Lately, my inbox has been bubbling over with requests from writers either looking for a tribe or looking to place a friend with a tribe. At the recent Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing gathering Siri Carpenter tweeted about a call for more freelancer tribes—something we wholeheartedly endorse (see Editor’s Note below). As much as I’d like to spend my days playing yenta and matching writers with just the right group of other like-minded scribes, it’s hard to pay for daycare that way.
So as we continue our series of Tribes Reports, I want to remind everyone that our next featured group came about because, as one of the co-founders, Helen Fields (bio), wrote in The Science Writers’ Handbook: “Any idiot can start an email list!”
It’s true. Anyone can start an email list and it doesn’t take more than a few people to get a successful one going. Fields and her co-founder of the Very Small Group (VSG), Naomi Lubick, can attest to that.
Fields asked Lubick to join her in co-managing a freelancers’ group shortly after Lubick had moved to Europe. “I was feeling the need for connection to the American science writing community and signed on immediately,” she says. A geologist who now writes about earth and environmental science from Stockholm, Sweden, Lubick shares what keeps their small, but globe-spanning VSG community tight.
How did the group’s name come about?
We wanted a small group, in order to keep it intimate and manageable, yet diverse. We refer to ourselves as VSGers, and sometimes as Very Small Groupers – or even Groupers for short. We have been joking about getting t-shirts with fish on them. (Very small fish, of course.)
You have 13 current members. Why was it so important to keep the group small?
Helen and I initially agreed we wanted everyone to participate – it’s one of our rules. We worried that if it got too big, perhaps only a few people would dominate the discussions, and that the rest might get lost or end up watching from the sidelines, depending out their extroversion or introversion tendencies.
A small group meant that everyone could participate and feel comfortable that they weren’t spilling secrets to a crowd or to strangers. Our rule was that we—either me or Helen or both of us—had to know the people personally before we could invite them to join our group.
However, we also wanted the group to be big enough so that our members could have different amounts of experience, different beats, and so on. We have people who write about math, health and medicine, physical sciences, the works. We started out with people who had been freelancing for a few weeks and folks who had been doing it for years.
VSG members are far-flung, so how does communication work?
We have members in a lot of time zones: GMT+1 (Germany, Sweden, Austria); East Coast time (DC, Massachusetts), Central time (Wisconsin and Minnesota), Rocky Mountain time (Colorado); and Pacific time (California, Washington). One of our members recently moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our VSG contact is mostly email, but we schedule occasional hangouts or pitch slams on Google+ Hangouts. Plus we try to meet in person at the NASW meeting or whenever we end up in someone’s hometown. We’ve met for beers or meals from Berlin to San Francisco, and even crashed in each other’s guest rooms in Vienna and New York.
We send these Friday Snapshots email “postcards” now and again. One of us will send a snapshot – either a written description or an actual photo – of what we are doing on Friday. A snapshot might include griping about a never-ending feature edit, sighs of relief that the week is over, or some exciting discovery about an app or a science story. I send photos of the weather outside my office window and Cassie Willyard has been sending puppy photos of her new adoptee.
What are some of your favorite tribal rituals, traditions, or activities?
The Friday snapshots are really my favorite ritual.
I also rely heavily on “writing intervals” or “sprints”: a time of directed writing or researching or whatnot for some set period of time (usually 15 to 30 minutes). Then we come back together to report what we have done in that time. It’s really useful and motivational, just knowing other people from our group are working at the same time. Because we are so far-flung, it’s a fun way of connecting, sort of like parallel play.
We share information with other groups too; Helen is our VSG ambassador to other groups. She introduced our latest tradition from another group: sending gifts or notes for big life events, say, getting a puppy or having a baby, or landing a new job or something like that. I like this new ritual so far; it’s fun. I actually made some Very Small Grouper onesies for two new babies.
Because we are so spread out, these shared activities serve to bond us together a bit more, I think.
What’s the most important rule your tribe has and why?
Privacy and participation. I think you have to have everyone participating at one time or another, and the way to encourage that is trust and the promise of privacy and discretion.
We gossip about magazines and talk about editors who could be readily identified – it’s good to know that we are safe in sharing this information without backlash or possible disclosure.
We also have a subgroup of VSG business planners, who work on writing business plans together and setting financial goals. I don’t think we could have done that straight off, when most of us were strangers to each other. But through time, after reading each other’s opinions and responses to the group, and meeting each other in the real world, we have built a nice platform of mutual trust and respect.
What’s your best piece of advice to writers wanting to start their own tribe?
Helen says: “Pick people who you like and are inclined to trust.”
You should probably know someone before you invite them, or one of your group members should be able to vouch for them. It helps to have a personal connection already established, even if it’s only with one other person in the group.
Also pick people with a range of backgrounds – you will get both good answers and good questions.
What has been the best benefit of VSG membership to you, personally?
For me, it’s been having people to check in with on professional issues like rates and contracts, or to get feedback on my latest story rejection and where to pitch next. It’s great to get encouragement from colleagues to follow up on payments and advice on how to negotiate for higher rates. It’s nice to be reminded about options that I haven’t considered to solve a freelance-related problem.
It’s like having a big brain, bigger than my own, to answer my questions. Having a freelance group has been a huge support for me. Without it, I’d be banging my head against the wall if I were sitting alone unconnected in my office. (I still do sometimes, just less than I would have otherwise.)
The best part, though, has been sharing stories, gossiping about happenings in the community, and just getting to know each other and hear what colleagues are up to. I confess to some “frenvy” now and again, but it’s also inspiring to hear what we all do.
Editor’s Note: Various tribe managers are discussing setting up a Twitter hashtag (or other online meet-up spot) for science writers seeking a tribe—to find other writers looking to start a group of people with similar interests. Watch this series for updates about that effort, or drop us a note in the comments if you’d be interested in such a hashtag.
Image credits: Per Westergård, courtesy of Helen Fields, and Naomi Lubick