How to build a career as a freelance science journalist - event report
Martha Henriques event organiser and Board member reports on this ABSW panel discussion...
• Lydia Smith, a freelance journalist based in Yorkshire writes news and features on health and human rights for both online and print publications including Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Quartz and the Independent.
• Ed Prosser, a filmmaker, editor and audio producer based in London makes video and podcasts about science for several organisations and publications, including Nature, the Guardian and the BBC.
• Richard Gray is a commissioning editor at BBC Future, as well as continuing to work as a freelancer himself, based between London and Birmingham.
• Ginny Smith, a science writer and presenter based in Cambridge, is a TV, radio and event presenter, has contributed to several popular science titles and is working on her first full-length book.
Thanks to everyone who came to the February panel discussion on 'How to build a career as a freelance journalist'. The panelists reflected the many different ways of working as a freelancer. In the audience, a good mixture of freelancers, staff journalists and early-career journalists taking their first steps attended. For those who couldn't be there in person, here is a quick summary of what went on.
Lydia spoke first, telling the audience about her experiences making the transition from a staff reporter to full-time freelancer. Lydia offered some of the ways she keeps motivated and stays strong during rough patches, to how to structure your time and stay sane without the daily banter with colleagues.
Ed spoke next, telling us how he manages with a balance of short- and longer-term deadlines, including some handy tricks for motivating yourself when no one else will. From dealing with critiques from clients and publications, to making sure you put your mental health first, Ed told us how he has learned to structure his time.
Richard then told the audience about his experience on both sides of the fence, working as a freelance science journalist and as a commissioning editor.
Ginny rounded off the talks giving an overview of her work across various media. Having several skills to offer, from writing to presenting and holding events, helps to keep work varied and interesting, she said.
Here are a few key points the speakers offered to deal with the common challenges of freelancing.
• Ed: work to your own rhythm. If you're more of a night owl than a morning person, don't feel guilty about that and try to be at your desk by 8am every morning. Find out what work schedule suits you best and stick to that.
• Ginny: One big challenge is regulating your work flow. When times are good, you may not have the time or inclination to seek out new projects. But if you don't, your workflow will have big peaks and troughs, when your projects all finish at once and then you send of a batch of new pitches – which will probably all come back at once and start the wave off again.
• Lydia: Even when times are busy, make sure you always have minimum one day's complete rest to take your mind off work. It can be tempting to push through and work all hours of the day, but make sure you keep a sustainable workload or you risk burning out.
• Richard: Do not put off your tax return to the last minute, it is not worth the stress. Keep on top of your admin by setting aside regular slots to deal with your expenses, invoices and so on. Setting aside around an hour a day can help avoid stressful pile-ups.
• Audience member: There are specialist organizations that can give advice to freelancers on mortgages and other financial issues. They can also help to deal with unscrupulous clients who are reluctant to pay up.
• Ed: Make sure you have a good idea of how much you are worth. Make sure you take into account how much work a project will be and charge accordingly. If paid by day or hourly rates, keep a good record of your time so you can bill for the right amount.
• Richard: Be upfront from the start about how much your rates are, and don't assume every organization is going to be honest. It is a big red flag if there isn't a discussion about rates very early on in the commissioning process.
• Lydia: It is all too easy to go all day without talking to anyone as a freelancer. That's not good for anyone, so make sure you schedule in time with friends in the evenings to keep yourself sane.
• Ed: Building in regular exercise into your routine can help keep you in a good headspace. Making sure you leave the house – if even for a coffee or a walk in the morning – can help 'open the windows in your head to let the fresh air in'.
• Lydia: Not every day is going to be a good day, and sometimes you might feel worn down by it all. Make sure you realise that's ok and normal, and cut yourself some slack. Perhaps take a day or so off and it can help to come more energized and enthusiastic.
A diverse portfolio
• Ginny: Being able to mix it up with different kinds of work helps to make your schedule a lot more interesting, and it can also be a good way to be flexible if you have other things on your plate, such as a health condition.
• Richard: A lot of freelance journalists also take on copywriting work and work for corporate clients. This helps pay the bills – and corporate clients often offer significantly more than journalistic publications.
Original text of event post:
18:30 for 19:00 start, Wednesday 27 February - at the Brockway Room, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. A tab will be set up at a local pub after the event for those that want to contine networking/socialising. Tea and coffee will be available at the event.
This is an ABSW members' event, however you can join the ABSW in order to attend.
Working as a freelance journalist can be a dream with the flexibility and scope that it offers. Who wouldn’t want to work for publications and programmes around the world, be your own boss and decide what work you do and don’t do?
It can also be a challenging career in terms of managing your time, travel, accounts and work-life balance.
Join us to hear about the experiences of award-winning journalists working in science, health and arts who have carved out a successful freelance career. The panelists – whose work spans print, online, podcasting, radio and film – will share their advice on making freelancing work.
Whether you are a staff journalist considering taking the plunge, looking to build your portfolio of published work, or if you’re planning a long-term career as a freelancer, come along to hear our panelists’ top tips and ask them your burning questions.
- Ginny Smith is a radio and TV presenter, specialising in science of the brain, and has written a number of popular science books.
- Ed Prosser is a filmmaker, radio producer and sound artist, who covers arts and culture as well as a lot of science
- Lydia Smith is a journalist writing news and features on women’s rights, health, mental health, feminism, human rights, workplace issues and wellbeing, and a former staff feature writer at the International Business Times UK.
- Richard Gray is a senior journalist at BBC Future, writing, editing and commissioning in-depth features on science, technology and health. He also keeps his hand in as a freelancer two days a week, and is a former science correspondent at The Telegraph.
Chair: Martha Henriques is a freelance feature writer and editor covering science, health and technology.
With thanks to Martha Henriques for organising this ABSW event.