I have been a freelance science journalist for six years. With a bit of luck and lots of grit and learning from mistakes, I have published in more than twenty outlets. My stories have won prizes from Singapore to Switzerland.
If you are considering a career in freelance science journalism, you might be encouraged to know that I had started without any experience in journalism or mass media.
In 2014, when I decided to leave the university and nosedived into popular science writing, I had been a researcher for seven years. I had learned to write research papers for scientists, not stories for school kids. As a science journalist, I had to learn from scratch every step of the way: from finding stories to pitching and writing and chasing publishers for payment.
In Malaysia, where I live and work, there was no community of science journalists, not to mention freelance ones, from whom I could ask for advice. I was inching forward, mapping the landscape largely alone. But you can do better.
While science journalists are rare in Malaysia, interest is growing. Every year, I get more and more emails and messages asking about this career. The inquiries come from fresh graduates, writers, and journalists in Malaysia and across Asia.
You are likely reading this because you either want to become a freelance science journalist or have just started as one. I write this article to give you an idea of what to expect and how to find your way.
And while what I share here can be applied by freelance science journalists anywhere, it is most relevant for those in Southeast Asia.
1. The money is in the West
In Southeast Asia, science magazines are rare, and science sections in newspapers have been shrinking, if they still exist at all. I think Asian markets haven’t yet found effective ways to monetize science reporting.
Even with the current pandemic boosting science awareness to new heights in the public forum, I cannot tell if newsrooms in Asia are ready to pay more for science reporting.
What I know from experience is this: Publishers in the United States pay the most for science stories, followed by those in Europe, and lastly Australia and Asia. I don’t know how much they pay elsewhere.
So, yes, much of the money in science journalism sits in the West. Go get it from the publishers there.
2. Expect a (very) slow start; prepare for it financially
I haven’t heard of any science journalists who quit because they could not write or they ran out of story ideas. The far more common and heavier blow is financial insecurity. And for a freelance science journalist, the climb to earning at least a decent income is steepest at the start.
When I began, I didn’t know whom to pitch my stories to. I read guidelines on pitching but that did little to ease my fear that one lousy pitch could ruin my chances with an editor forever. When I finally mustered the courage to click ‘Send’, my pitches crossed the divide, then mostly disappeared into a void, never to be heard of again.
I had just a couple of stories (or ‘clips’ as they are called) to my name, and that might have made editors more cautious about commissioning me because they assumed (correctly) that they would need to guide me more than journalists who have done the rounds.
So, if you are starting from scratch as I did, expect a high rejection rate, and that nobody would pay for your stories in the first month or two.
Expect that when your first pitch gets accepted (hooray!), you would be spending much more time on the draft than you had imagined. What had seemed like a straightforward 400-word news story might set you on three days of a painful write-delete cycle. You would have lost count of the number of times you rewrote the opening paragraphs (called the ‘lede’).
In my first year, I was writing stories part-time while I interned at a radio station. I pitched often but sold only 16 stories which fetched a grand full-year total of nearly $3000. That was about 13% of my previous salary.
As I nosedived into freelance science journalism, my savings plunged too.
I should have panicked, but I didn’t. I had expected a hard time making money — after all, I was a newbie in the industry. When I left my previous job, I imagined that I would fail to make a single cent for some time. I put aside savings and reduced my expenses to prepare for this worst-case scenario.
So, while my sharp turn into freelance science journalism might have seemed impulsive, my financial planning was anything but. Likewise, you would do well to expect a laggard first year and plan your finances accordingly.
Dare to dream but stay rooted too. We jump higher from solid ground.
3. Learn effectively and fast
When I began, I had no journalism training or experience in popular writing. What I had in abundance was imposter syndrome. But I allayed my anxiety with a simple fact: There is no exam or certification necessary to become a science journalist.
All I needed to be a science journalist was to think and act like one. A good one.
The fastest and most effective way to learn new skills is full immersion. I wanted to get into a newsroom fast. To skip any lengthy hiring process or complicated employment contract, I applied for a 3-month internship at a radio station. The recruiter was surprised to see an ex-university lecturer among the cohort of college students, but they took me in.
As an intern, I helped the radio producers booked guests, researched topics, and drafted interview questions. I could also pitch show ideas. It was a whole new world for me and I absorbed as much as I could. Eventually, I got to interview guests and produce complete shows from a blank slate.
I stayed on for a few more months as a regular part-timer after my internship ended. The salary was low but I was learning from some of the best radio producers and presenters in Malaysia. I knew that experience would pay for itself many times over in the long run.
Every day at work, I learned how to develop timely story ideas, make topics relatable to the public, find and persuade guests to speak on air, write and do interviews.
I learned outside of the workplace too. In that first year, I read dozens of books and even more online guides on science communication, storytelling, and writing. Often, books and guides taught me theories and strategies which I then applied in my writing for the radio and magazines.
Everybody in the newsroom was busy finding practical solutions to solve daily challenges — nobody had time to talk theory with me (e.g., nobody explained to me what journalism is). My reading complemented my training at work very well.
The two most useful guides I had at the start were the book The Science Writer’s Handbook and the website The Open Notebook. I would recommend them to every budding science journalist, freelance or not.
For writing, I turn to these three books regularly: The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William Blundell; A Writer’s Coach, by Jack Hart; and Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call.
Learning the ropes effectively within the shortest time possible is crucial for the survival of your freelance science journalism career. I achieved it as an intern with a clear goal to learn everything the job could offer.
I think newsrooms make the most promising avenues; if these aren’t available, you can consider the communication arms of science-focused organizations, though these likely do not do independent journalism.
4. Find and join journalist groups
I learned this lesson the hard way. I did not speak to another science journalist in my region until 1.5 years into my career.
I was not avoiding my regional colleagues, but when I failed to find any other Malaysian science journalists, I stopped trying to reach others. I didn’t consider using social media as a professional platform to network.
I thought that because I was a ‘nobody’, nobody would bother to connect with me.
As a result, I felt like a lone trekker exploring an uncharted jungle. I have read about the challenges of freelance science journalists, but I had nobody to share mine with.
Most books and guides describe the work of journalists in the West, but little is said about those elsewhere. I had often wondered: “Am I doing this all wrong? Is there a different and better set of survival strategies for this region?”
It was a lonely first year for me. I am sure the isolation hampered my progress.
Fortunately, the next year in 2015, I attended the World Conference of Science Journalists in Korea. There, hundreds of science journalists and editors mingled and exchanged ideas over a few days. I met colleagues from across the world.
Most importantly, I befriended freelance journalists from Southeast Asia who have since supported me emotionally and professionally.
Casting away the isolation had improved my career more than anything else. The growing anxiety and solitude were eroding my career. Thanks to the camaraderie of my newfound journalist friends in 2015 and those that came after, I am a happy freelance science journalist.
Don’t be a loner like I was. Check if there are science journalist groups open to you (e.g., Society of Indonesian Science Journalists, Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, Philippines Network of Environmental Journalists, Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists, Malaysian Science Communicators, Thai Society of Environmental Journalists).
If you read and like stories written by science journalists in your country or region, reach out to them over email or social media.
Get a few like-minded and friendly peers together on a platform (Google Group, Slack, Facebook private group). Support and cheer each other; share resources, laughter, and agony (“OMG! I think I just offended the editor. Help!!!”).
5. Pitch without fear
Pitch rejections cannot kill. But the freelancer who doesn’t pitch would starve. Even staff journalists must pitch their editors.
Everyone pitches. A child asking for permission to play video games; trying out for the school volleyball team; applying for a job; bargaining over durians at the fruit stall; asking someone on a date — these are all pitching.
Some pitches work, some don’t. Reflect, and adapt. Always strive to improve, but know that there is no perfect pitch.
And most importantly, do not take rejections personally.
Where and whom to pitch though?
A promising hunting ground is the extensive list of science media outlets and their editors maintained by Robin Lloyd. Most of the list entries are based in the West, so you will likely be pitching editors in the U.S.A. or Europe.
And that’s good for two reasons: Publishers in the West tend to pay more for science stories than those in Asia, and many stories in Southeast Asia would appeal to publishers in the West. I believe it’s the same for other regions like South America, South Asia, or Africa.
Furthermore, I would argue that editors in the West like to receive pitches of feature stories from journalists in distant regions. By features, I mean stories that go deep and intimate, stories that need field reporting and in-person interviews.
I would wager that it is logistically cheaper for Western publishers to commission journalists closer to where the feature story is based. It is also safer because the local journalist would know to traverse not just the place and issue but also cultural sensitivities.
So, yes, go and pitch without fear.
6. Pitch with care
Pitch fearlessly, not carelessly.
Remember I said I ventured into science journalism without an idea of how it works? I didn’t even know that pitching is a big, crucial, and inevitable part of a freelance science journalist’s routine. A freelancer who cannot pitch well will not last.
Pitching is essentially sales and marketing, and I have always disliked sales and marketing. But when I started pitching editors, I was surprised to find a thrill in it. I like promoting products that I enjoy, such as the stories I want to write and share with others. If I am not excited to tell a story, I do not pitch it.
But my passion for a story, even if I could convey it nakedly in a pitch, would not suffice to wow editor. I think a successful pitch must hit three goals:
- Fits the publication;
- Intrigues the editor;
- Earns the editor’s trust (or at least it doesn’t raise any red flag).
There are many excellent and free articles on acing a pitch. I will just list here some straightforward lessons I’ve learned before I point you to those articles.
- Check, check, and triple check every pitch before you send it. Make sure you get the name of the editor and publication correct. Maybe consider using the Grammarly app to edit your pitch (the free version suffices).
- Read and follow the publications’ submission guidelines. The guidelines are often found in the website’s About or Contact or Pitch or Write for Us page. Otherwise, just Google for it.
- Match your pitch with the publication. I believe there is a home for every story. You want to write about the seas and rivers? Hakai. A story about forests? YaleE360. Solutions to environmental problems? Ensia.
- Make your pitch specific. Many popular science magazines are generalists with specialized sections. So, pitch not just to a publication but a section in the publication.
- Scan the publication masthead for editors handling the said section and pitch them.
- In your email subject line, write “Pitch, (section) | (A clear, short line that sums up your pitch”; e.g., “Pitch, Wildlife News | Rhinoceros thought extinct caught live on camera”.
- Adjust the length of your pitch according to the word count of your intended story. I do not follow any strict rule here, but three paragraphs should suffice for news stories. I can go overboard when I pitch long-form features but I try to rein it in at 800 words maximum. Regardless of length, craft your pitch so that it’s easy to read and hard to release.
- If you are writing to an editor for the first time, introduce yourself. I put a paragraph at the end of the pitch that says: “I’m a freelance science journalist in Malaysia. I write mostly about the environment… My stories have appeared on X, Y, and Z.” Show and hyperlink a few stories you have written that are similar in subject or format to the story you are pitching.
- If the editor hasn’t responded to your pitch, follow up a week later. I use “Dear (editor’s name), I pitched you last week. Have you had the time to consider my pitch? Thank you.”
- Check, check, and triple check your pitch.
My list above scratches just the surface. For excellent advice or pointers on what to write in a pitch and how to structure one, check out SciDev.Net’s practical guide on pitching from the editors of various science media outlets.
For pitching mistakes to avoid, read this article on The Open Notebook.
This Twitter thread by Jem Collins contains very helpful resources like databases of successful and rejected pitches and tools to find emails of editors. A recent post by Ashley Broadwater compiles resources on submission guidelines, pitching tips from editors and writers, and pay rates.
Speaking of pitch databases, check out the more than 200 searchable pitches deposited at The Open Notebook. Find the ones you like and reverse engineer them. I am surprised at how some simple and short pitches landed feature stories in high-profile magazines. That database has lots to teach us.
And here is a conversation among journalists and editors on overcoming the barriers which foreign journalists face in writing for Western publications. My take from the article is that we must remember to pitch a story (not a topic!), and highlight angles or elements to make the said story relevant to a Western or international audience.
But don’t force it — in my experience, it is often enough to have some links, even if they are not creative (e.g., impact on international trade, Western stakeholders are involved, a scientific finding with potentially broad applications).
7. Curiosity finds you juicy stories
I have yet to hear science journalists say they ran out of story ideas. For more press releases than you would like, subscribe to ScienceDaily.
I created a separate email address to receive new article alerts from major publishers like Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer-Nature. I prioritize quality journals that are less popular to raise my odds of finding interesting studies missed by other journalists.
For that same reason, I skip EurekAlert! because it’s read by many staff writers.
But the juiciest story ideas are often found outside of published studies. Just follow your curiosity. Everything from social media posts by scientists to articles in the newspapers to a chat with your neighbor could offer leads into bigger and unreported stories.
My favorite hunting ground is conferences. There, scores or even hundreds of scientists are cooped up in one place over a few days. Every participant at a conference is excited to exchange ideas, and most everyone can be found at some point hovering about the pastries or coffee corner.
These conferences can range in scale from a single university department to major international ones. Regardless of the crowd, you must not be shy. I bring a deck of business cards and a smile, and I say: “Hello! I’m Yao Hua, a journalist. Nice talk you gave back there…”
Aside from a conference, I can’t think of an easier or better situation to get many scientists talking passionately (maybe it’s the sugar or coffee?) about their work.
Here is evidence: I attended the annual conference of the Malaysian Society of Parasitology and Tropical Medicine in 2018 and found materials to write my first story for Nature and my first feature story for Science News.
How can we access these conferences though? I simply search for professional societies or academies in my country, see if they have any conferences planned, and email the secretariat for free media access.
Connect with scientists on social media. They often post announcements of upcoming conferences.
Try to reach out to the organizers months in advance. I’d say that I am very keen to find story ideas during the conference but I do not promise any stories.
I also emphasize that I only seek permission to attend the conference as a journalist, and I don’t want to join their gala dinner (that can be expensive for the organizers).
In Southeast Asia, particularly, there was little media presence at most scientific conferences I had gone to. Often, the mainstream press only covers the opening or closing ceremony. That leaves freelancers to sniff for story ideas at leisure and to know the scientists. Take lots of notes.
8. Opportunities abound; grab them
I feel like there are more and more opportunities for freelancer science journalists to develop our skills or apply for grants. In my first year, I was so caught up in pitching and learning how to write that I was stupidly oblivious to most of these opportunities. You can do much better.
There are quite a few helpful newsletters for science journalists. I’d recommend Marianna Limas’ Science Writing News Roundup.
IJNet compiles a rolling list of fellowships, workshops, grants, etc. Always check back.
If you are based in Asia, do take note of the bi-annual Asian Scientist Writing Prize competition. It was last held in 2019, so hopefully, they would hold one this year (2021) despite the pandemic challenges.
Another noteworthy bi-annual event is the World Conference of Science Journalists, next scheduled to be held online in March 2022. I attended my first one in 2015, and it boosted my career in so many ways — network, skill sets, self-confidence, and appreciation for science journalism. The organizers offer travel grants to attend the conference, so sign up for their email alerts.
This article has turned out much longer than I had planned. Still, I have left out many useful advice or resources. If you have tips or stories to share to help our fellow freelance science journalists (in Southeast Asia or beyond), please write them in the comments. I’d love to learn from you too.