When I made the career leap to become a freelance science writer, I was determined not to go back to school and saddle myself with more student loans (I knew that the “making a living” part of this new career is precarious), so I looked for ways to piece together my own education. I found two intensive workshops close to home, Christie Aschwanden’s Courage Camp (funded by a National Association of Science Writers [NASW] Ideas Grant), and the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Those events opened my eyes to the world of possibilities within the field of science writing. The workshops also opened doors of opportunity. (One of those doors led me here to the TON/BWF fellowship.)
At those meetings, experienced writers advised me to join a professional writers’ association to continue my education and door-opening. I was dubious, though, that I would be able to progress toward my professional development goals in an organization and at conferences with hundreds or even thousands of members.
And yet, staff jobs with a newsroom full of colleagues who can train and mentor young writers and provide career guidance have become increasingly scarce. The rise of the “gig economy“ means that opportunities for networking are more important than ever, especially for freelancers. Writers’ associations fill this gap by offering up experienced members to meet, learn from, and network with.
“All writers need to manage their professional development,” says Kendall Powell, a longtime member of NASW and co-chair of the organization’s Freelance Committee. “The key is to learn the ropes from other people who are more experienced.”
Whether you are transitioning to a new career, like me, or looking for a new challenge in your current work, how can you get the most out of membership in a writers’ association? It’s crucial to interact with other members—whether online, at local or national meetings, through mentorship programs, or by serving on organizational committees or boards. Writing is a profession in which you learn by doing—and by learning what others are doing.
Take Part in Online Discussions
Listservs and other online discussion forums are an easy way for new members of an organization, including early-career writers, to interact with more-experienced people. Members post on listservs with various aims: to call attention to important themes within the profession, to chew over organizational politics, to debate specific scientific issues, or to seek help with assignments.
Online discussion forums can also be a time suck, and some frequently descend into flame wars, so writers need to be savvy about using them. “If [listservs] are well moderated, they work vastly better than if they are not,” says Jennifer Weeks, a 10-year member and former board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).
Following a few simple tips can help you mine listservs for the gems they have to offer:
- Read the rules of engagement and follow them. Generally, be courteous and appreciative of others’ responses to your questions.
- In the beginning, read posts and observe topics to learn what you, and other members, value and respond to.
- Figure out what kind of information is useful to the membership—for example, links to reports and articles relevant to professionals in the field, or event announcements, or job opportunities (where permitted) and start contributing. This is a good way for people to get to know you at least by name.
- Study what others in your field think is a big story and how they talk about those stories. Apply that to finding story ideas.
- Make a note of who in the membership is knowledgeable on certain topics. They may be good resources for you to contact directly in the future.
- Be your own moderator. Rather than leaving the listserv because of flame wars, filter out messages from people who post negative content or content you consistently don’t find useful.
“I think engaging with the listserv, even if you just lurk at first, is good,” says Weeks.
The SEJ listservs were helpful when Weeks, new to freelancing, landed a big assignment on factory farms. The client wanted her to visit one in real life, but Weeks had heard that industrial farms were not friendly towards journalists. “I put a message on [an] SEJ listserv saying, ‘Hi, I am a freelance member and I have an assignment to do this educational report on factory farms. Has anybody done this? Is it really hard to do?’ Within a couple hours, I got eight or ten responses.” The responses contained supportive messages and specific advice, such as, “Call this woman, she owns a big farm outside of Milwaukee.”
The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) has short-term forums that focus on particular subjects, including science writing. Laura Laing, an ASJA board member, recently led a discussion in one such forum on curriculum development and curriculum writing. “I was the expert who was helping people break into that industry,” she says.
Sign Up for Mentoring
Associations’ mentoring programs offer the possibility, for both mentees and mentors, of forming deeper professional relationships with colleagues. The programs take different forms—some more intensive than others.
All writers’ associations that serve science, health, and environmental writers provide the opportunity for newbies to meet with a mentor at conferences. “I remember shadowing Dick Kerr, who was a very senior correspondent at the time,” Powell says. “I followed him around for the whole [scientific] conference to see how he conducted conference coverage. It gave me a little peek into the world of what a ‘real’ reporter does. To hear what questions he asked of scientists was valuable.”
Short face-to-face meetings at conferences provide benefit to mentees. “I have met with folks as a mentor one-on-one through ASJA,” says Laing. “It’s really short—like 15 minutes. It’s meant for specific questions, like, ‘How do I blog?’ You get really specific about what you need with that program.”
Other mentoring programs are more in-depth. Weeks served as a mentor to a new SEJ member. “You connect with [mentees] about three times via email or at the conference and find out what they need—like help with a pitch or to review a draft,” she says. The more focused the mentee is about what they want from a mentor, the better for both. “It’s maybe 10 hours of your time over a year, which isn’t super hard.”
Whether it’s for 15 minutes or for six months, new writers can benefit from guidance on specific questions, and mentors find a venue to share their expertise.
Sometimes rewarding long-term professional relationships or projects can form from a mentorship, benefiting both mentee and mentor. “I know some people who have developed amazing friendships through the mentor program,” says Weeks. “Jane Braxton Little, a very senior member of SEJ, mentored a much younger member, Winnifred Bird. They became such good friends, they went to Russia together and wrote an article on the nuclear contamination in Chernobyl. They then steered that into Fukushima and won a big award for it.”
Work the Conference
Professional relationships and networks, both formal and informal, are key to a successful writing career. They can lead to new work and new connections as well as offer social support. Conferences are the place to forge and strengthen your relationships with editors and other writers, especially if you live someplace where opportunities to network are few. Don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face encounters, and make it a priority to go to your favorite meetings every year that you can afford it. If you work the conference right, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Workshop sessions at association meetings are interesting, but connecting with other people there is truly invaluable, says Powell. She freelances from Colorado, where such opportunities are scarcer than they are in cities like New York and Washington, DC. Meetings such as ScienceWriters (a joint meeting of NASW and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing) are “the major place where I rub elbows with editors and other writers,” Powell says. “Making those face-to-face connections is what really leads to new work. It’s also a chance to socialize in a professional setting, which you don’t really get as a freelancer.”
Conferences often offer a chance to sit down with editors, either at a formal networking or pitching event, or informally, between events. “I’ve pitched stories both in the power pitch and the pitch slam at NASW, but also informally,” says Powell. At the most recent ScienceWriters meeting, she says, “I sold a story … that I pitched to an editor over breakfast.”
“I’m still doing work for people that I can directly trace back to meetings I had during a Client Connections event during the ASJA conference in 2009,” says Jennifer Fink, who sits on the board of ASJA and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). When Fink, a nurse, started as a freelancer, she primarily covered health. At an ASJA conference, she added a new focus to her work. “I’ve always been interested in education, so I met with an editor from Scholastic Instruction. I’ve developed a whole new niche because of that one meeting.”
The costs of attending conferences can be high, so many writers question whether it’s worth the expense. “I think freelancers, because there is an investment they have to make to [attend conferences], put a lot of pressure on themselves to have some sort of payoff,” says Charlotte Huff, who has attended AHCJ, ASJA, and NASW conferences as a member. That payoff isn’t always in the form of immediate assignments, though. Huff says she finds value in the people she’s met and the work connections she’s made—again and again. “There’s accumulation, a snowball effect, of meeting interesting people and keeping in touch with them.”
Most importantly, conferences are fun, says Weeks. Many offer special excursions for attendees, for example. The SEJ conference is five days long, and a day and a half of that time is devoted to field trips that offer a glimpse into local environmental stories and experts dealing with the issues. “You get tons of time with people,” Weeks says, “because you are on a bus with them going out to the hill country of Texas or something like that,” providing a more relaxed opportunity to make connections.
Volunteer to Help
Serving on association committees or boards helps writers better understand the writing industry and feel like a significant part of the community. If you decide to roll up your sleeves and help on a committee or board, be prepared to spend a lot of time on it—and get involved in internal politics. “It’s kind of a peek behind the curtains,” Fink says. “I think the more you get involved in any organization, the more you realize why things are the way they are, [and] what some of the challenges are.”
Weeks learned similar lessons from her experience as an SEJ board member. “Being on the board at SEJ helped me understand how the media world was changing. Like other groups, [SEJ has] way more freelancers now than we used to. Being in discussions in board meetings helped me understand what work I can and can’t do [as a freelancer] and what kind of opportunities are out there. It helped me understand how the business works now.” This understanding of the business of freelancing can give writers the edge they need to succeed.
Susan Moran, an environmental writer who is on the SEJ board, says the value of that work, for her, goes beyond understanding the media landscape. She feels like part of a team working on “a bigger purpose where it’s not just about me and my one-off assignments.”
You Get What You Give
For many writers, and especially for solo freelance writers, membership in writers’ associations comes down to networking, belonging, and community. “I joined these organizations for professional reasons—because I wanted to know more about writing, marketing, and the business of freelancing,” Fink says. “But one of the great side-effects has been that I now have a fantastic network of friends and interesting people all around the county.”
The key is to engage in some way. “If you just pay some dues and don’t really interact online or anything, then you are not going to get a lot out of it. I think you get out of these groups what you ask from them and what you put into them,” Weeks says.
The networks I have begun to weave together, as a new writer, have directed me to opportunities and opened doors for me that I would not have been able to find on my own. I transitioned into freelance writing in part because I enjoy the autonomy of working for myself. I can see now that the act of writing may be a solitary job, but I’ll need to heed this good advice and build a community to forge a career out of it.
Christina Selby is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance writer and amateur photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes about conservation science, biodiversity, pollinators, and sustainable development. Her work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Green Money Journal, Mother Earth Living, and elsewhere. You can find her online at The Unfolding Earth, a blog featuring photography and environmental writing on global biodiversity hotspots; her website; or say hi on Twitter @christinaselby.