Dr. Nancy McGuire is a freelance writer and editor. She talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews.org about why she chose to work as a freelancer, what she enjoys most about her job and what challenges there are, and her advice for upcoming freelancers.
I got my bachelor's degree in chemistry, Texas Tech University, USA, and then took a job as a lab technician. After a couple of years, I realized that I wanted more variety and creativity in my work, so I returned to graduate school and got my Ph.D. in chemistry from Arizona State University. I had two postdoctoral positions, one at Los Alamos National Laboratory studying molecules on solid surfaces and one at Texas A&M University managing an X-ray diffraction laboratory. This helped me get a position at Union Carbide's research laboratory in Tarrytown, New York, managing their X-ray diffraction services. When this laboratory closed, I took a position with Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, doing materials characterization work.
After Dow laid off a large number of research scientists including me, I went to work writing and editing reports for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Response, Engineering, and Analytical Contract in Edison, New Jersey. Two years later, I moved to the Washington, DC, area when I was offered a position as an associate editor for one of the American Chemical Society's magazines. During my six years at ACS, I edited three of their magazines and helped coordinate content for their organization's website.
I have lived in the metro DC area ever since, but I left ACS to work in public affairs for the Office of Naval Research. Later, I managed communications and reporting efforts for the Army High Performance Computing Research Center. I left that job in 2012 to take a year off, and then began work as a freelancer in 2013.
I spend about half my time as a freelance editor for Eos magazine of the American Geophysical Union. Their articles are written by scientists, so I work with the authors to revise the raw manuscripts into more readable, magazine-style language and assist in finding photographs and other images to use with the articles. I also do background research on candidates for the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and I am a contributing editor for Tribology and Lubrication Technology magazine of the Society for Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers.
I freelance for my former employer, the American Chemical Society, where I write reviews of the current chemical literature (Cutting Edge Chemistry). I have also written career articles for the ACS magazines InChemistry (undergraduate students) and Graduate & Postdoctoral Chemist, as well as helping out with their newly launched College to Career website. And I write for ChemistryViews.org!
I do a good bit of my writing and editing about chemistry-related topics, although I also cover geosciences, engineering, materials science, nanotechnology, electronics, photonics, tribology, metalworking, and science careers.
It's absolutely essential to be able to organize my thoughts and express myself clearly to a given audience. I have to be able to anticipate what my intended audience will be interested in, and what level of technical detail they expect. I have to find a way to express very complicated ideas in terms that nonspecialists can understand.
Sometimes it's actually easier to write an article where I'm not the expert, because I can't assume that I already know everything about a topic. I have to rely on my research and interviews, and that puts me closer to the position of the person who will be reading the article. It helps to be a bit of a detective, since I often have to go digging around for hard-to-find information.
Time management is a big aspect of this job. No one is standing over me, making sure that I keep myself on schedule, and every day is a little bit different. I have to make an accurate assessment of how much effort it's going to take to do a good job on an assignment and then hold myself to that. If something's really interesting, I can spend hours digging into the topic, but that takes time away from my other assignments. Also, if my deadline is a month or two away, it's tempting to procrastinate, but I might need that extra time to track down a difficult interview or wait for responses from my collaborators.
I also have to decide which projects to accept or decline. Will a project pay me enough or give me enough good exposure to justify the effort needed to do a good job on it? Does a potential client have a clear idea of what they want me to do for them and realistic expectations of the effort required? Do I have the expertise to do a competent job in the time required? Will this assignment reflect well on me and present me as a credible writer?
I also have to have some basic knowledge of copyright laws, especially when I am trying to find photographs and other images to use with my articles. A basic knowledge of contract law and standard practice has helped me negotiate with clients, and it has kept me out of some potentially bad situations.
I love being able to find out about all different kinds of scientific research and development work and see how this is being applied in real-world situations. I like talking to people about their work and hearing the stories they tell. Finding out about the people behind the science is really fascinating. My favorite types of articles to write are those that take several ideas and integrate them into a larger context.
As a freelancer, I also like the ability to set my own schedule and choose my own projects. Working from home can be a bit solitary, but I like the "six-meter commute", and I don't have to be involved in as many meetings as I was when I had an office job. Wearing jeans and t-shirts to work is also a big benefit.
With freedom comes responsibility, so no one is looking out for me with regards to finding health insurance plans, finding new clients, providing legal advice on my taxes and contracts, or taking care of small problems with my computer and internet connections. I have to do all that myself. I don't get paid vacations or sick leave, and if the work dries up temporarily, I have to maintain enough savings to cover my expenses during those times.
A lot of people assume that freelancing is just a temporary thing that someone does while they are looking for a "real" job. As more and more people take this career path, this attitude is showing some small signs of changing.
I never had any intention of making a career in academia. I had originally intended to make a career in industrial research, because I liked the idea of making useful things. I moved from the lab into writing and editing in the late 1990s because so many companies were reducing or eliminating their research programs that it was difficult to find and keep a steady job.
During 20 years as writer/editor, I have never been unemployed, except when I chose to take a year off before beginning my freelance work.
I sometimes miss doing the research that produces the scientific discoveries — I just write about the discoveries now. However, I get to cover a much broader range of topics now that I don't have to specialize, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to dig up new information and bring scientific discoveries to a broader audience.
Some scientists have the attitude that anybody can write, so they don't need anyone to interpret their work to a general audience. Others don't care whether anyone knows about their work or not, and they don't want to take time away from their research to talk about what they are doing. Some companies and government agencies are very reluctant to release any information about what their scientists are working on. Some of my clients or potential clients have been very vague about what they want, or they expect me to provide unlimited amounts of time for very little money – I don't stay with those clients very long.
Find someone who will give you a candid assessment of your writing and/or editing skills. Everybody can write, but not everybody can write well. Take writing classes or workshops to hone your skills and learn how professional writing is done. Join a professional society, the National Association of Science Writers here in the U.S., for example, and join one or more of their online discussion groups. Write a few articles as a volunteer for an organization you belong to so that you have some writing samples to show potential employers or clients.
I don't recommend starting your career as a freelancer — you can learn so much more by working in a group of writers in a staff position and interacting with your colleagues and mentors. That gives you an inside view of what organizations expect and how they operate, and it helps you build a professional network, which is essential to finding clients as a freelancer.
Over-specializing is actually a disadvantage in this field, unless you're doing some very specific work for one employer. I don't even limit myself to chemistry. I started out as an inorganic crystallographer, which is very specialized, but after I became a writer and editor, I branched out into other areas of chemistry and related physical sciences, regulations and government policies, business issues, and high-performance computational science. I don't cover everything — I leave the biology, medicine, psychology, and nutritional sciences for other writers.
I find it much easier to get interesting work by covering topics that don't have as many people competing over the same material. It's important to find a range of topics and services where you can stand out from the crowd, through your level of experience, by covering topics that few other writers are looking at, or by providing clearer explanations or a different level of understanding.
Nancy McGuire studied chemistry and geoscience at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA, and earned her Ph.D. from Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA. After postdoctoral work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, and Texas A&M University (TAMU), both USA, she worked as an industrial researcher at Union Carbide, Tarrytown, NY, and Dow Chemical Co., Midland, MI, both USA, doing materials characterization. Nancy McGuire then worked in science communications as a government contractor for the US Army, Navy, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and she wrote and edited print and web articles for the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Since 2013, Nancy McGuire has been a freelance writer and editor living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Her website is www.wordchemist.com.
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All interviews of the ChemistryViews.org series "Chemists Talk About Their Jobs"
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