On a recent trip I asked my partner,
Geoff, to indulge me in a simple word-association game.
“What’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say ‘writer’?” I asked.
“Stephen King,” he said.
“How about ‘journalist’?”
“Ha. OK, how about ‘reporter’?”
“I still have Clark Kent in my head.”
“OK, well, anything else come to mind?”
“I guess Watergate.”
Geoff may have matched the words to wildly different entities, but
at least he viewed all three as shorthand for serious occupations (although how many stories did Clark really write?). I can assure you that this is not a universal reaction.
As I wrote in my “Avoiding Domestic Disasters” chapter in The Science Writers’ Handbook, one key to a successful career is setting clear expectations about your professional life with your spouse, family, and friends. Many of their assumptions, in turn, will depend on how you define your occupation.
Among our peers, “science writer” offers a well-established and widely acknowledged catchall for responsibilities that often include translating research
, conducting interviews, and writing on deadline. That understanding, however, can quickly dissipate beyond work circles – especially if you add “freelance” to your title. Endlessly annoying misunderstandings often ensue. Here’s how a fellow SciLancer describes it:
My husband gets that what I do is work – not a hobby, not dilettantish play. He should, since I am more or less putting him through grad school on what I make. My in-laws however, do not get it. They seem to think that I am working on some kind of hobby or craft, and that all deadlines are infinitely extendable if I tell my editors that my duties as a mother call me away.
More than one SciLancer has likewise complained about
moms who call d uring work hours and talk for 45 minutes or more. “I have to remind her that even though I’m at home, I am working and that we should talk later,” says one. “I admit it, I screen my calls.”
Not a trivial pursuit
My occupation seems to similarly baffle many new acquaintances. “I’d really like to try my hand at writing too!” one excitedly told me.
I had to convince him that this is my full-time profession and I can’t just write whatever and whenever I want.
Why is it so difficult to convince everyone else that we work
just as hard as they do? One unfortunate truth is that a “writer” often seems to evoke romantic notions of a person of leisure dabbling in the literary arts the way someone else might sketch the family dog after dinner.
I’ve found that these antiquated notions of writer as dilettante are often perpetuated online as well. Do a
Google images search for “writer,” and you’ll find that a clear majority of the results feature a pen and paper, including more than one reference to a quill pen now used mainly for calligraphy.
When I was a full-time journalist at a daily newspaper in New York (OK, not the Daily Planet), everyone immediately grasped what I did. Do another Google images search
for “journalist” or “reporter,” and you’ll commonly see a microphone, camera, or reporter’s notepad – all well-acknowledged tools of an active, professional trade.
Leaving a lasting impression
For those confused by your job description, try referring to yourself as a journalist and see if you get more traction. The word may spur its own faulty assumptions, but it also solidifies the notion that you have deadlines and a “real job.”
Once you’ve established those expectations, you can fill in the details about what your writing really entails.
Refer to your clients by name. Choose a favorite project and develop talking points around what you did and where your work appeared.
A few weeks ago, I participated in an “elevator-pitch workshop,” with the goal of
succinctly stating what I do for a living and making a memorable first impression. The exercise was more difficult that I had imagined, but refining my introduction in front of a friendly audience helped me understand what resonated and what was confusing. I finally struck a chord by introducing myself as “a journalist who loves translating science into stories.” With a few words I had become Clark Kent and established my true identity as a full-time professional – minus the superhero tights.