When I started freelance writing full-time about a year ago, I didn’t have much of a plan. I was applying to whatever leads I could find on sites like Elance and Odesk and trying to build a portfolio that could simply get me more work. As a result, my focus was scattered: a resume here, a series 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 was to bid low and bid often. This was bad not only for my own bottom line but for the freelancer community at large and I knew it. Eventually, though, as I started to get steady work in a few areas I realized that I had a background I could draw on that would allow me to specialize.
Before going into freelance writing full-time, I spent a number of years as a research 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 natural sciences to me with creativity and wit. I had finally found something worth going to college for. As an undergraduate I fell in love with Ecology—the branch of biology for creative types—and spent the next few years immersed in that world.
After college and a stint in grad school, I quickly realized that there aren’t many jobs for ecologists in the real world, so I went to work in various other areas. I did research in public health, infectious disease, and neuroscience, while volunteering with the Audubon Society and in community gardens. All the while I was building a strong foundation that would help me eventually find my specialization, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Finding my niche
Fast-forward to about six months ago, when I realized that the majority of jobs I was landing were in Science and Medical Writing. Not only that, but these jobs paid a lot more than many of the other jobs I was fighting over with other freelancers 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 had real credentials and a solid resume. And I 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 was submitting fewer of them, but immediately saw a much higher acceptance rate. Because I was only applying for jobs in which 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. I already knew which buzz words would demonstrate that I was comfortable with scientific nomenclature. And clients responded to that. I occupy a great niche: I’m not a med student looking to make money on the side—I’m a freelance writer. But I’m also not a generalist freelance writer—I’m an expert Science and Medical freelance writer.
There are pitfalls to specializing—and it’s important to avoid them. Try not to make your area of expertise so specific that you can only bid on one kind of job. Instead of being just a science writer or 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 health, but also understand molecular biology. If I could only bid on one of these areas, I would be severely limited in terms of the jobs that would be available to me.
The first rule to being a successful expert science writer can be drawn directly from Evolutionary Biology. Some of the most successful organisms use a strategy called optimal foraging behavior: they search for the food that they know will provide the biggest payoff, but are willing to look for other sources of income in the meantime. As an expert science writer, I have a couple areas that are my specialty, but I’m not above writing a series of gardening guides if I can’t find a big job for the week.
Secondly, know your limitations. 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, a laboratory procedure for purifying mixtures. I was vaguely familiar with it, and I had a background in molecular biology techniques like PCR; how hard could it be?
As it turned out liquid chromatography is very complex. And with no direct experience or theoretical training in them, I couldn’t learn them overnight. It doesn’t matter how much scientific training you have in other areas, or how quick an autodidactic study you are. I ultimately had to cancel that job and lost a potentially long-term client. So the second rule is: don’t think that being an expert science writer makes you a Science Expert. Stick to the fields you know very well, and you will be consistently publishing quality material.
Thirdly, always be on the lookout for opportunities to become better at your job. I no longer work as a researcher in Ecology and Evolution, but that doesn’t mean I ever lost my love of the subject. I still attend conferences about environmental issues in my area, but now as a member of the public instead of a researcher. I never stopped subscribing to magazines that focus on nature and ecology, and now I feel confident to send query letters to them. And organizations like the National Association of Science Writers have lots of resources for science writers.
Finally, enjoy yourself. I love writing, and I also love science. Specializing in science writing has allowed me to take on projects that I find interesting and engaging. I can produce work I’m proud of, and I’m constantly learning more about the natural world.
About the author:
Jim Daley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. After working as a research biologist in avian ecology, public health, and infectious disease, he returned to his first love—writing. He contributes content to gardening and science websites. On his blog, jimdaleywrites, he explores the process of balancing creative endeavors with professional freelance writing.