I didn’t have much of a plan when I started freelance writing full-time about a year ago. I became applying to whatever leads I may find on sites write my essay like Elance and Odesk and trying to build a portfolio that could simply get me more work. Because of this, my focus was scattered: a resume here, a number of blog posts there, the occasional ghostwritten eBook.
This worked, in a manner of speaking. But I was losing more bids than I was landing—and the main weapon I had would be to bid low and bid often. This is bad not only for my own main point here but for the freelancer community in particular and I also knew it. Eventually, though, as I started initially to get steady work in a few areas I realized that I had a background I could draw on that could permit me to specialize.
Before going into freelance writing full-time, I spent a number of years as an investigation biologist. I originally started on that path because brilliant science writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Zimmer had opened up the world of the sciences that are natural me with creativity and wit. I had finally found something worth planning to college for. As an undergraduate I fell deeply in love with Ecology—the branch of biology for creative types—and spent the second years that are few for the reason that world.
After college and a stint in grad school, I quickly realized that there aren’t many jobs for ecologists in the world that is real therefore I went along to work with some other areas. I did so research in public places health, infectious disease, and neuroscience, while volunteering utilizing the Audubon Society and in community gardens. Even while I happened to be building a solid foundation that will help me eventually find my specialization, although I didn’t know it at that time.
Finding my niche
Fast-forward to about six months ago, once I realized that almost all jobs I was landing were in Science and Medical Writing. Not only this, however these jobs paid a lot more than most of the other jobs I became fighting over along with other freelancers even as we all slashed our bids to the minimum. I already had a portfolio of articles on avian ecology, molecular biology, organic gardening techniques, and public health. I experienced real credentials and a resume that is solid. And I also could present myself as an expert writer in these areas. So I rebranded myself as just that: an expert science writer specializing in environmental news, medical writing, research, gardening and green tech.
My proposals became more targeted. I happened to be submitting fewer of them, but immediately saw a much higher acceptance rate. I knew I was one of the most qualified writers in the room, I could spend more time on my proposals and ask for higher rates because I was only applying for jobs in which. I already knew which buzz words would demonstrate that I was confident with scientific nomenclature. And clients taken care of immediately that. I occupy a great niche: I’m not a med student looking to make money regarding the side—I’m a freelance writer. But I’m also not a generalist freelance writer—I’m a professional Science and Medical freelance writer.
You can find pitfalls to specializing—and it’s vital that you avoid them. Do not make your area of expertise so specific that you can only bid on one sort of job. In place of being just a science writer or simply just a medical writer, I’m both. But I have a diverse portfolio in both of these areas as well. I have years of experience as a gardener, but am formally trained as an Ecologist. And I have worked in public areas health, but also understand biology that is molecular. I would be severely limited in terms of the jobs that would be available to me if I could only bid on one of these areas.
The first rule to being a successful expert science writer could be drawn directly from Evolutionary Biology. Some of the most successful organisms use a technique called optimal foraging behavior: they seek out the meals that they know will give you the payoff that is biggest, but are prepared to look for other sourced elements of income in the meantime. As an expert science writer, I have a couple of areas which can be my specialty, but I’m not above writing a series of gardening guides if I can’t find a large job when it comes to week.
Secondly, know your limitations. A laboratory procedure for purifying mixtures as a case study, when I first rebranded my freelance business, I made the mistake of bidding on a job that was frankly beyond my scope of expertise—liquid chromatography. I happened to be vaguely familiar with it, and I had a background in molecular biology techniques like PCR; how hard could it be?
As it ended up liquid chromatography is very complex. Along with no direct experience or theoretical training in them, I couldn’t learn them overnight. It does not matter how much scientific training you have various other areas, or how quick an autodidactic study you may be. I ultimately had to cancel that job and lost a potentially long-term client. So that the rule that is second: don’t believe that being a specialist science writer makes you a Science Expert. Adhere to the fields you realize very well, and you will be quality material that is consistently publishing.
Thirdly, always be in search of opportunities to become better at your task. I no longer work as a researcher in Ecology and Evolution, but that doesn’t mean I ever lost my passion for the subject. I still attend conferences about environmental issues during my area, nevertheless now as a member for the public in the place of a researcher. I never stopped subscribing to magazines that give attention to ecology and nature, and now I feel confident to send query letters for them. And organizations such as the National Association of Science Writers have a lot of resources for science writers.
Finally, enjoy yourself. I favor writing, and I also love science. Focusing on science writing has allowed us to take on projects that I find engaging and interesting. I could produce work I’m proud of, and I’m constantly learning more about the natural world.
Concerning the author:
Jim Daley is a freelance writer situated in Chicago. After being employed as an investigation biologist in avian ecology, public health, and infectious disease, he returned to his first love—writing. He contributes content to science and gardening websites. On his blog, jimdaleywrites, he explores the entire process of balancing endeavors that are creative professional freelance writing.