A Guide for Aspiring Freelance Science Journalists (in Southeast Asia)

What to expect, whom and how to pitch, and opportunities to grab in the region.
A seedling grows on the forest floor in Malaysia.
A seedling grows on the forest floor in Malaysia. Freelance science journalists, let's sprout!

This article was first published 24 January 2021 on The Brave Writer on Medium.

1. The money is in the West

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.

For principles of journalism, I read The Elements of Journalism; you can find a write-up here on the American Press Institute website.

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

Journalists have a chance to pitch the editors in-person and in public at the World Conference of Science Journalists. No, I haven't done one; not brave enough. I masked the screen to hide the journalist's pitch. Pic: YHLaw

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.

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