What I’m working on:
I’ve been on retainer with Chemical & Engineering News since September 2017, writing news and features, and I absolutely love working for them. The editors there expect the same level of journalistic rigor, scientific detail, and writing flair as I demanded of my reporters when I was at Nature, so we’re very much on the same wavelength about how to approach a story. They’re also really nice people. I sometimes think nice is an extremely underrated quality.
When I started freelancing in January 2013, I figured I would cover the broad physical sciences beat I had when I was a Nature reporter. But I soon narrowed down to chemistry and materials—plus the technologies that depend on them, like pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and so on—because that’s the scientific area I know and love the best. I have a PhD in chemistry, so my familiarity with the science makes the reporting go faster.
C&EN takes up about half of my working time. Before going on retainer I wrote for Nature (and other Nature research journals), a monthly column for Chemistry World, occasionally Scientific American.
The rest of my time is taken up with a rag bag of other projects. I do a fair amount of editing, including features for PNAS. I also tutor on communication-training workshops for scientists and on careers courses for PhD students. I really like the variety of work I can take on as a freelancer.
Where I work:
I live in Waterbeach, a large village on the outskirts of Cambridge, U.K. It’s a very practical location—I can cycle into Cambridge in about 30 minutes or catch a train that gets me to London in just over an hour. Sadly, it’s also extremely flat, which means I don’t get to hike up hills nearly as much as I’d like.
Our house had a barely-used garage, so we converted it into an office before I went freelance. I say “we”—actually, my parents did it because they are (1) very handy with DIY, (2) relish a big project, and (3) retired. I, on the other hand, can barely hammer a nail straight.
The office is great. It’s very cozy, and just a few steps from the kitchen, so I can easily hop between family life and work life. It’s full of musical instruments, books, souvenirs. My daughters made me ceramic signs for the door that say “Daddy’s Cave.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
Our alarm goes off at 7:15 a.m. It used to be set to BBC Radio 4’s flagship news program, Today, but waking up to Brexit every morning just got too awful, so my wife and I now get a dose of classical music from Radio 3.
I make the kids’ breakfasts and packed lunches, skim over my emails, and cycle with my youngest, Emily, to school. As long as I don’t have to do anything really urgent, I then take a half-hour bike ride along the River Cam, just for exercise. I’m at my desk by about 9:45 a.m. to deal with emails, scan press releases and journal alerts, and do a quick news trawl. After that I crack on with whatever’s next on my to-do list: find a story; pitch; interviews; write; file; rinse and repeat.
At 1:00 p.m. I lunch for 45 minutes (accompanied by The World at One) and sometimes prepare some food for dinner. Then it’s back to the desk until I pick up Emily from school at around 4:30 p.m. Family dinner is 5:30–6:00 p.m., which my wife usually makes once she’s home from work. I often go back to the office after that, with breaks for taking my eldest, Maia, to swim club or Girl Guides, or for Emily’s bedtime. I’m generally done between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m., depending on whether I have any U.S. interviews. Then it’s chores, TV, and bed. Unlike my previous job at Nature, I rarely need to work at weekends, which is glorious.
Most productive part of my day:
I am hugely motivated by deadlines, even synthetic ones, so I find it really helpful to have such a structured day. I am most productive from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., and especially after 6:00 p.m. (because whatever I need to do, it has to be done before I can quit for the day).
Most essential ritual or habit:
Music. I am extremely fortunate that I’m able to listen to music pretty much the entire time that I’m working. If I’m reading a paper, or trying to find the best way to construct a lede, it’s most likely ambient, electronica, or classical. If I’m really stuck for words, Boards of Canada invariably helps. Once the jigsaw pieces of a story start to fall into place, I might switch to something more propulsive—dark electronica, angular alt-rock, or megalithic slabs of drone rock.
I tend to reserve music with really prominent lyrics, or music I’m unfamiliar with, for when I’m doing less thinky tasks, like emails or finance. New music comes via places like Bandcamp, 6 Music Recommends, and Flow State.
Oh, and there’s tea. Buckets and buckets of very strong tea.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
I record my interviews on a little Olympus WS-110, and write longhand notes in an A4 pad during interviews, marking timestamps at key points. I listen back on ExpressScribe, using hot keys to control playback while simultaneously writing into Word. I don’t transcribe interviews in full unless I’m writing a Q&A-style piece—the timestamps in my notebook mean I can just go directly to the sections of audio I really need for the story. If I do want a full transcript, I run the audio file through Speechmatics, which does a decent job at speech-to-text—it still takes some tidying up, but it saves me a fair bit of time.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
I write tasks on an A5 sticky note on my desk, and cross them off when I’m done. I also treat my email inbox like a work queue. And I keep track of deadlines and completed jobs in two separate Word documents, with all the details organized in tables. When I finish a story, I just transfer the relevant line in the table from one document to the other, ready for invoicing.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
iTunes (see above). The standard suite of Mac software: Mail, Calendar, Preview, etc. Microsoft Word, Firefox, Skype, Gmail. Other than the audio apps mentioned above, nothing fancy at all.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
I often play guitar between tasks—12-string if I need to calm down, electric if I need to wake up. I might plan my next trip to walk up some hills (Yorkshire Dales in April, Cairngorms in May). And I obsessively compile best-of iTunes playlists of favourite artists that have large back catalogues (latest playlist: Yo La Tengo). Right now I spend far too much time following the Brexit horror show—listening to Brexitcast was bad enough, but monitoring the live feed from Parliament is clearly unhealthy. Mercifully, I don’t tweet.
My reading habits:
I read all day for work—scientific papers, news websites, Wikipedia, whatever. I subscribe to The Economist, Private Eye, and Viz, so they’re usually on the bedside table. I can’t fall asleep unless I’ve read for a while. I probably only finish a few books per year, because I don’t have the patience to stick with them (I know, I know—it’s a major character deficiency). The last book that held my attention all the way to the end was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.
I’m generally in bed by 11:00 p.m., and read till I pass out. Luckily I sleep like a corpse, so I usually get enough rest.