% to 50%1720.20%

1% to 25%4756.00%


If 'yes,' what proportion of your income do you earn from that work?


76% to 99%79.20%

51% to 75%911.80%

26% to 50%1621.10%

1% to 25%4255.30%

Freelance income, experience

What has been your average freelance income over the past five years?


Under $5,0005022.80%

$5,000 to $15,0004118.70%

$15,000 to $25,0002712.30%

$25,000 to $50,0005223.70%

Over $50,0002812.80%

Decline to state219.60%


How long have you worked as a freelance science writer?

Less than 1 year209.00%

1 to 2 years3114.00%

2 to 5 years4922.10%

More than 5 years12255.00%

The NASW and its members

Do you believe that NASW effectively serves its freelance members?




Sometimes yes, sometimes no13059.90%


If 'no,' which services would you like to see it provide?

More detailed information on the business and financial aspects of freelancing11050.70%

More detailed information on the mechanics of submissions, queries, etc.5123.50%

More detailed information on copyright and other rights questions7032.30%

Detailed, confidential information on market conditions11653.50%

Detailed, confidential information on rates earned by members12557.60%

More help dealing with grievances3315.20%

Other (please specify). See below for a sampling of the comments.2612.00%

A sampling of comments

The survey of freelance NASW members asked, along with questions about income and years on the job, what members thought of their organization. The greatest portion of respondents, asked if they thought NASW effectively served its freelance members, replied "sometimes yes, sometimes no."

For those who thought NASW could do a better job, by far the largest group wanted more useful information on business and finance. They and others also volunteered their thoughts on specific ways they felt the association could improve. NASW member and freelance Dan Ferber, who put the results of the survey into readable form, gathered those comments and, with Editor Lynne Friedmann of ScienceWriters, put together this sampling:

Freelancing, for those of us who do well at it, is not an art or a hobby, but a small business. I would like to see occasional articles on how freelancers deal with everything from time management to saying "no" to assignments without alienating editors. These might be compiled by simply posing a question or topic in one issue of the magazine and assembling some of the answers into an article for another issue.
The role of the freelance is new to this organization. I'm not sure you need to reinvent the wheel by turning yourself into ASJA, for example. The 800-pound gorilla in the room with NASW is that you're mixing journalists and PIOs. As a journalist, I will always be a little sorry about that. Our interests just don't mesh exactly — or at least, they shouldn't.
NASW, as is the science writing field in general, seems to be dominated by biomedical writers and writing. While this reflects how science plays out in our society and culture, there is a place for people with background in the physical sciences and in technology as well. I would like NASW to make sure it remains sensitive to this important subgroup.
Another subgroup, even smaller I think, is people who come to science writing from a strong science background; some are even ex- or current researchers. This group also needs to be well-served by NASW. Finally, although journalism is probably deservedly a main thread in NASW thinking, more reflective science writing in the form of essays, books, and editorials also deserves serious recognition.
I'd love to see NASW join with other writers groups and make public statements on things such as copyright issues once in a while. For example, when the Contentville flap happened last summer, lots of members' articles were put up for sale illegally. NASW should issue statements at such times, or try to be a source for the media.
What if we had an NASW lawyer . . . whom we could contact about grievances (esp. non-payment issues). I've found that, after three invoices that still aren't paid, a boilerplate "notice" written on lawyer letterhead gets me a check immediately.
You take PR (practitioners) seriously, but not trade journalists. But look at the number of technical trade magazines there are. Address this community and I'll feel like I belong to this society! It will have been a long time coming.
What is the background of successful science writers? Could you run profiles of people like Carl Zimmer, or others, with info on where they went to school, what they studied, how they got into science writing, etc?
Opportunities to discuss the work itself, the writing process, with others who speak to the same audience.
I think the listserv adequately covers the above [the services listed in the survey question] but I'd like to see more information about markets, not necessarily about conditions but about places open to freelancers, who to contact, pay rates, and so on.
More (and much more timely) listings of freelance opportunities.
Is there any chance that we're big enough to provide the kinds of legal and insurance etc. services that groups like the Writers Guild do?
Freelancing is a lot tougher than I thought it would be, and I would love more help.
Freelance success stories, and testimonials from successful freelancers.
Feb. 1, 2002

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