How to succeed in freelance science journalism

Freelancing is something that most journalists will consider at some point. For those who take the plunge it can be a challenging and sometimes stressful occupation, but it pays its dividends in the form of being your own boss and deciding exactly what work to do and when. In the session entitled ‘Successful Freelancing', Priya Shetty, Angela Saini and Richard Vize revealed their advice on making a success of going freelance.

Priya started the discussion by providing five pieces of advice she wishes she had known when she started freelancing, which were reiterated by the other panelists throughout the session. Firstly, don’t get hung up on chasing high-profile contacts at conferences just because of their status: develop relationships with people you find interesting and can engage with.

Secondly, remember that as a freelance you are running a business: think of yourself in ‘business terms’ and do your best to develop your brand. Never be afraid to talk about money – be polite but firm when chasing unpaid invoices, and feel free to negotiate fees if you think your client is demanding too much for too low a price. Trust your gut instinct: if a job sounds too ambitious, unrealistic or is unhelpfully vague, stay well clear.

This lead on to Priya’s final, and arguably most important tip: learn to say no. You do not have to do every job that is offered to you, and being able to turn down work if necessary will give you the freedom to explore what you really want to do.

Richard commented that networking has been crucial for his freelance career. Freelancing can be a very solitary profession, so developing social as well as business contacts will help to keep you sane. Take every opportunity to meet new people and connect through social media; it’s essential to get out there and to make sure your insights and knowledge are up to date.

The panel also strongly recommended knowing several people in each department or organization you work for, because individuals change jobs and leave companies fairly regularly.

Cash flow was a big concern for many members of the audience. Angela sets herself a target income each month that she knows will cover her expenses. However, it is also important to build up reserves for a rainy day.

Similarly, remember to pay into a pension pot and pay National Insurance – Angela found that this enabled her to claim maternity benefits when she had her child. The panel also recommended having a couple of organisations you know will probably offer you work each month.

The issue of working for free prompted a lively and impassioned discussion between the panel and audience members.

Whilst the panelists agreed that unpaid science writing is good for raising your profile and making contacts, it was also pointed out that this undercuts those who earn their living by writing such pieces.

Priya suggested new writers instead start writing pieces in small, niche publications to build up their bank of clippings: the NUJ and www.glassdoor.com are good sources to consult when considering how much to charge for this. Writing for these smaller publications also acts as a steppingstone to writing for newspapers and more mainstream magazines. 

For a freelance journalist it is particularly important to consider their next step on the career ladder. For example, Angela has written a book, which has since lead on to speaking engagements. You must always think to the future – what are your goals? What do you want to be doing in twenty years time? As with any career, having a plan for your next few steps will make reaching your final goal much easier.

Despite challenges, many journalists forge extremely successful careers freelancing. It may take vast amounts of courage to step away from the security of a stable monthly salary, but as Robin Vince explained during the talk, freelancing is "one of the best things I’ve done with my career".