Friday, October 14, 2016

How to Succeed in Freelancing

I've been in the freelance game a year and a half, roughly. Three years if you count the time I spent working part-time. I have had phenomenal early success. By that I mean that I have more money than I need to pay my bills, I don't spend time looking for work, I choose which clients and even which projects I work on, and I turn down anything that doesn't feel like a good fit. I've reached the point most freelancers set as a goal for "success." So how did I get there?

Step 1: Be really good at what you do.

I know this can sound daunting when you're just starting out. You may feel like an amateur, only posing as a professional and completely without direction. I certainly did.

But I don't mean you should be really good at marketing yourself, or at keeping your books, or at tracking and prioritizing your projects. Those are the trappings of running a business, and while you do need to become good at them, you'll inherently stumble a bit at first.

But that's not what you do. That supports what you do. What you do is that craft that you sell. For me, it's writing and editing. For you it could be any number of things: baking, painting, doing taxes, sewing. It doesn't matter. Just be a master.

You might already be really good at what you do, even if you've only just started freelancing. Many people begin freelancing because they've been doing something they love for years, even decades, and they decide to turn it into a full-time occupation. If so, wonderful. Keep at it. You've mastered your trade.

If not, take some time to become really good before you strike out as a freelancer. Take some classes, or maybe even get a degree. Work as an intern. Volunteer your services for friends and family. Practice constantly. Show your practice work to people and get their input. Keep doing these things until you're really good. Master your craft before you sell it.

Step 2: Get really lucky.

This sounds horribly defeating, I know. Luck plays an unfortunately large part in success. But, like a Vegas casino, you can stack the odds in your favor to bring luck your way.

First, specialize. Do people want a baker, or do they want a wedding cake baker? Even more, do they want a wedding cake baker who makes masterpieces that look like a zombie apocalypse? The more specialized you make your craft, the more likely you are to draw a particular customer or client, and the more likely they are to pay you well.

You may protest, "But I like doing all sorts of things! I don't want to limit my work!" Well, who doesn't like doing all sorts of things? Specialize more than once. For example, I specialize in writing and editing primary and secondary science education materials. I also specialize in writing and editing sci-fi and fantasy novels and short stories. This doesn't mean I never write or edit anything else (of course I do), it just means I don't market myself that way or draw many clients who want other things. Your clients and customers have a very particular need, and they will feel confident you can meet it if you've stated upfront that it's what you do.

Second, tell everyone what you do. I mean everyone. Your hairstylist, your bank teller, your cab driver, your kids' teachers. You never know where your lead will come from. I got my first professional editing gig following a conversation with someone in a swimming pool at a friend's 4th of July party. Tell everyone.

Third, join a professional organization that matches freelancers with clients. Find a respected one in your field and pay whatever dues they require. Trust me, you'll earn it back. In writing and editing, I highly recommend the Editorial Freelancers Association. I get daily notifications about potential jobs. Two of those notifications were for clients who now provide almost all of my income. Again, specializing is useful here because clients who post job listings to groups like this are inundated with résumés. Yours will stand out if it showcases focus that matches the client's needs.

There may be other things that can help in specific industries, like building your website or attending conferences. Talk to successful freelancers in your industry to find out what they see as vital tools to finding clients. And have patience. For a while, you'll spend most of your time looking for jobs and clients. It can feel very defeating. Keep your head up. Your clients are out there, looking for you. Be ready when they find you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Problem of Pay

Before I was a writer and editor, I was a scientist.

Not, mind you, that I ever stop being any of those things. I have always written stories, and I have always been curious about the way the world works.

But I once made my living in science, and now I make it in words. And this has been enlightening.

This year, my second in business as a full-time writer and editor, I have already made an income equal to my highest salary as a biochemist. And I worked in biotech for 13 years.

I wasn't a bad scientist, either. I was far from great. No Nobel prizes have my name on them. But a few journal articles do, as well as a hell of a lot of reagents out there in the life sciences world (or they would, if I had put my name on every product I made or tested).

There was certainly no dearth of money to be shared in biotech, either. The company I worked for earned a profit (profit, not revenue) of nearly $2 billion the year they laid me off. Although I don't have hard data on the incomes of my colleagues, I do know the ballpark figures for a few of their salaries.

And the sad fact is that the men were paid more than the women. Not just when they did the same job, but even when the men were in lower pay grades. Men in lower positions than mine with fewer years at the company had higher salaries than I did.

The same isn't true in publishing. Women dominate the field. Most of the contractors I work with on projects are women, and nearly all of my clients are women. Women run the publishing houses I work with. Women write the contracts, approve the content, sign the checks.

And, as a woman in publishing, I am paid rather well. Not enough to afford a summer home and a yacht, mind you, but certainly enough to pay my bills, take a vacation somewhere exotic, and put some away in savings. I am paid equally well as I was in biotech, but I only have a couple years' experience under my belt. I can only imagine how much more I will earn in the next decade.

And this, at its core, is one of the biggest challenges women in science face. The overt sexism is obnoxious, but we lift our chins and shrug it off. But when we set our sights on the future, when we think about mortgages and student loans and car payments, we must confront the reality of the wage gap. This industry that demands our late nights and weekends, that insists we get results at any cost, that challenges every idea we have and insists on proof three times over, will also pay us less than our male counterparts, or even our male subordinates. Men in science tell us we don't work as hard and we don't know as much as they do, then pay us less to ensure we stay discouraged.

Women invented wireless technology and wrote the code that sent humans to the moon. Women discovered radioactivity and the structure of DNA. Women determined the composition of stars and demonstrated the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. If we want women to keep discovering, inventing, and engineering, we have to pay them. We have to make science worth their time and effort. We have to fund their work and their lives.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Problem of Timing

Wow, I've done a terrible job at keeping this blog updated. Blame the pile of work I've been getting through!

Speaking of which...

I had few illusions when I became self-employed. I have been lucky enough to know enough entrepreneurs and freelancers that I never expected a cakewalk, watching hours of soap operas or eating cookies all day. I always knew it was going to be tough.

But of course, it's tough in ways I hadn't predicted, and in some ways that are the very opposite of some of my main reasons for striking out on my own in the first place.

When and how much to work is chief among these. When you're self-employed, there's no such thing as sick leave or vacation. You can take time off, sure, but you don't get paid.

I knew this, and I was prepared for it. "I'll work more around the times I want to take time off," I thought.

Ha! Hahahahahahahahaha, what a naive little creature I was.

The thing is (especially in the first year of your full-time business), your clients don't care one whit for your schedule. They want what they want when they want it, which is often on Sunday, or by midnight tonight, or in three hours. And when they don't have any wants, you don't have any work. They can go for weeks at a time (even months or years?) without wanting anything from you, and without giving you warning.

So I can't bring myself to turn down that weekend/late night/right away work, even though it causes me a lot of stress, because I know that I'll go for days sometime without working any billable hours. When work is available, I snatch it up, because I never know when the next drought will be. And I'm still recovering from some seriously lean periods from the past few months.

The constant fear of running out of money permeates a lot of my decisions. I suspect it's this way for many freelancers, especially those of us just starting out.

So, sound off! Do you take work you don't really want to do because you're worried work won't be there when you want it? Do you let fear make your decisions for you? Have you somehow put this behind you, and if so, how? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Making It!

Wow, can you believe I've been too busy to post?!

It's been three months since I started this freelance thing full-time. It's been a crazy ride. I'd like to share some of it with you.

The first month was bad. I spent all day, every day, sending out résumés and inquiries, and getting back rejection after rejection. It was terribly disheartening. In fact, it made me so upset I decided not to do it every day. I switched to looking for work only every other day, spending the rest of my time blogging, writing, and taking care of chores and errands. I also applied for and began receiving unemployment benefits. Although the money didn't amount to much, it was better than nothing.

The second month was worse. Still I sent out letter after letter, and still I got back, "Thanks, but no thanks." I started to doubt myself. Did I not have the skills to be a writer and editor? Was my work not good enough? Did I not have the gumption to work for myself? Was I going to fail?

I finally reached my breaking point. "Maybe I'll go back to biotech," I thought. "I have a ton of marketable skills. I could get a job easily."

Ha! The employers in that market consist of the company that laid me off, their big, ugly competitor (who's more ruthless when it comes to layoffs, I hear), and a startup that I know regularly lays off scores of people, only to hire them back as soon as the books are back in the black. Not appealing.

"So," I told myself, "it looks like you're stuck with editing. Better make it work." I'm so thankful I reached that point and realized there was no turning back. Knowing my fallback plan had fallen through gave me no choice but to succeed.

So the second month ended, and I was getting desperate. I felt I had used every resource at my disposal to find clients. Where was I supposed to look now? And then, suddenly, work happened. I got one, then two, then three clients. The work rolled in, and so did the pay. I was making it!

Now, at the end of the third month, I realize this is pretty unusual, and amazingly good. I have enough work to fill my time, and I'm making enough money to pay my bills. I've actually turned down work that wasn't a good fit. Having spoken with other freelancers, I now understand that my timeline is nearly unheard of. Some people spend months or even years working toward the goal I've already reached.

The nagging worry in my brain will probably never truly go away. What if I lose my best clients? What if I can't keep bringing in money? What if I run through all my savings? But those worries  push me to succeed. They ensure I make good use of my time, and develop positive and mutually beneficial relationships with my clients. They keep me looking for work even when I have enough work to fill my time and bank account. They drive me to network and improve my skills.

Some days I'm still startled to wake up and realize that my business is successful. I constantly have to battle the suspicion that I have no idea what I'm doing.

But I'm learning, and I'm improving. And, finally, I'm doing what I want to do. Thanks for following me on this tremendous journey. You've all been amazing, and given me such support!

Monday, March 30, 2015


Commander Shepard and me at Aggiecon 46
I spent the past weekend at Aggiecon, a three-day event in College Station, Texas filled with sci-fi, fantasy, comics, art, cosplay, and general awesomeness.

I've been to Aggiecon in the past as a guest of Martin Whitmore, who runs a booth there for his company Ideaschema. In previous years I just helped out at the booth and occasionally wandered around the dealers' room, checking out what other vendors had for sale.

But this! I stopped and chatted with so many vendors and had the most amazing conversations. Aggiecon is well known for being very serious about its sci-fi and fantasy, hosting panels like "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy" and "Young Adults in Speculative Fiction." It thus attracts lots of genre authors, and this year was certainly no exception.

I talked with so many talented authors, like Christopher Dunbar (Morrigan's Brood series), Kathryn Friesen (the Power of Legends series, can you believe she's only fifteen?), Kimberly Hix Trant (#hashtagged), and Kathleen White (Lost and Found). And I had the most wonderful conversation with Monique Happy, owner of Winlock Press. Monique and I discussed the future of publishing and how self-publishing is changing the way books are made.

The cosplay this year was truly stellar, and I was thrilled to run into Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect game series (by far my favorite video game). The photo on this page is me with the Commander!

I was also able to attend more panels this year, which was really wonderful. As I mentioned previously, Aggiecon is superb for getting very deep into the nitty-gritty of great storytelling, and this year's panels were no exception. I especially enjoyed "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy," mentioned above. Not that all panels were serious: "Cosplay Bachelor/Bachelorette" was tremendous fun (and the Shaggy/Elsa matchup inspired Marty's creative spirit!).

Aggiecon this year really felt like my community, like a place where I belong. I had such a blast, and I can't wait to go back next year!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Following my Ethical Compass

Last week I turned down a job. I feel certain that act will stand out in my memory for a long, long time.

Let me explain. I am still getting my business running. I don't yet have enough work to fill my time, so I'm seeking clients fairly aggressively. Because income has been thin the past couple of months, every dollar a client pays me really counts.

So turning down work is a big, bold step. Why would I do that?

I had learned of the job via Craigslist, where the company posted an ad without a lot of details about the company itself. I met the qualifications so I emailed my résumé to the contact listed in the ad. I got a response within a few days asking for a writing sample, which I provided. At that time, I learned the company name and began some investigation into them.

A it turns out, the company engages in a practice I find unethical. What they do falls in a legal gray area, and some people have sound reasons for supporting the type of work they provide. I, however, feel their service is harmful. Their mission clashes with my personal ethics.

I spoke on the phone briefly with the man I had been in email contact with, and he was very excited to have me join their team. He had work for me right away, and the pay would not have been bad.

It was a real challenge to decline to take that work. It wouldn't have filled the gaps in my time completely, but it would have gone a long way toward doing so.

But I know that eventually I will have enough work to fill my time and enough income to pay my bills. And then I will look back on this decision and be proud of myself.

I began freelancing so I could have the professional freedom to take only projects I felt had merit. I have always disliked doing work someone else deemed important, especially when the product clashed with my sense of ethics. If I sell out when times are tough, I've gained nothing by freelancing except a great deal of stress.

An ethical compass is useless if it points toward money. I am glad mine points true, even if it's difficult right now. I am setting myself up for a better road ahead by doing the right thing even when it's the hard thing.

I know this decision was the right one, and I know I will always feel good about having made it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Science Says

Something I've seen more and more in the age of social media are phrases like "Science Says..." and "According to Science...." Headlines like these can include everything from how much coffee you should drink to why you should believe in God to which Pokemon can kill you. If it's not obvious yet, these phrases are complete bunk, and are used to sensationalize and legitimize clickbait, scams, and reactionary drivel.

Now that I'm working in science communication, this sort of misleading hyperbole is even more bothersome. Take it from me, as a scientist and a writer: science never says anything. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to make you fall for something.

Science is a way of investigating the world. It's an action, not an entity. You don't have to have a degree, a lab, or even an education to conduct science. You need only an idea and a way of testing it. Anytime you answer a question by trying different things, you're performing science. Have you ever modified a recipe? That was science. Taught yourself a new bike trick? Also science. Tried out a few different shampoos until you found the right one for you? Yup, science.

It can be tempting to think of Science as an institution, an enormous, inaccessible compound filled with old men in white lab coats dictating to the rest of the world the way everyone should behave. In reality, professional scientists are just people, as flawed as any other people. Some are true geniuses in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge, like Ellen Stofan and Fabiola Gianotti. Some are charlatans advancing their own gain, like Andrew Wakefield. Most are somewhere in between—normal people working hard to gain some knowledge for the world while paying their mortgages and saving for retirement.

What they are not is a unified body. There is no one institution called Science conducting research into the appeal of Indian food and the ideal length of eyelashes. There are, however, hundreds, maybe thousands, of public and private research institutions, each with their own goals and ideals. There are more journals than anyone can keep track of, and pay-for-publication journals are becoming a serious area of concern for those in research.

What does this mean for you?

First, never believe any claim that "science says" something. It doesn't. Science is an activity, not an entity. That would be like saying "sports says" or "gardening says" something. Scientists may say something, but they don't necessarily speak for the entire field, just as one athlete doesn't speak for all of sports.

Second, recognize that anything a scientist says (or anyone else, for that matter) must have the weight of expertise behind it in order for it to be meaningful. It can be tremendously difficult to suss meaningful credentials from shady ones. Some questions can help you determine whether a journal is credible, and you can also check neutral third-party recommendations.

Finally, keep in mind that anything titled "Science Says" or "According to Science" is a journalist's (or worse, a blogger's) interpretation of someone else's research. Reporters with greater integrity use titles like "Researchers Find" or, even better "According to NASA" or the name of another institution. If you want to know the truth, go to the source. Read the paper cited in the article. It can be tough to understand academic papers, but it's even tougher to figure out who to trust to do your understanding for you.