I developed the template below as a tool to use when I set freelance journalism business goals for each year. This template can be used at any time of the year. A friend suggested that I share it with a broader audience.

The purpose of this template is to provide you with clarity on:

  1. Your highest-priority skills and beats
  2. Your financial goals for the coming year
  3. Your plan that uses your highest-priority skills and beats to achieve your financial goals

If you are doing non-journalistic writing, you can substitute “topics of expertise” for “beats.”

Balancing actSection 1: Your Beats and Skills

  1. Diagram all of the professional skills you might want to use and all of the beats that interest you.
  2. Rank them all from 1 to 4:
    1 = Enthusiastically interested
    2 = Moderately interested
    3 = Not very interested (but willing to try)
    4 = Not interested at all
  3. Separate and list these items by number. For each number, have a separate category for skills and another one for beats.
  4. Put asterisks next to the skills and beats that are in categories 1 through 3 and also are in high demand in the market.
  5. Underline the skills and beats that you want to make your top priorities. (These may not always match the items you marked in the previous step.)

Section 2: Your Schedule and Income

  1. Plan a grid for your schedule for the coming year using blocks (for example, Sept.-Dec.). Each block should correspond to a time period when you have a specific project configuration, a vacation, or a conference.
  2. Estimate how many hours per week you will spend doing each project. Create a separate estimate for each time block.
  3. Estimate your target income per month for each time block based on the sum of your monthly expenses, taxes, and desired savings.
  4. Calculate your monthly income for each time block and see if it meets your target. Where do you need to add projects to your calendar?
  5. Calculate how many hours you need to work per week during each time block to earn your target income. Use an estimated hourly rate. (Note: This template does not account for the fact that some invoices may be paid late. You may want to adjust your estimates if you expect a delay.)

Section 3: Your Project Plan

Looking at the following items, set your goals for each time block.

  1. Your number of hours that you need to work per week
  2. Your preferred skills and beats
  3. Your skills and beats that are popular in the market
  4. Your existing opportunities

If you are unsure about what the outcome of your work will be, you may want to make one time block chart that is a best-case scenario and another one that is a worst-case scenario.

I’m very interested in receiving feedback on this template via Twitter.

Reading The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age gave me a glimpse into the world of full-time magazine writing – a world which I may never enter but still view with enthusiasm and curiosity. 

Science journalists spend their lives digging through the mud of news content, research articles, conversations and experiences for gems – ideas that, when polished into queries, will capture the attention of editors. Some journalists even spend their vacations building the background structures of local stories.

Gems
Science journalists look for ideas and polish them. Photo Credit: bored-now via Compfight cc

A science article may start with a very rough idea that needs extensive polishing. Sometimes, just a sparkle or flash indicates the value of the query within. A query e-mail cannot be simply a discussion of a topic – it needs a newsworthy angle and some exploration of the potential arc of the story.

As journalists explore their subject matter, they use audio and visual tools to record their surroundings. These tools may include tape recorders, cameras and note-taking equipment. Part of their work during interviews is to capture the context of the stories – personal details, local color, and other highlights that give stories personality and depth.

When science journalists are ready to build their story lines, they use a range of newswriting structures. One of the structures is called a “layer cake” because it alternates between scenes and their context. Putting together a story is an intuitive and experimental process similar to assembling an artistic or architectural model.

Architectural model
Putting together a story is like constructing a 3-D model or artwork. Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

On reading the handbook, I resolved to include more concrete details in the stories I produce. My experiments with visual descriptions have turned out well in the past. Both with print stories and multimedia, I see the process of journalism as being like creating a three-dimensional piece of art – adding some elements, removing others, and seeing how the structure hangs together.

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip
A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?


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In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.

Nuthatch
A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower
Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Where can you see a poet reading her work underneath a gray sedan? Tonight, Wayne’s World of Automotive Services in Beverly, Massachusetts hosted a reading where poets stood at a podium underneath an auto lift, surrounded by tools and fluorescent lights.

Colleen Michaels
When she isn’t standing underneath cars, Colleen Michaels teaches writing at the Montserrat College of Art.

The event was part of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour, a rotating performance night which has also visited a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink, and other locations. In each setting, the poets set up shop for one night, surrounded by a cheerful audience and a cameraman from Beverly Community Access Media.

Poetry reading at Wayne's World of Automotive Services
A red light from a passing emergency van illuminated the poetry reading.

What’s poetic about cars? One might ask. In the red light of passing tow trucks and emergency vehicles, the audience heard how cars become part of one’s family and one’s life story. One poet even said her dress matched her father’s car. It was clear that cars are objects of affection to which we ascribe personalities. We also associate cars with being teenagers. Each generation remembers different cars and knows what it feels like to drive them.

The language of cars – “revved up,” “full throttle,” “shifting gears” – permeates American vocabulary the same way sports metaphors echo down the halls of Midwestern businesses. Like sports, cars are one of our central metaphors. When we play the game of life, cars are always by our side.

Wayne's World of Automotive Services
The poetry reading took place next to mechanics’ uniforms, toolboxes and an American flag.

Every day, we are surrounded by cars. Some of us evaluate strangers based on their car choices. When we meet a new person on the highway, we see the car he or she is driving, not the person at the wheel. Many of us depend on cars continually, driving for even short errands.

So it’s not surprising that we feel symbiotic with our cars. Hearing poets describe their relationships to cars tonight cemented that awareness for me.

An audio clip I recorded while listening to a poet named J.D. expresses this sentiment in one concise line:

“We were baptized in grease.”

I am ghostwriting part of an environmental physics book. That is why my blog posts have been sporadic recently.

Writing about physics has taught me more about simplicity in science writing. Although I was almost a physics major during college, this is my first time writing copy about environmental physics.

I’ve heard that the best teachers give the simplest explanations. Developing simple and clear explanations of challenging topics has taught me how to streamline science writing in a way I was not able to do easily before. I’m using a concise, crisp style to convey the key points.

In a way, this writing style mirrors how physics works. Physicists seek the most simple explanation for phenomena. From gravity to quantum physics and relativity, simplicity drives physics.

Newton's Cradle
Newton’s Cradle demonstrates the relationship between force, mass and acceleration. (Source: stock.xchng)

Because I am writing for a physicist, I am developing a writing style that reflects how some physicists probably think. It is a fascinating experience to capture the “voice” of a professional thinking style and put it on paper.

If I hadn’t taken physics courses during college, I would probably find this project more difficult than I do. As it is, it has been an exercise in messaging and education: understanding the audiences, capturing the right voice, and shaping explanations clearly and simply.

Now that I have done this, I see that simplicity is useful in other areas of science writing as well. I plan to apply it to my future projects and to other areas of my life.

So far, I am also streamlining my social media use, giving away some of my possessions, and moving to a monastery… well, not really. I’m moving to a house in the woods near Boston. I’m also taking a vacation from some of my other commitments.

For writers, productivity requires space and time. I am creating space by simplifying my schedule. I’ll continue to blog intermittently during this project and will resume my regular posting schedule later.

When I was a college student, I felt free to explore different interests and groups without worrying about how that would affect my personal brand. Now, recent graduates sit through workshops like “Careers, Beers and the Brand Called You.” Although I promoted this workshop via NetSquared Boston, I didn’t attend it – for a reason.

Although I understand the value of personal branding from a business standpoint, I believe business values have infiltrated the personal and creative spheres of people who are seeking to market themselves. In some ways, this is a good thing; in other ways, it can be destructive.

Vintage mirror and jewelryYou are not your image. (Source: stock.xchng)

You Are Not Your Career

Recent evidence from the recession shows that economic downturns can lead to suicides. The people most likely to commit suicide in Europe seem to be those with strong career aspirations – the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial people who are most likely to engage in personal branding.

Think about it. If you are your brand and you suffer economic hardship, what does that say about your worth as a human being? What does that say about your marketability? It’s not a surprise that people who overidentify with their careers become hopeless in these situations.

I’m a fan of the Seven Habits series and believe that having a strong source of internal purpose and mission is important to career survival and happiness. This means that one’s purpose is not the same as one’s brand.

One’s purpose is like a compass; one’s brand is like a vehicle that gets one to the next destination. Building a brand is useful, but it is no substitute for having a source of self-worth that is independent from how one makes a living.

You Have the Right to Experiment

I had a long e-mail conversation with Bill Lascher last year about how branding one’s writing can limit one’s creative freedom. For example, if a woman who’s been writing chick lit for 10 years decides to produce a novel about the Vietnam War, her web presence will need a makeover.

It took me a long time to develop the brand for this blog. The urban environmental version of this blog did a great job of encapsulating my journalism interests. But it didn’t convey most of what I do for a living. There are two halves to my work – the freelance journalism and the work I do for established environmental, science and/or technology organizations. I updated my website to include both of these sides of my writing.

My interests are multifaceted and do not distill down into a sound bite easily. Luckily, environmental issues and technology are such broad topics that I have no shortage of ideas to explore. I have a genre, but it’s not a very limiting genre.

Still, even with this relatively flexible definition, I still am not my brand. In my free time, I do a lot of dancing. The type of dance I do combines martial arts, yoga, jazz dance and modern dance. There are many other things I do that don’t fit into my brand neatly either.

You Don’t Owe the Internet an Explanation

If you’re trying to maintain a consistent brand, you may police your online presence. This is an overrated activity. It is not fun; also, it can limit your participation in activities you enjoy because you are too busy watching your paper trail.

Idealistically speaking, as long as whatever you are doing is legal and reasonably ethical, it shouldn’t matter if it comes up on the first page of a search. However, there may be some types of material – for example, your memoir about your years as a bartender – that fall into a gray area. Employers exclude applicants based on evidence of alcohol consumption and may not appreciate the candid nature and literary quality of your writing. Appearance discrimination is also alive and well online, so simple hairstyle changes can become stressful choices.

The advice “to thine own self be true” is difficult to follow if you are a writer engaging in personal branding. If you’re a real estate agent who has never written a controversial blog post in her life, then personal branding is easy – get a headshot and you’re done. I suspect most writers find this process difficult.

Ironically, although writers are encouraged to focus on marketing and branding, authenticity is what fuels good writing. Being able to sit with a pen or computer and face exactly what one wants to say is part of the creative process. Personal branding can short-circuit that experience, substituting image maintenance for real self-expression.

You Aren’t in Charge of Your Image

Personal branding requires writers and other creative content producers to take a hard look in the mirror. Now, more than ever, we are subjected to the whims of search engines and online conversations. Most of this is completely outside our control.

Personal brand advocates seem to downplay the following point: as marketers of our own work, we are not in charge of how other people respond to us. We are only responsible for what we say. We are not responsible for whether or not people like us. If people photograph us in an unflattering way, that is outside our control.

In the world of branding and social media, it’s important to recognize that we do not control our images. We can create them and shape them. We can alter them. But they are a collaborative creation – and some of that creation is done by our audience. Studies show that people will misread much of what we post online.

We can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people see us; we are only responsible for what we say and do. In a world where people may not judge us by our actions, we can continue to hold that standard for ourselves and others. We can keep our self-images separate from our personal brands. And we can recognize image evaluation is a weak substitute for assessment of character.

I just returned from the Mass Poetry Festival with many ideas about how poetic skills can enrich science writing.

Poetry isn’t very popular in the United States, although the slam movement has opened it to a broader audience. As a former spoken word performer, I use poetic techniques regularly in my other writing.

New Scientist magazine did a series of interviews with poets who were interested in the relationship between poetry and science. Here is one of them – with Lavinia Greenlaw. Greenlaw describes how poets use metaphors to explain the unknown.

Below are a few other poetic skills which can add clarity and interest to science writing.

Write Concisely

Trimming unnecessary words out of lines of poetry requires the same attention to detail as shortening technical explanations does. In both cases, your goal should be to distill and refine your content for maximum effect. While a poem may be intentionally vague, science writing should be clear and easy to follow.

If you’re writing about science, don’t make the mistake of falling in love with the sound of your own keyboard – keep your content straightforward and to the point.

Pick Words that Work

In science writing, it’s best not to leave concepts fuzzy. Choose words that will make your points clear. Similarly, when writing poetry, clean the fuzz out of your language. This may mean removing repetitive words, choosing original language, or picking words that will hone the effect you want to create.

Sharpening a poem is like sharpening a pencil. In science writing, you should pay attention to the emotional tone and messages your words evoke. Word choice can change the impact of an article by evoking fear, trust, inspiration, respect, neutrality or other emotions. In science writing, as in poetry, your choice of emotions may change your readers’ minds.

Frame Your Story

Poets use structure, rhyme and imagery to frame their work. Opening a poem by describing grinding machinery can create a specific atmosphere for that poem. Similarly, journalists and science communicators can frame stories by opening them with human interest anecdotes. A technical writer may frame a manual by organizing the content logically and beginning with an explanation that sets the scene.

Are there any other similarities you see between poetry and science writing? If so, what are they?

How do these styles of writing differ?

In journalism, there’s a relatively new movement called Hacks/Hackers. I call it a movement because it appears to be more than a trend or isolated group. Journalists who are part of Hacks/Hackers seek to mix tech smarts with journalism savvy.

Is Journalism Marrying Technology?

Because I got an engineering degree before studying mass communication, it’s fascinating for me to watch this movement expand. Infographics, multimedia, Web 2.0 and other techniques of the information revolution combine with journalism’s traditional tools of the trade to create hybrid communication styles. For storytellers with graphic design and video experience, the possibilities are endless.

My first encounter with the idea of technologically advanced storytelling came via mashups. Since then, I’ve seen alternatives proliferate online. For example, Beth Kanter’s blog uses infographics and video on nonprofit communication to amplify her message. I am interested in moving this blog in that direction by adding more multimedia content.

Does Social Media Use Move Writers Closer to Gonzo Journalism?

A recent blog post reflecting on a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Boston brings up the question of how personal storytelling affects objectivity in new media journalism. Telling personal stories is a standby for me on this blog; in the world of Web 2.0, having a personality is an advantage. But this makes it difficult for writers to maintain the professional distance from their stories that many journalism organizations have expected.

While I follow rules about balance – which depend on the project I’m doing and its audience – my blog does have a personality. This doesn’t mean every aspect of my life belongs in my Twitter feed. But it does mean that social media has changed the way I write and has moved my blogging style away from traditional newswriting toward a fusion of the personal and the professional.

As a graduate student, I drew on my personal experience of living in urban communities to develop my research and thesis. That certainly colors my perspective on writing about environmental justice. In the interest of balance, I should say I’ve also worked in electronics factories and research labs which contributed to chemical pollution. I became interested in life cycle analysis while I was working in one of these factories.

There is a tradition called gonzo journalism in which writers go out and state their experiences without claiming objectivity. To the extent that social media makes journalists show their personal experiences, blogging may be bringing us closer to that style of writing. The popularity of reality TV shows that being oneself can appeal to audiences. I’m not suggesting that journalists’ lives should be open books, or that social media should make us all write like Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s interesting to watch how writers merge the personal and professional in their social media work.


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I started writing queries to editors via social media because I realized how much journalists love their blogs and Twitter accounts. So when I wrote a marketing plan that included meeting editors online, I looked on Twitter.

According to the Pew Foundation, only eight percent of the United States population uses Twitter. Twitter users are well-educated innovators; they cluster occupationally and demographically. They’re professionally experienced, often work in computer and media fields, and are increasingly likely to be Latino.

Combining these pieces of information shows that senior-level media professionals are likely to make up a larger-than-average fraction of the pie chart. Since I was looking for editors, Twitter was a logical place to find them. (Another useful site for meeting subject-matter experts is Quora.)

A website called Muckrack makes it easy to find well-known journalists’ Twitter accounts. Muckrack aggregates tweets from writers at many publications. Watching Muckrack is one quick way to get the pulse of conversations at a news organization.

When I opened my Twitter account, I was taking a break from freelancing. I used the site solely for news reading for over half a year. This gave me lists of target publications which I could contact later; I use Twitter’s list feature to sort the sources I read. Twitter’s list feature allows me to group sources by topic for easier reading. This feature is like a filing system for incoming tweets.

I enrolled in a series of social media trainings that taught me how to use Twitter more interactively than I’d done before. After these trainings, I created a list called “networking” and began adding editors and journalists to it. As I followed these new contacts, some of them followed me back. I began asking them questions, reading the news that interested them, and passing along their tweets to my readers.

Once I was ready to take my show on the road and send a few queries out, I looked at the “networking” list, picked out likely publications, thought of a few story ideas, and started contacting the editors via Twitter. Since some of the editors were following me already, I was able to message them.

My Twitter response rate for queries has been more reliable than email for some publications. After I have the editor’s address, I follow the 140-character query with an email. Once I have built a relationship on Twitter, I maintain it by staying in contact and forwarding links occasionally (including @username in a tweet that may interest the editor).