What makes a freelance science writing career sustainable — both financially and creatively? For me, I need to balance my workaday gigs with more meaningful work — what I call “Jill projects.” Doing so keeps me on a learning curve in my career, challenges me to pitch bigger markets, and satisfies my creative drive.
Sounds great, right? Let me tell you, I get tripped up time and time again. Here’s the most recent version:
I met a new-to-me editor at a writers conference and she told me what kinds of stories she’s seeking. I had a story idea that seemed a good fit and I delivered an elevator pitch off the top of my head. The editor was very receptive and asked me to follow up by email.
I got excited about the prospect of writing a feature length article for a new market. I was assigned a 700-word piece. Ugh.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate an assignment — and it was at decent pay no less. But I was ambivalent. The problem was that I wanted to dig deep. I wanted to tell this small-story-with-big-ramifications in more than a “gee-whiz” way. I wanted to show how the open-mindedness and tenacity of the players helped them overcome the hurdles they faced. But 700 words wouldn’t give me room for all that. It gives me only enough room to scratch the surface — about what I covered in my pitch.
When I emailed the editor, I sent her a full-fledged query. It opened with a visual (because I had already visited the scientists in person), segued into a nut graf (placing the story into broader context), and finished with how I’d report and tell the story. My pitch was 550 words — and that included only a superficial description of the key technology. If I accept the assignment, I only need to add 150 more words and it’s a wrap.
I could decline the assignment. However, I’ve pitched this story to a half-dozen outlets already. (In fact, that’s probably why I could articulate it so well off the top of my head in a hotel lobby.) So I decided it was time to write it, get paid, and move on. Even so, I’ll carry a little regret about the lost opportunity.
On the positive side, I broke into a new market. If I do a good job, maybe next time I’ll snag a feature. I sold a story in which I’d invested quite a bit of my own time and energy. In reporting what little is left, I still can explore whether there’s a new slant or a more substantive story yet to be told.
It takes some energy to weigh the pros and cons of one’s work, of each assignment. But if you do it in a way that’s right for you, you can learn what it is you want. You win some and lose some — and more often than you might imagine, you do a little of both.
Image credit: edenpictures on Flickr