by Viviane Callier, new TPII Out-Ac Coach
The world of freelance writing is an exciting one. Freelancing attracts academics and former academics because we value the intellectual freedom to work on and write about what we find interesting. And most of us have things to say!
So here’s a whirlwind introduction to the world of freelancing. I’ll focus here on freelance science writing, because that’s my expertise, but I think much of my experience applies more broadly to freelancing as a whole.
First, it is important to understand the ecosystem of the freelance writing world. I’ll focus on three types of writing work: op-ed writing, journalism, and communications. (there’s also technical writing, manuscript writing, white papers, regulatory writing, etc. which I won’t discuss here).
An op-ed is a short (800 words max) piece that makes an argument. It is usually pegged to a news hook. Many academics and former academics are in a position to write a compelling op-ed based on their expertise, and they can often provide perspectives that are new and interesting. Op-ed writing does not typically pay anything–the reason to write one is to share an argument of public value.
Journalism is the work done by an independent reporter who is beholden only to his or her readers. The ideal journalist brings value to the reader and has no connections or ties to sources and certainly no financial conflicts of interest that would prevent them from reporting objectively. An ethical journalist avoids reporting on issues for which he or she has a conflict of interest. Freelance journalism pays, but not very much.
Communications is the work done by an institution (government, non-profit, academic, private) to promote its own work, activities, or products. The communicator is beholden not to his or her readers, but to the entity which is paying them to promote their work. The fact that a communicator writes about the entity from which they receive a paycheck precludes completely objective reporting. That doesn’t mean that communicators have to lie. But it means that there is always an agenda. Communications work typically pays well.
Remember: as a journalist you are beholden to your readers. As a communicator you are beholden to the person who pays you (usually the entity you are writing about).
Now for the big reveal (ahem): journalism is in crisis. Staff positions are few and far between. Freelance journalism rates are lower than they have ever been. Journalists are going “alt-journ” at the same rates as academics are going “alt-ac.” It’s extremely challenging to make a living as a freelance journalist these days, and most successful freelancer journalists have spent years establishing themselves, back when the freelancing climate wasn’t so tough.
Does that mean you should not do any freelance journalism or op-ed writing? No. There are many reasons to write and not all of them have to do with money. If you have an interesting story, if you have something that needs to be said–then you should say it. But for the love of everything holy, don’t count on making a living at it full time.
You, the sensible readers of TPII, have the sense not to rely on adjuncting full-time to make a living. Freelance journalism, like adjunct teaching, can be worthwhile if you’re doing it for the right reasons (and that reason is not money).
Instead, use your other work to subsidize these passion projects. In the case of freelancing you are in luck because your same skillset can be used to command more money as a communicator. Government agencies have to inform the public about their activities and programs. Universities communicate about the exciting research that is being conducted on their campuses. Private companies produce a variety of materials to promote their products. These are just some of the plentiful opportunities in communications work, and they pay much better than journalism.
Most freelancers that I know have a varied portfolio of work that includes journalism as well as communications. The trick is to keep the communications work separate from the journalism to avoid any conflicts of interest. If you’re not sure if something is a conflict of interest, it’s usually best to explain the situation to your editor and let them make the call. Be transparent; it’s better to pass on an assignment than to lose an editor’s trust.
When you have a mix of journalism and communications work, some of the well-paying work is going to subsidize the work that matters to you but doesn’t pay as well. There is nothing wrong with subsidizing some projects with better paying ones. Everybody does it. Even tenured professors do. Have you ever met a tenured professor who enjoyed sitting in on committee meetings? Me neither. Serving on committees is the work that subsidizes them to do the work they love–usually research.
As a freelancer, you’ll have to be very clear with yourself about what each of your assignments is providing for you. Some assignments will pay really well, although they might be tedious or boring. Some assignments won’t pay as well, but the client might be a delight to work with, and could be on a topic of interest to you. It helps to make a list of all the things you need from your freelance work (money, nice clients, interesting subject matter, ability to work on projects of your choice, variety, room to follow your curiosity, etc.). It is unlikely that you will find one assignment that will meet all of those needs–but as a smart freelancer, you can find infinite ways to assemble a varied portfolio that meets those needs as a whole.