The savvy freelancer: Being clever about recycling extra material. Tips from Rose Eveleth.

by Lesley Evans Ogden


Rose Eveleth shares sage advice about freelancing over breakfast in Calgary. Photo by Lesley Evans Ogden

Successful freelancers need a diversity of skills. One specialized skill that has always intrigued me is the ability to repurpose similar material in multiple places. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, mainly because I’ve realized I’m not very good at it. As a feature writer who frequently conducts long interviews with interesting experts, I’m forever collecting intriguing extra tidbits that make me think “wow, cool, that’s a great story in itself.” Sadly, the vast majority of those ideas are never used, so lately I’ve been wondering how to make better use of that bonus material.

That skill of successfully “recycling” material is one of the things that intrigues me about Rose Eveleth, an incredibly prolific freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the producer of the podcast “Meanwhile in the Future,” for Gizmodo, a podcast editor for Story Collider, a columnist at BBC Future, the founder and creator of Science Studio, an editor at Smithsonian Magazine, and a contributor at a myriad of other places. Lately I’ve seen her stories on prosthetics and body implants pop up in BBC Future, Nova on PBS, Motherboard, Mosaic, Gizmodo, The Atlantic, and Modern Farmer to mention just a few. When I contacted Eveleth by email to ask about her skill of cleverly repurposing new aspects of the same topic, she said, “It’s something I think about constantly.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Eveleth this weekend at a reunion in Calgary celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Banff Science Communications Program. Eveleth has been a faculty member with that program since 2014. She majored in genetics in her undergraduate degree, then completed a Master’s in science reporting at NYU in 2012. “I’ve been freelancing ever since,” Eveleth says, “and I love it. I would not do anything else.”

While sitting down with me over breakfast, Eveleth generously shared some tips on how she ingeniously makes use of the “extras” from one story as material for the next.

(Me): You seem to be very good slicing off different angles of the same topic to place in different venues. I’m curious to know how you approach that?

(Eveleth): I have not always been good at it… As a freelancer, sometimes you can be scared of doing it because you don’t want editors to get mad at you for reusing stuff.

The thing that I always think about is that you want to pitch stories, not topics. (NoteThat’s something I’ve previously talked about for Storyboard here) I think that’s really the key. You’re writing about the same topic all the time but you’re not writing about the same story.

For me… as most journalists probably find, you interview somebody and they tell you something for that story. But they also tell you four or five other things that make you think, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” So I make note of that. I have a system for doing that because for a while I would do interviews, and I would have all this stuff, and I would never go back to it.


So what is your system? 

At the end of every interview, instead of going on to the next task, which is actually what I want to do, I stop, and I go through and I code my interview… I will put little asterisks next to anything I need to listen to again to make sure it’s right. I bold anything I definitely want to use. And then I will copy and paste anything I would like to research for another story into a big document that I use in Evernote. I just put the person’s name, and the various things they said that I want to look into. Once a week I will revisit that file and look into stuff. That’s the key, for me at least — making sure I actually write those things down… In the moment is the best time to do it, when it’s fresh.

Then, as long as I feel like it’s a different story, even though it may be the same topic, I will try to pitch it. Often at the end of the pitch I will say, “I’ve talked to this person before. Here are the things that I’ve written about involving this person.” I like to be clear to editors that this is something I’ve written about. Often that’s appealing to them because they know that I know what I’m talking about, and am aware of the issues… That way I really don’t feel like I’m trying to pull one over on them.


How frequently do you actually revisit those story “extras”?

I carve about an hour to two hours every Monday… to spend time with that document…

During that time, she explains, she might do a quick Google search based on one of those notes, or drop a quick email to a source to follow up on something. She also keeps an eye on the news to look for potential news hooks for stories that might not be ‘ripe’ quite yet, but will be timely if the right news hook pops up.


How do you organize those notes? 

I am very obsessive about keeping track of things. So I have a spreadsheet of all the sources that I’ve ever interviewed. For every story, I have their name, what we talked about, and if they’re good for the radio or not. Also I have a column for follow-up, and a date… Plus keywords, affiliation (university, etc). She also explains that she can then sort her spreadsheet by date, and make sure that if a source mentions that they have a paper coming out, that she follows up later at an appropriate time.

I do a lot of this because I’m really paranoid that Gmail is going to go down, and I’ll lose everything… I regularly go through that [spreadsheet] and make sure I’m following up with people who I think are interesting… And that can generate even more ideas.


Tell me more about that spreadsheet.

It’s just Excel. I have a script that scrapes all of my emails with a “sources” tag on Gmail… It puts it into a Google spreadsheet and I basically clean that up and put it into an Excel spreadsheet, just to reduce the amount of manual input that is required… I taught myself how to write Google script, which I highly recommend… It helps to take a lot of data from Google – whether that’s maps, or Gmail, or whatever — and put it into a format that you can use. There are a lot of tutorials online for how to do it… It’s not very complicated, and it’s extremely useful!


So how do you actually phrase it to make it clear in a pitch that the story is fresh, but that it’s an area you’ve reported on before?

I think there are two versions of that. One is that it’s a new story. The other is that it’s a new angle on the same story. If it’s a new story, I say something like, “I’ve interviewed this person before for this story. Here’s a link. This is different because…” And I’ll just say, “in that story I talked about this, [but] in this story I want to talk about that. They’re related but different.” That’s easier, because it’s pretty clear to most editors that this is a different story.

If it’s the same kind of thing but a different angle, I will often say something like, “I’ve written about this for this publication. I think that I could write about it in a very different way for your publication, for your audience.

For example I did a piece for The Atlantic about why it’s bad that so many futurists are white dudes. And all of the futures they are imagining aren’t related to the majority of the world’s problems. Then I pitched the story to Eater about that same thing, basically, but specifically about kitchens – kitchens of the future — and why [mainly male] designers are inventing things that no one needs… that don’t make any sense.

So it’s the same idea, where you have this monolithic group of people [providing a biased view], and that’s bad, but it’s a different angle for a different audience… The people reading Eater might be reading The Atlantic, but it’s a more focused version [of the story]. So I just said, “I came across this when I was reporting for this other story. It’s a more focused view of this topic and it has some really good examples of specifically how this plays out.” And it wound up being fine.


Have you ever had a problem with editors/producers being upset about your story for them being similar to someone else’s? 

No. Not really.

I’ve never had a conflict with an editor over it… So as far as I know, unless there are editors who are secretly angry at me, I’ve never had a problem…


Sometimes editors do reach saturation on certain topics, she explains.

Because I write so much about prosthetics, I’ll pitch stories to my editors and they’ll say, “ahh, we’ve done too many prosthetic stories…”

But it’s never been [a response suggesting that] “it’s too similar to something else you’ve written.” There are a million stories… There’s always a way to write about it…

If you wrote about something two years ago, for example, there’s always the possibility of an update, she explains.

In Internet years, that [two years] is like forever! It’s basically like you’ve never written about it.

Having worked as an editor of the Atlantic [where she filled in for another editor’s maternity leave], as long as writers are honest about it,…they [editors] are much more likely to say, “Okay, that’s fine.” And then you can nod to it in the piece. You can say, “As I reported on here…” So it’s not like you’re trying to fool anybody. I think that’s where you run into problems. I’ve had people pitch me things that later I found out that they’ve written elsewhere, and that’s annoying… So be straightforward about it.

Good advice!




Lesley Evans Ogden is a nerdy bird scientist turned freelance writer-producer based in the burbs of Vancouver, Canada. She enjoys writing about freelancing for Storyboard, and is a regular contributor at New Scientist, Earth Touch, Natural History, and BBC Earth (where she recently had fun writing about the penis spines of bats). When not working on her next story, Lesley can be found trail running, hiking, cycling, and spending time with her family, preferably in the outdoors. Say hello on Twitter @ljevanso.


Posted on September 24, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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