I first heard about the writers’ group known as Bird by Bird at a AAAS meeting. Turns out, I knew some of its members. It struck me as genius at the time, and I tucked it into my subconscious so that a few years later I could
steal reinvent the idea when I started SciLance, a science writer tribe.
In our new series The Tribes Report, we’ll be talking to writers in other groups to find out how they got started and how members benefit. For the first installment, I interviewed Dan Ferber, Bird by Bird co-founder and a veteran freelancer for 15 years, about the group’s beginnings, rituals, and benefits. Ferber, who co-authored Changing Planet, Changing Health, is currently the science writer for the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (For the uninitiated, it’s pronounced “Veese” and I think Dan has one of the sweetest writing gigs around.)
Like many of the writers’ groups we’ll be profiling in this series, Bird by Bird is a private listserv, not accepting new members at the moment. However, we encourage any writer to start a tribe of compatriots, and we hope these glimpses into how groups formed and function will give you ideas for growing your own. Coincidentally, through some sort of convergent evolution, the set of rules that both SciLance and Bird by Bird use to self-govern are eerily similar.
To my knowledge, Bird by Bird is the longest-running virtual writer tribe that crosses science writer circles. The group’s name, as you might have guessed, comes from Anne Lamott’s book of the same title. It’s chock full of sage writing advice—including the tip her father gave to her brother, who had procrastinated on a school report about birds for three months and was facing a blank page and a next-day deadline: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
How did Bird by Bird come about?
Late in 2002, the [group] co-founder saw a post of mine on a journalism listserv extolling the benefits of freelancing. He contacted me out of the blue and floated the idea of a private listserv for freelance journalists who wrote for national publications.
From the start we wanted a smallish, private, online community of established freelancers who would support each other in our professional endeavors. We wanted low email volume and high-quality discussion, and we wanted people working a variety of beats—not all science writers, for example. Most important, we wanted to create a sense of trust and community that would let people feel safe sharing valuable but sensitive professional information, such as what we’d been paid, how we’d negotiated a contract, or our experiences with specific editors or publications — professional intel we all needed but couldn’t get on big, open listservs. We invited about a dozen colleagues we knew to start, and we were off and running.
How does the group function on a daily or weekly basis?
It’s an informal online listserv with moderate traffic. We might go weeks without a post, or we might have a half a dozen posts in a day. Someone might post a story he or she has done, asking for some social media love from fellow Birders. Others might ask for some backstory on pitching or reporting that story. Someone else might post to complain about how Publication A did them wrong, eliciting sympathetic murmurs, shared outrage, and advice. A member might post how they pushed back successfully in a contract negotiation, or ask about an agent or a new publication or a new journalism business model. Or someone might post a joke that people riff on. We’re pretty loose, and we like it that way.
What’s your favorite tribal ritual, tradition, or activity?
For years, we got together every year for dinner at the ASJA meeting in New York. The face-to-face contact provided essential glue for our community, and many lasting friendships formed.
What’s the most important rule your tribe has?
Confidentiality. What happens on the list stays on the list, unless the person who posts gives explicit permission to share what they’ve posted, such as a job listing. Without confidentiality, people would not feel safe sharing anything sensitive, and the listserv would be worth much less to the group.
Best piece of advice to writers starting their own tribe?
Just do it — but plan carefully. Think, as you get started, about the type of group you want to create and what you want from it. There are a lot of variables to consider: Should it be local or online? How large do you want it to be? Bear in mind that it’s easier to build trust in smaller groups, but larger groups offer a wider range of valuable perspectives. Will you allow staffers or just freelancers? What sort of process will you use to invite new members?
Personally, what has been the best benefit of your membership in Bird by Bird?
It’s been incredibly rewarding to me to see the community we started grow into a supportive network of talented folks who help each other and learn from each other. We’ve supported each other through the years through various professional triumphs and setbacks — books published, new markets cracked, articles that resonate, and killed stories. In my own case, Birders were instrumental in helping me navigate through my first book, a collaboration with an expert that had some rocky periods but ultimately succeeded.