I first met Kate Gammon when she asked me to be on a panel about contracts at the ScienceWriters meeting in Raleigh in 2012. I was immediately impressed that a young freelancer was already thinking carefully about contract negotiations (and helping others understand those nuances as well). When the topic of writers’ groups came up, she was ahead of the curve there, too. She and two other women had formed a tiny group, specifically to improve their pitching. Color me impressed again.
Now, Gammon and I ‘converse’ regularly within a couple of email circles—one is a sanity-keeper for parents of small children who also freelance and the other is a dozen women who workshopped our writing careers to the next level. Recently, networking through writers’ tribes has become my go-to ‘place’ for career development. This profile of AAK, the group Gammon co-founded, illustrates why going tribal lets so many writers push their careers further.
Gammon, who writes regularly for Wired, Nature, and LA Magazine, explores the science of babies’ brain development on her Popular Science blog KinderLab and in real time with her one-year-old, Harrison, from her home base in Santa Monica, California. She shares why the tiny tribe of AAK works so well for its members.
How did AAK come about?
Amber and I had interacted in Los Angeles as part of the regional science writers’ group I started—it turns out it’s really hard to find a convenient time and place to meet in a gigantic city—so she roped me into it. Initially, the aim was to help each other improve our pitches, both in number and quality. Since then, it has grown to be a support group working on more than just pitches – though pitching still comes up often in our discussions.
We named the group after our initials – A, A, and K – and it also turned out to be the sound we made when we thought about pitching stories: AAK!
You started with just those original three members. How many AAKians are there now?
We have grown slowly and carefully – we added 4 members in early 2013, and then added another 2 in 2014. Our meetings are limited by technology – Google Hangout, to be exact. We like to have virtual video meetings, and Google will only allow 9 participants at a time. So we’ve kept it to that number.
Amy says that she has loved the small size since she really wanted feedback on pitches. To us, a deep level of trust is important, and phone calls seemed more feasible with fewer people.
Every potential member has to pass a litmus test: is this a nice person? Would we like to have a beer with this person? Someone already in the group has to vouch for the awesomeness of a new person.
What’s the best part about AAK’s video meet-ups?
We have an awesome time. Lucas Laursen enjoys hearing what everyone’s excited about or concerned about. I always learn something. And it’s a nice human touch to hear voices on the other end that are fellow journalists, instead of the usual scientists and sources.
When we set up a talk, we have to take into consideration our myriad time zones – AAKers span the globe from Hawaii to Madrid, so often we are working with five time zones. It can be a challenge, but I love the perspective that different geographies and times of day bring to our discussions.
We also started a weekly check-in email – a kind of Friday roundup of what we’ve done. It’s a nice way to reflect on the end of a workweek, to take stock of what did and didn’t get finished.
I heard a rumor that AAKers have a secret handshake–is it true?
Katie Harmon Courage jokes that we often use our secret handshake and wear required lapel pins.
What’s the most important rule your tribe has and why?
Other groups have rules? I guess our rule is that you have to be nice.
Aside from the lapel pins, what’s the best benefit of membership in AAK?
Katie transitioned from having always worked as a full-timer in an office to working at home as a freelancer (and in a new state to boot). For her, AAK provides an insta-community of peers.
She says, “In many ways, it’s even better than office pals, because as independent agents we never have to worry about office politics or keeping up appearances. The support and encouragement–and ready commiseration—of the group has been one of the unexpected joys of joining the freelance ranks.“
What’s the best advice for writers forming a new tribe?
Put together a core group of people and then decide what you want out of it. Our group works partly because we have prioritized being able to hold regular online meet-ups that everyone could attend. Focus on things you can attain as a group, and then be ready to share – the good, the bad, the ugly.