One of the questions I’ve heard over and over from people interested in a science writing career is some variation of this: “How the heck do I start?” Many of us got our own bearings with the help of mentors, and I’m forever grateful to those who helped guide me along the way, from my very first published article in The Daily at the University of Washington. But new science writers don’t always have ready access to veterans who can take the time to answer their questions – one reason why we decided to host some virtual mentoring sessions via Google Hangouts.
As I wrote back in April when we launched our informal program, I was initially clueless about how to turn my freelance writing into a viable business venture even after years at a major newspaper. With four archived mentoring sessions and more planned for next year, we’re hoping to help make the transition a little less daunting for others. It’s been a true group effort, with terrific technical assistance by Virginia Gewin (bio). Here’s a quick look at the ground we’ve covered already.
- Guest mentor Tom Hayden (bio) started us off in May with an excellent overview of the science writing profession and offered some sage advice on how to launch a career (note: we had a learning curve of our own with Google Hangouts on Air so the audio for this session is somewhat muffled). Tom reminded viewers that science journalism is competitive, and that doing an internship can be a critical step to improving your future job prospects. Social media, he said, is not just a way to broadcast yourself but a smart way to build a network and integrate yourself into the community. He also expressed optimism about science journalism as a viable field due to a growing audience for quality science writing.
- In June, guest mentor Jill Adams (bio) picked up where Tom left off by talking about how she launched her own DIY science writing career (check out Emily Gertz’s (bio) very helpful time-stamped summary of the session here, sorted by question). Jill, who transitioned into science writing after receiving a PhD in pharmacology, rightly said that there are no guarantees in this business but that there are luckily lots of ways in. She started off by taking writing courses and reading all she could. “The single best thing I did was to stop thinking about it and just do it,” she said. “Send that pitch!” Jill talked about her first paid clip, whether it’s necessary to have a blog or website, and how to manage relationships with editors, among other topics.
- Guest mentor Mark Schrope (bio) dispensed some spot-on advice in July on how to deal with freelance contracts, from getting publications to strike those truly awful indemnity clauses to securing more rights (check out another great time-stamped summary by Emily). One of his key tips: always try to change “work made for hire” contracts, which offer the least residual rights and future revenue. And as he reminded us, editors can be great advocates during negotiations (so please don’t blame them for lousy contracts). Another big lesson from that sessions was the power of community: if we all ask for better contracts, change can happen. Several writers have already benefitted from their peers taking the initiative and asking for more writer-friendly terms.
- And in October, guest mentor Michelle Nijhuis (bio) joined us to talk about her extensive travels in Asia, and fielded questions about how to make a far-flung reporting trip work, from securing funding to finding the perfect fixer and selling the stories. “Move slowly to move quickly,” she advised. In other words, keeping your head together and making sure that you’ve covered your bases – including doing enough reporting to capture vivid details – can help you avoid unnecessary work and headaches later on. She also didn’t use reporter’s notebooks to avoid drawing undue attention to herself. And yes, she recapped her very amusing story about dropping an iPhone from a plane in western North Dakota.
You can watch all of our archived virtual mentoring sessions here. Next year, we’ll be moving to a quarterly schedule, with plans to host a virtual mentoring session every three months. We’ve already received requests for a few sessions, but we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Keep them coming, and we’ll see you in 2014.
Image credit: Carolyn Conner on Flickr.