One of the perks of freelancing is that you can do it from anywhere, as long as you have a good internet connection, a phone, and a reasonable supply of caffeine. But beneath that universal truth rumbles nuance: where you live makes a difference in how you freelance.
Certain opportunities only come up in major media centers. When I started my career in New York City, I picked up freelance hours as a fact checker, showing up in an office roughly two weeks per month to help close the issue of a magazine. Later I took a gig working on science exhibits at a graphic design firm near Union Square. For several years I wrote reports about scientific meetings held in Lower Manhattan.
Now that I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I can’t hop on the subway to take advantage of these types of freelance jobs. At the same time, while I lived in the Big Apple, I rarely had the opportunity to uncover a juicy local story that dozens of my local colleagues (both writers and editors) hadn’t already heard about. From my new perch in the Southeast, I’m observing the science around me, and slowly but surely I’m unearthing local and regional stories. And with the wealth of interesting environmental science in this region of the country, I’m doing more environmental reporting.
Office space and cost of living
Available home office space usually expands as the size of the metro area in which you live shrinks. Bryn Nelson (bio) moved from New York City to Seattle five years ago. “Working out of a corner in the kitchen of our Brooklyn apartment was tough, especially with no door and no room dividers,” he says. Having a dedicated home office has reduced his stress level. (Amen! I’ve alluded to this problem before.)
If your housing costs are high, you may have to consider more jobs based solely on how well they pay, even if the job itself is not as interesting or personally fulfilling.
Bigger cities offer nice networking perks, though. Washington, DC, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston all offer active communities for science writers. Helen Fields (bio) sees her location in DC as an advantage: there are many science writers in town, friends and colleagues who live elsewhere come to visit, and the DC Science Writers Association has a lot going on.
“Moving to Boston was probably the single best thing for my freelance career,” says Jenny Cutraro (bio). After she moved to town in 2006, she quickly met the environmental reporter at the Boston Globe, which led to several freelance assignments for the paper. And networking events through a writing center called Grub Street and MediaBistro happy hours led to contract work for WGBH, writing materials for Nova ScienceNOW.
Michelle Nijhuis (bio) spent her first decade of freelancing in a small town of 3000 people in western Colorado, 70 miles from a commercial airport and 5 hours from a major hub. To compensate for living in a small town, she invested in travel to conferences and workshops and to meet editors, but it took a lot of time, she says. She’s recently moved to a larger community in Washington state that’s within an hour’s drive of a major airport, and that change has made travel logistics much easier.
Making geography work
Michelle says that it was sometimes hard to find local stories with national significance, but when she did, editors tended to be interested. And while her Colorado community included a number of fellow writers who provided support and camaraderie, “I also think that relative isolation was kind of helpful in finding a distinctive voice,” she says. “Doing my daily work outside the main currents of the profession might have helped me develop my own voice and sense of story.”
In his 5 years in Seattle, Bryn estimates that he’s gotten at least 10 interesting assignments because he lived in the area or had access to contacts in town. Minneapolis has worked well for Emily Sohn (bio). She doesn’t love the winters, but she loves her vibrant writers’ community, affordable cost of living, access to easy airline travel, and colorful local stories with national potential.
During his first year of freelancing, Mark Schrope (bio) chose Richmond, Virginia, mostly because he wanted access to Washington, DC, but he and his family didn’t want to live in the city. He soon realized that very few of his stories depended on proximity to Washington, so he and his family decided to move where they most wanted to live, in Florida.
Every place has pluses and minuses for freelancing, but personal attitude about where you live can make all the difference. After living in two much cheaper locales, near Lake Tahoe and in Eugene, Oregon, Cameron Walker (bio) landed in Santa Barbara, California. “Even though it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country,” she says, “I feel much happier here. The weather doesn’t hurt, either.”
Image credit: Amada 4, Wikimedia Commons