Becoming a freelance science writer is a scary step into a world of flexibility and insecurity. You are now the head of your own business and only you can control whether you succeed or fail. Fortunately UKCSJ brought together a panel of accomplished freelancers ready to impart the wisdom they have learned over their years of experience.
How to build contacts
The first step, explained Angela Saini, is to build up a bank of contacts. During her last year at the BBC she got to know the science team, as well as contacting magazines and journals that she hoped to write for as a freelancer. If you're entering a new field people might not trust you initially, so it's important to get your name out into the editorial consciousness.
Richard Vize, Guardian columnist and public policy expert, described himself as a relentless networker. He recommended getting to know three or four additional contacts at every institution you work with and helping them with problems to immerse yourself as a vital part of the team, rather than someone who works for them every now and again.
Thankfully for the more naturally introverted in the audience, global health writer Priya Shetty's advice was that you don't have to schmooze to build contacts. Start conversations with people whose work you are naturally interested in, whether face-to-face or using social media. This innate alignment means contacts will think of you when new opportunities arise.
Building your portfolio
The great thing about freelancing is the huge variety of subjects you can cover. You're free to be as generalist or specialist as you like, although Angela's advice was to build up your portfolio in a small niche initially, especially if you have a science background. By starting with minor publications, you can build up a collection of clippings to accompany your later pitches to big outlets.
Where should you go for stories? "Ditch the press releases," Angela urged. Spend your time meeting researchers, either at conferences or through university press offices. Universities' PR teams will be keen to introduce journalists to scientists to raise their profile, so set up a meeting with researchers who haven't yet published to find interesting alternative stories.
It's best for everyone involved to decide on your payment in advance. Talking about money shouldn't be embarrassing, said Priya, so don't be afraid to ask for more. Richard urged the group to keep their mouths shut until the client makes an offer. The most frustrating thing about freelancing, he said, is having your initial offer immediately accepted, as you know you've undersold your work!
Should you work for free when first starting out? Priya's opinion was that if you're getting exposure in a big outlet, like the BBC, then it's alright to do the occasional unpaid article, but be aware that free doesn't turn into a viable career and subconsciously you might produce work of a lower quality than you otherwise would have.
Angela was not happy about anyone working for free; you'll be undercutting everyone else trying to make a living and you're saying to editors that they don't need to pay for copy. The panellists all agreed that working for free is a difficult rut to get out of, but instead of producing unpaid content a new freelancer should focus on obtaining paid work.
Trust your gut
As a freelancer, you'll almost always come out worse if things go wrong. You might be overworked, underpaid or sometimes not paid at all. It's hard to know who to trust at first, said Priya, but do try and listen to your gut feeling. Some warning signs to look out for are an unclear brief, an unrealistic workload for the time or money, and poorly defined deadlines.
If you don't want to take on a task, don't do it. As a freelancer, the only power you have is to decide who to work with, when you work and what work you want to take. Exercise your right to choose.
A great job
Richard half-jokingly warned the audience that freelancing will make you virtually unemployable because you're so used to the creativity and flexibility of running your own business, but that's such a huge benefit of the job. It can be hard if work's quiet or things go wrong, but ultimately Richard believes going freelance is the best decision he's ever made.