A Day in the Life of Joshua Sokol

Joshua Sokol is a science writer in the Boston area. He studied astronomy and English literature in college, worked as a data analyst for the Hubble Space Telescope, and then attended MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Since 2016 he has been a freelancer covering space and other topics in natural history for publications like Quanta, Science, The New York Times, and whoever else will look at his pitches. Say hello on Twitter @josh_sokol, or read some of his work on ethically gray amber fossils, dying stars, or blood-sucking finches at joshuasokol.com.

 

Courtesy of Joshua Sokol

Joshua Sokol

What I’m working on:

I’m freelance, with no firm commitments. I write about anything that falls under “natural history.” And then I also spend way too much time agonizing and strategizing and spinning wheels about how to better define my beat and become the kind of writer who gets to write the story about the thing that everybody then references.

In practice, I do a lot of short news stories about cool new discoveries in space, a few mid-sized features about new scientific trends and debates, and then a few sort of aspirational, longform deep-dives, typically involving travel.

My next big piece like that is taking me to Senegal this month for The Atlantic’s Life Up Close series. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to do a really good job on that piece, and to fit smaller things around that commitment.

Where I work:

I can’t do the whole coffee shop thing.

Instead I work from home in Somerville, Massachusetts. My wife and I use one room of our two-bedroom apartment as an office/study, and I have a standing desk that looks out on some trees with squirrels, blue jays, and the occasional hawk.

Courtesy of Joshua Sokol

Daily routine:

I wish I had one, but structure for me comes from either being really excited or from having previously said I would do something. I wake up around 8:00 a.m., drink coffee, and start working within an hour. If I have stories to work on, I’ll have a good day. If not, I’ll flail around until I do, or until my wife comes home from work.

I also try to do classes at my gym three times a week, and I like going during the workday when I can because it’s less crowded. Then I go to therapy once a week for anxiety and depression stuff.

Most productive part of my day:

I wish I had some window I could count on, but I don’t. The most productive times for me are when I have a clearly defined task and a few hours blocked off just for that.

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Most essential ritual or habit:

It’s a boring answer, but coffee. I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was 25, when I was on my first field-reporting trip during grad school. Possibly as a result, the power of one cup hasn’t yet faded.

Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

I like to do remote interviews on speaker phone, record with QuickTime, and clickety-clack away on my computer, adding timestamps and bolding things I think are important to revisit. In the field I’ll just bring any old notebook, a pen, and an Olympus audio recorder. I also bring a basic DSLR camera.

Courtesy of Joshua Sokol

Sokol on a reporting trip in China.

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I just have one Word doc for tasks, story ideas, and everything else. New text goes in at the top, pushing everything else down and imposing a stratigraphic logic on the list. Then after about two months or so, I’ll copy anything that still matters and paste it into a new document and start over.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Nothing fancy here. I’ve been playing with Otter AI recently to transcribe audio but don’t love it yet. Otherwise, on any story that’s going to be over 1,000 words I use Scrivener to collect all my interviews, my research, the pitch or assignment letter, etc.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Twitter is probably my most common but least favorite? In an awkward search for human contact and peers I also hang out in no fewer than three different science-writing Slack groups.

My reading habits:

I used to be so good at reading, back in my English-major days. Now, less so. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but as an early-career freelancer anxious about converting any intellectual activity into tangible results, it’s been hard to read and learn and engage without the stress of thinking: How did they do this? Could I do this? What should I be taking away? What did they get paid?

Courtesy of Joshua Sokol

That said, I read things that I feel like I’m supposed to be reading, like pieces of nonfiction that are being shared a lot on Twitter. I go out of my way to read any articles on natural history topics that for whatever reason are reaching broader audiences—outside of the traditional science publications—in the hopes of learning how they accomplish that, and I’ll read a few prominent science books every year for the same reason. I also will read books relevant to longform pieces I’m working on.

I read the Neapolitan Novels recently. But reading to explore, to learn, to have fun? I’d like to do more of that.

Sleep schedule:

There was never a period where I didn’t need a lot of sleep. I’m usually in bed by or before midnight, aiming for at least eight hours.

 

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