Early in my writing career, one thing I had going for myself was fearlessness. I hadn’t yet been stung by repeated rejections and ignored emails. So I pitched editors boldly, maybe even brashly.
In 2004, while I was working on my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I did a short internship at Nature magazine in London. Then, with some solid clips to my name, I contacted a science editor at The New York Times, who graciously met with me in person when I was in New York. That fall semester, I made it my goal in life to land a story in the Science Times. About four months and four pitches later, I did. I also wrote my first feature for Nature soon after.
In 2006, I stumbled upon a story idea that I knew had potential. So, though I knew it was a very long shot, I thought of The New Yorker. After a reasonable amount of (unsuccessful) googling, I called the only phone number I could find. When I asked about getting an editor’s email to send a pitch, the “librarian” hung up on me. Unfazed, I kept pitching the story and landed it at the (now defunct) Seed magazine.
Around that time, I made it a personal goal to write a feature for National Geographic within three years. (That hasn’t happened. Yet. But I’ve pitched and received some very prompt and encouraging rejections.)
Fast-forward a few years. My first child was born in early 2008. Overnight, the time and financial equation changed dramatically. Chutzpah can quickly go out the window when you’re paying a sitter $11-12 per hour to watch your child, and you have a 5-hour window in which to make enough money to pay said childcare provider and some bills. Pitching became high-risk: I needed every minute of my time to turn into dollars. And rejected pitches smart even more when they are at the expense of much-needed income. My second child was born in late 2009, and my third in 2012. Needless to say, the time/work/money logistics haven’t gotten easier.
The truth is that all science writers have to figure out the equation that allows them to meet career goals and deal with financial and family obligations. In her chapter on the many shapes and sizes of science writing in The Science Writers’ Handbook, Sarah Webb (bio) writes about adjustments she made to her workload to ensure a reliable cash flow while her
husband was in graduate school.
With fewer hours in the workday and childcare costs that equal
a second mortgage, I’m a little less (okay, a lot less) audacious these days. And that has trade-offs. So I sometimes take assignments that help pay the bills but that don’t come with the gratification of pitching an enterprising piece and getting the assignment. Or I occasionally take on quick turnaround news assignments with speedy paychecks, squeezing them into the margins. Which means I don’t always have the time to dig around for new story ideas.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of a lot of the work I’ve done in the last few years. But I’ve had to readjust my earlier expectations. The upside is that I now usually have more than enough work and a workload that’s planned out a month, sometimes months, in advance. My cash flow is steadi(er), and I have established great relationships with publications and editors that I write for regularly. I can take a day off to spend time with my kids when the weather is irresistible. However, one trade-off is that rather than pitching a meaty feature to a magazine, I might take an assignment that falls in my lap or non-journalism contract assignments that involve hourly wages. With the first option, I would dig around for possible story leads, emailing and calling up sources with no guarantee of an assignment, and wait for days, weeks, maybe months to hear back from an editor to get an assignment. The other is money in my checking account, sometimes as little as two weeks after I send my invoice.
I often remind myself that this is just a ‘season’ in my career. My son is off to kindergarten this fall, and in a few all-too-short-years, daycare/preschool costs will be a dim memory. In the meantime, I’ve made myself a promise. No matter how busy I am, I will make time for at least one soul-fulfilling and/or adventurous project. Last summer, that involved a trip to Alaska for a piece for Audubon magazine that will run later this year. This spring, I’ve taken on a challenging assignment from a new-to-me publication on a topic I’ve been hungry to write about for YEARS. Next year: perhaps National Geographic?
What life balance trade-offs have you had to make? And how do you keep your career trajectory on track?
Image credit: James Mascarelli