Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:
If you’ve been out of science writing for a bit, either because of a major project that took longer than expected or a life change like a baby, what’s the best way to get back in?
Mason Inman, freelance science journalist:
I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half working on a biography of a geologist, Oracle of Oil. Meanwhile, I’m also doing some research and writing for a nonprofit. That is, I’ve done very little journalism; the one article I got published during that time was a big infographic.
It’s been a huge learning experience to write a biography, one that’s a true narrative (or at least that’s what I’m aiming for). I’ve never done this before; I hadn’t even written any profiles. But I really like it, and want to do more writing like this.
But it seems like too much to try to get back into reporting again, and at the same time try to do something new (profiles, narrative). So to make it easier on myself, I plan to start by going back to the explanatory type of features and news I used to write.
In the course of working on the book, I’ve run across a lot of great material and leads, but that isn’t going to make it into the book. (The guy I’m writing about lived from 1903 to 1989, so it focuses mainly on that period of time—and there are a lot of more recent developments that I’ll have only limited space to cover.)
So I’m going to go through all this stuff I’ve gathered, and see if I can spin off at least a couple of features that build on the book but stand alone. Partly this is simply to make use of ideas and material I already have. And partly it’s because these features could help with promoting the book, when it eventually comes out.
Also, I’ll work on pulling some excerpts from the book, and then try to get them placed.
Once I feel I’m back on my feet with reporting, then I may try pitching a profile. But until then I think I’ll put that aspiration on the shelf. In the meantime, I’ll keep working for the nonprofit—because I like the work and believe in their mission, but also because it’s nice to have some work to do that doesn’t involve pitching, rejection, pitching again, etc.
Emily Sohn, freelance science journalist:
I recently returned to work after my second maternity leave, this time armed with a few strategies for smoothing the re-entry—or at least mentally prepared for how bumpy the re-entry might be:
Tip #1: Lower your expectations, like way, way low. If you’re dealing with sleep deprivation, frequent nursing demands, separation anxiety (the baby’s and/or yours), or other challenges, it can be extremely difficult to get work done in the beginning. If you consider it a success to complete one work task a day, you’re less likely to beat yourself up for what you didn’t do.
Tip #2: Save money in advance to give yourself more time off than you think you need. And a corollary: if you can, ease back in with a part-time schedule. After the birth of both of my sons, I found it really jarring to shift from newborn la-la land to the oddly serious world of work and back again. It takes time to develop a new normal.
Tip #3: Line up some work to come back to by either negotiating a hiatus from a steady gig or sending out some feelers a few weeks before your official return. Knowing that you have something to do when you sit down at your desk is both comforting and motivating.
And finally, tip #4: Appreciate being back in the world of ideas after months of obsessing over nap schedules and diaper contents. Suddenly, even the once-dreaded task of cleaning out your in-box can feel luxurious as you sip a steaming latte, take a deep breath, and re-connect with the outside world. I’ve also blogged about this recently at Pitch Publish Prosper.
Lauren Gravitz, freelance science journalist:
I recently took a break from full-time freelancing and took a job at a large internet company to gain experience in website content management. And while the job still involved working with writers and soliciting content, the content itself was technical and a far cry from real journalism. I was also pregnant, so it seemed like a good way to learn a new skill while doing a job that I could ignore between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. each day.
For me, I think the best thing I did was not leaving freelancing completely. Even when I was at my craziest, I kept my little toe in the freelancing pool. I maintained my contacts, did small projects when I could, made sure editors knew why I was turning down stories (and asked them to please keep me in mind for future ones), and during my maternity leave I even took on some fact-checking gigs. Fact checking isn’t glamorous, and it pays less than reporting, but it could be done in my own time and it allowed me to maintain contact with some good magazines—magazines I’m now writing for.
Before I quit my content-management job, I called up some of my old contacts to let them know I was back in the game. I’m trying to keep my expectations low, but also trying to keep the pressure high. (I now have daycare bills to pay!) It’s only been a month, but so far so good: Almost every second of my work days has been accounted for. But I have also lost touch with some of the publications that used to keep me busiest—the editors I wrote for have moved on and the new ones don’t know me or think to call on me—so I’m also working at building back up some of the relationships that I lost during my year off. I’m collecting story ideas and emailing some of the old publications I once relied on (and who once relied on me) to let them know I’m back in the game and will hopefully be pitching them soon. Fingers crossed …