In June, I joined fellow SciLancers Virginia Gewin (bio), Emma Marris (bio) and Michelle Nijhuis (bio) for a lively discussion of our handbook and the state of science writing at a Seattle event hosted by the Northwest Science Writers Association (NSWA), the local chapter of NASW.
At the event and during follow-up conversations at a nearby bar, one line of questions seemed to strike a big chord with attendees: what makes a science writing group a community and why should you join one?
Trust me! I’m a science writer
As she told the audience, Emma hesitated at first when she was invited to join SciLance. Like many of us, she had been conditioned to view other writers as competitors, not potential collaborators. What could she possibly hope to gain by joining a group of three-dozen other freelancers who might be vying for some of the same writing gigs?
Plenty, as Emma shared with the crowd. When you ask a well-functioning collective or tribe how to contact the right editor, pursue an overdue payment, or deal with a needy client, the odds are high that someone else has been in your shoes and can point you in the right direction. The key, of course, is to band together in a way that fosters mutual trust: I won’t betray your confidence because I know you won’t betray mine.
In a professional sphere where the majority of us are now freelancers, where personal referrals and introductions can be critical to success and where prolonged isolation can lead to burnout, perhaps it’s time to focus more intently on building these kinds of shared communities.
Power to the people
I was reminded of our potential power in early July, when fellow SciLancer Mark Schrope (bio) volunteered to be a virtual mentor for a Google Hangout and share his advice on how to spot bad contracts and get the wording changed (see the archived video here).
As freelancers, we often know very little about how our experience with specific clients compares to that of other writers. But as Mark pointed out, shared wisdom can help everyone. Whether in trying to alter problematic indemnity clauses or negotiate for more rights, we’ve found that knowing what to ask for has spurred positive, writer-friendly changes at multiple publications.
As I thought more about the role of community in my own professional life, I realized that I belong to five overlapping yet distinct groups that operate on different scales. Each has played an important role in advancing my career.
- Beyond my membership in SciLance, I belong to several large professional organizations, including NASW (and since June, SEJ). NASW has cemented my professional identity; allowed me to maintain key connections with sources, editors and friends; provided the money to jumpstart group projects such as ours; and hosted career-building workshops. I began using Twitter for the first time during one workshop; at another this fall, I hope to share some of my own tips about working constructively with editors.
- NSWA, meanwhile, maintains a fantastic calendar of events in the greater Seattle area and has introduced me to multiple business contacts. Although the group is still too large to enable close connections with everyone, it has allowed me to meet professional peers who have since become friends.
- As I described in a previous blog post, I’m also a member of a coworking site called Office Nomads. Even though I only average four or five workdays per month at the space, I’ve tapped into another community of professionals that has helped me hone the business development side of my career and relieve the isolation of a home office. With some of my weekly office mates, I’ve participated in goal-setting and personal branding exercises, traded productivity tips and shared personal triumphs over coffee.
- Finally, I’ve begun meeting on a monthly basis with a group of freelance science writers in Seattle – a smaller community that has given me the chance to forge more personal connections with peers over local brews. As we’ve gotten to know each other and build up a level of trust and camaraderie, I’ve been introduced to a new client and received helpful advice about a potential conflict of interest. In return, I’ve offered my own insights and introductions.
Community, of course, can come in all shapes and sizes (ScienceOnline, group blogs, LinkedIn, Meetups, local Science Cafes or Science on Tap, work jellies, alumni groups and other national or regional journalism organizations are but a few options available to science writers). If we let them, these diverse groups can help us, as individuals, develop strong and meaningful ties to the larger whole.
So how have you created your own community? What are the biggest benefits? Let’s keep the conversation going.
Photo courtesy of Sally James.