How to Make $75,000/Year Writing (And Hate It)

I’ve gotten some good feedback on the previous post, in which I disclosed my science writing income from the past decade and a half and explained where those numbers come from. Now it’s time to delve a little more deeply into it. Here’s the graph again , this time prettified with a line over the bars:

Profit from science writing, 1998-2012.

Profit from science writing, 1998-2012.

The first thing a business-minded person will notice is that all of the numbers are positive. Unlike most ventures, my sole proprietorship has run in the black every year of its existence. That’s less a credit to my financial acumen than it is to the low entry barriers in this field; anyone with a computer and a phone can hang out a shingle as a science writer, and the checks from just a few articles will cover the office costs.

The second thing everyone will notice is the year 2005. Yes, I made about $75,000 from science writing that year. It was the last year my income exceeded my wife’s. That brings me to an important digression.

Laura and I started dating in 1995 and married in 2000, a few days after she’d graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Contrary to popular belief, doctors do not step straight out of medical school and onto the gravy train. In fact, these days many of them never encounter anything remotely resembling a gravy train. We moved to Philadelphia that summer for her to start residency, which is to medicine what postdoctoral training is to science: an extended period of overwork and underpay, as part of a population of indentured servants without whom the rest of the enterprise could not function. We both made about the same amount for the next several years, but she worked much harder and had vastly more responsibility than I. My income stayed relatively consistent in those years, because I had a good assortment of regular clients providing regular work. Some years were a bit better, some a bit worse, but the average was adequate.

In 2003 Laura changed residency programs, so we moved back to New York. Two years later we started the lengthy, intrusive, and costly process of an international adoption. We were also paying off Laura’s student loans and of course living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Our debts started piling up. Her income wasn’t negotiable, but it seemed that mine might be. I turned my job into a game, and decided to see how much I could make as a freelancer if I focused on nothing but money. The answer was $75,000.

In 2005, I was raking in more than I’d ever made before. And I was miserable. I pitched stories to any editor who would return my emails. I accepted assignments on any topic, no matter how dull or annoying I found it. I didn’t do anything outright unethical, but I came close. I spent most of my days hammering out text I didn’t care about. Even the fun, interesting stories for my regular clients started to annoy me. I became that guy – the one who hates his job but loves his paycheck. In the evenings, I drank.

After a year at that pace, I started to question my worth as a writer and even as a person. I had gone into this field because I thought the world needed better explanations of science. How does writing another stringer about intellectual property legislation for a throwaway trade rag feed that goal?

Midway through 2006, I was burned out. Fortunately, I also had an ideal excuse for turning away the editors who were now calling me every week: our adoption finally came through. In November Laura and I flew to China and brought home an amazing little girl. As children do, she dismantled our lives completely and reassembled them into something entirely different, and in most ways superior to anything that had come before. Those throwaway stringers may not have helped anyone understand science any better, but by making this possible they were worth every second I had spent on them.

The next couple of years were just about ideal. I still did a few of the crap jobs out of a sense of loyalty to the clients who’d been sending me that work, but by then Laura had finally finished her residency and fellowship and taken a position as an attending physician here in western Massachusetts. I didn’t have to do unpleasant gigs just to make ends meet anymore. My income shrank, but so did my liquor bill.

2008 brought the Great Recession and the simultaneous (though largely unrelated) death throes of much of the print media industry. Newspapers had been hemorrhaging money and staff for a few years already, but now the ax started to fall at magazines, even some of the niche publications I worked for. Meanwhile, nonprofits saw donations plummet, which put one of my biggest clients on the brink of bankruptcy. Freelance budgets are very easy to cut.

Those problems hurt my bottom line, but not my lifestyle. The cost of living here on the unfashionable side of Massachusetts is low, and with a wife who’s now well-employed and a daughter needing frequent attention, I’ve felt little urgency to return to the salt mine. These days, I focus on jobs that genuinely interest me. That leaves me enough free time to provide all of the services of a stay-home spouse, while still bringing home some of the bacon.

As I hope this story illustrates, “making a living as a freelance science writer” has as many definitions as there are freelancers. A handful of writers will hit the jackpot, perhaps in the lottery system we call book publishing, but most of us will bump along from article to article, making very modest profits while suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous business model. With a lot of effort – and too much Scotch – you might be able to beat the average in this game. I don’t recommend trying.

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