Traits of a successful freelancer. Have you got what it takes?

by Lesley Evans Ogden


Aschwanden and colleague in front of Mt. Lamborn, in Paonia, Colorado.

In May I had the good fortune of spending a week at the Santa Fe Science Writer’s Workshop. There I joined a class of 52 students whose minds were expanded by learning from top American science journalists – staff or freelancers for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker. One of the most valuable sessions was led by Christie Aschwanden, a freelancer and alumni of the Santa Fe program.

Aschwanden is somewhat unusual in that after finishing her science journalism training at the University of Santa Cruz, she dove straight into freelancing. She’s never been a staff journalist – by choice. Aschwanden’s freelance income has financed the purchase of a lovely farm in rural Colorado, where she works from home while raising chickens and finding time to run, mountain bike or ski almost every single day. The idea of giving all of that up for a staff job in a big city? Not tempting… at all.

In playful tongue-in-cheek fashion, Aschwanden described some of the upsides and downsides of freelancing. One of the big upsides is that her boss “often insists on these meetings” (on mountain tops, back-country trails, and on powder days – see photo). Working from home also has the benefit that you never have to dress up – or even brush your hair or get out of your PJs at all, which occasionally makes for some embarrassing moments if a colleague or FedEx delivery person shows up unexpectedly. But working from home, alone, has its downsides too. Loneliness is a common experience. As for paid vacation, “if you want to take it, you have to write about it,” she advises.

Aschwanden spoke about some of the traits conducive to success as a freelancer — tips helpful for all freelancers, not just those that cover science. Have you got what it takes? Find out below.

Traits of a Successful Freelancer

1. Ideas in abundance

If you’re someone who struggles to come up with story ideas, you’re going to be in trouble as a freelancer, says Aschwanden, who keeps a small notebook of story ideas that she’s constantly adding to. There are so many ideas in that book, she explains, that she could stop adding to it today and have enough ideas to write about for the rest of her life. “Ideas are the currency of a successful freelancer,” Aschwanden says.

2. Ability to Pitch and Sell

It’s not just a matter of finding an idea. It’s critical to be able to find the right market for it, and sell it. “Freelancing is a business,” and you need to know your markets, explains Aschwanden. And critically, you have to be persistent.

3. A thick skin.

“You have to be able to take rejection and bounce back from it,” says Aschwanden. She recently calculated her pitch success ratio and found it’s about 50%. (That success rate is pretty impressive, and beginner freelancers are likely to have a much lower success rate). If someone rejects your idea, and it’s a good one, you have to believe in it and keep trying, she says. A pitch Aschwanden wrote about what happens when new scientific evidence collides with established medical practice got five or six rejections before finally finding a home at Miller-McCune magazine (now Pacific Standard).  One of the most difficult things, she says, is figuring out when to keep trying versus giving up and moving on.

4. A talent for multitasking.

Aschwanden is often juggling 12-20 projects at various stages. “I would love to be able to just be working on just one thing at a time,” says Aschwanden, but from the point of view of cash flow, it just doesn’t work, she says.

5. Oodles of self-motivation

You are your own boss, which is probably both the best and the worst thing about freelancing, Aschwanden laughs. (In the words of another science writer colleague of mine, “you have to be able to kick your own ass.”)

6. Money management skills

“You have to send out invoices, you have to keep track of who owes you what, you need to be able to negotiate things, and you need to learn how to survive when you’re always waiting for the next $2000 to come,” says Aschwanden. She also recommends sitting down once a year to review your past year’s income, and then devise a business plan with a concrete income goal.

7. Adaptability

You have to be adaptable. The editor may want something slightly different than what you proposed, but you need to be flexible if you want that paycheck.

8. Comfort with uncertainty, particularly for cash “flow.”

“If you’re one of those people that’s uncomfortable with uncertainty, then freelancing is going to make you a bundle of nerves,” says Aschwanden. When she first started freelancing more than a decade ago, she assumed cash flow would eventually level out. Surprise. It never has. That financial uncertainty is one of the most challenging aspects of freelancing, she says, commenting that “it’s not actually a cash ‘flow’ but rather a ‘cash herky jerky.’ ” It’s a reality that can send temporary freelancers running for the security of a regular paycheque. Aschwanden, who rarely works for less than $2 a word (for print media) these days, says that the erratic ebb and flow of paycheques is something you need to be able to cope with. Sometimes it’s feast. Sometimes it’s famine. So having the self-control to not blow big paycheques all at once when they do arrive is critical.

If you’ve reached the end of the list and are still not put off, Aschwanden’s advice is this: “Find that passion, find that obsession, and just go for it.”


Aschwanden can be found on the web at, on the blog Last Word on Nothing, and on Twitter at @cragcrest.


Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance journalist and science writer based in Vancouver, BC, who was incredibly relieved to discover that she has cultivated all of the traits above. Like Aschwanden, she can often be found mashing out story ideas on the run or by bike. Find her on the web at, on Twitter at @ljevanso and at


Posted on June 21, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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