You're a freelance science writer, and it's that time of year again. You get a letter in the mail.
"Thank you for your interest in the world's **only major conference for science writing professionals!** This year the conference is in Petersville, Alaska. How are you planning to get there?"
[[Pay for it yourself.]]
[[Apply for a travel fellowship.]]
[[Meh, just stay home. It's not worth the hassle.]]
You decide to apply for a travel fellowship. But how will you convince them to give you funding?
[[Write fantastically about how you're a fantastic writer.]] That should do it!
[[Send in an example of your best article.]]
[[Ask for a letter of recommendation.]]
You decide to take the risk and finance the trip yourself. Better prioritize selling a pitch to an editor!
Alright, time to go. Did you forget to pack anything important?
[[Bring a map of Alaska. You wouldn't want to get lost.]]
[[Bring a voice recorder in case you want to conduct an interview.]]
[[Nah, you got everything.]]
Okay, which article do you want to send?
[[That timely, investigative piece about fraud in the tobacco industry.]]
[[Your personal opinion essay about why frogs are way cuter than pandas.]]
Who are you going to ask?
[[Your parents.]] Nobody knows you better than them!
Good job thinking ahead. You remember that the conference schedule included a self-guided tour of the Alaskan wilderness.
[[Let's get going!->Awesome!]]
Good job thinking ahead. You throw a handful of AA batteries into your bag for good measure.
[[Let's get going!->Awesome!]]
[[Awesome!]] You have great faith in yourself.
Your writing is so full of excessive adjectives describing how fantastic you are that the judge gives up after the second sentence. Guess you're not cut out to be a science writer, sorry!
No one knows you better than your editor, who has to push through all of your worst writing habits every time you submit an article. Still, your editor knows that if you attend the conference, you might finally get some other schmuck to spend hours shaping your drivel into a comprehensible narrative. They submit a glowing review, and the judges are so impressed that they reward you with a travel fellowship. Congratulations, you're going to the conference!
Your coworker and best friend submits a letter eloquently describing your qualities as a writer and a human being. The judges are delighted by the high quality of writing in the letter and offer the fellowship to your coworker instead of you.
[[Guess you're not going to the conference.->Meh, just stay home. It's not worth the hassle.]]
Your mother submits a heartfelt letter describing how you learned remorse after throwing sand in the eyes of your preschool teacher. The judges have a heated discussion, but ultimately deny your application for funding. You may have apologized for your crimes, but none of them want sand in their eyes.
[[Looks like you're not going to the conference, sorry.->Meh, just stay home. It's not worth the hassle.]]
Without the priceless face-to-face networking opportunities of the conference, you soon find that editors are no longer buying your pitches.
Within a year, you run out of money and find yourself out on the street. Despite pitching the best first-person article investigating the underreported problem of homelessness in the science writing community, you still can't find any takers.
You resort to sitting on a street corner holding a cardboard sign that says, "Will Write for Food." A kind stranger in a hat stops and offers you an apple.
[[Gross, is that an organic apple?]] As a responsible science writer, you only consume foods made with the latest GMO technology.
[[Confused, you ask how you are supposed to write about apples when Michael Pollan has already cornered that market.]]
[[Accept the apple graciously.]]
The stranger admits that yes, it is an organic apple.
[[Fighting to remain calm, explain that "organic" is just a marketing label and that GMOs are better for the environment because they don't require as many pesticides.]]
[[Swallow your pride and merely throw the apple in the trash to demonstrate what you think of "organic" food.]]
The stranger removes his hat, revealing his true identity: Michael Pollan!
Shocked that a national treasure would take the time to offer you free food, you scramble to think of something to say.
[[Ask for a faculty position at UC Berkeley.]]
[[Tell Michael about the book you're working on that will be a slam dunk if he will only show it to his agent.]]
You accept the apple and the stranger tips their hat and walks away. You take a bite, feel the tangy flavor of pesticides engulf your tongue, and contemplate whether it was worth it to become a science writer in the first place.
[[Totally! You'll bounce back, you just know it.]]
[[You probably should have gone to that conference after all...]]
That's the spirit! But you don't.
Yup. Maybe in your next life.
Michael shakes his head sadly, drops the apple at your feet, and continues on his way. Maybe that wasn't the best time to ask for a job.
Michael shakes his head sadly, drops the apple at your feet, and continues on his way. Maybe that wasn't the best time to pitch your nonexistent book idea.
The mysterious stranger removes their hat, revealing their true identity: Michael Pollan!
He explains that you passed his cryptic test and invites you to join him on the faculty of UC Berkeley where you will be a tenured professor in just 15 short years. Congratulations, you made it! You win at being a science writer!
Disgusted by your behavior, the stranger walks away. Your stomach rumbles, but you know better than to betray your principles for food.
You don't survive the night. Game over.
While you may have been scooped by a few decades, the judges see real promise in your work and offer you a travel fellowship. Looks like you're going to Petersville!
As luck would have it, the judge reading your submission *totally* agrees that pandas don't deserve all the conservation money when amphibians are in far greater danger of extinction from climate change. Yeah, that's definitely what your essay was getting at. Congratulations, looks like you're going to Petersville!
You get off the plane in Petersville, Alaska, and a blast of frigid air smacks you in the face. You wonder why anyone would choose such a desolate location for a science writing conference.
No matter! There is networking to be done. On the first night you attend an Alaska-themed reception, complete with frozen margaritas and seal-blubber burgers. After getting your food, you sit down at a table where a number of science writers are already engaged in animated conversation.
[[Politely break in by asking where others flew in from.]]
[["Accidentally" drop your stack of business cards in the middle of the table.]]
You turn to the person seated next to you and tap them on the shoulder. Visibly annoyed, they stop conversing, turn around, and give you a quizzical look.
"Hello, where are you flying in from?" you ask.
They look you up and down, sizing you up. Evidently deciding that you offer no occupational value to them, they turn back around and continue with their previous conversation. How rude!
[[Yell at them for ignoring you.]]
[[Try talking to someone else.]]
You toss out a handful of business cards and watch them scatter across the table. The other writers abruptly stop their conversations and glare at you.
"Oops," you say, with a sheepish grin.
Everyone sighs, dutifully pulls out their wallets, and hands you their own business cards while taking one of yours. A few people briefly glance at your card before pretending to put it in their pocket.
[[That went better than expected.]]
With plenty of new business cards in hand, you walk to the hotel where you booked the cheapest room you could find. You make a mental note to Google everyone who gave you a card and figure out who can help your career the most. All in all, not a bad first night.
[[Time for bed!]]
You scream in their face that even though you are not an editor and have no useful contacts to offer them, they should still politely pretend like you do. A menacing bouncer looms behind you, picks you up, and tosses you out the door after taking away your badge. The conference is over for you.
You turn to the person on the other side of you and ask what they do.
"I'm a freelancer," they say.
You immediately stand up, turn around, and walk to the hotel where you booked the cheapest room you could find. Maybe during the sessions tomorrow you'll find someone who can actually help further your career.
[[Time for bed!]]
You wake up earlier than your body expected, having forgotten that you are in a different time zone. Your skin feels strangely itchy; bedbugs? You quickly compose a pitch about the latest bedbug research with a first-person lead about the time you got bedbugs in a cheap Alaskan hotel. You file it away, making a note to revisit it in a few weeks when you'll know for sure if you actually did get bedbugs.
After breakfast, you have the option to attend one of two concurrent sessions.
[[Go to the session with a provocative title about how penguins might be the answer to renewable energy.]]
[[Go to the session where you might get face time with the speaker, who is the senior editor of an influential magazine.]]
It turns out that the session really has nothing to do with penguins or renewable energy, but you know that no one will read your live-tweet unless you mention those things. You settle for tweeting out a series of cute penguin pictures you find on Google images. By the end of the session you have one new follower, @penguin_fanatic42. Success!
[[On to the next day.]]
You zone out for most of the talk, but you're first in line to question the speaker at the end. What should you ask?
[[Pretend to ask a question, but really talk about yourself and transition into a pitch.]]
[[Ask what the speaker thinks about nanoids.]] (You think you heard that word mentioned at some point during the talk, but who can know for sure?)
Today you get to go on a field trip. Where will you go?
[[View a demonstration of autonomous sled-dog racing that experts say will replace human drivers on the Iditarod in just a few years. You might even get to ride one!]]
[[A snowshoe tour of Petersville's cultural icons.]]
You babble about the state of science writing until you cleverly transition into your pitch. But your mind is suddenly blank. Searching for something, anything, to go on, you pitch your bedbugs story. The speaker appears intrigued and asks you to email a more complete pitch later which they may or may not pick up.
As you sit back down, you realize that your itchiness earlier that morning may have been caused by the wool blanket, not bedbugs. But now you're committed to the first-person lead, so you resolve to give yourself bedbugs for the sake of the story. You lament the suffering you must endure to be a science writer.
[[On to the next day.]]
"A wonderful question," the speaker responds. Relieved that you remembered something correctly despite your lack of sleep, you nod as they dive into an analysis of the state of nanotechnology. You didn't get to pitch to the speaker, but at least you didn't embarrass yourself in front of your peers.
Phew! [[On to the next day.]]
You get on a bus that will take you to the sled-dog race track. You spot two available aisle seats, one next to a young, timid science writer who is clearly out of their element, and another next to a grizzled veteran reporter you've worked with for years but never spoken to in person.
[[Sit down next to the young, timid science writer.]]
[[Sit down next to the grizzled veteran.]]
After snapping on your snowshoes and heading onto the trail with the group, you fall into conversation with the person walking next to you.
"This is nothing compared to the time I rappelled down a glacier in Nepal to get an interview with the world's best ice climber," they say.
[[Pretend to be impressed.]]
[[Ignore the poorly veiled brag and try to escape them.]]
The reporter smiles and continues to regale you with stories of death-defying acts.
"One time I was in Paraguay meeting with a botanist deep in the rainforest, and I was almost killed by a deadly coral snake. See the markings?"
The reporter rolls up their sleeve and shows you two large black dots on their forearm.
"That's where the snake bit you?" you ask.
"No," the reporter says, "that's a tattoo of where it *could* have bit me." Above the black dots you see an elaborately detailed snake tattoo curling up the rest of the arm.
You roll your eyes and turn around to [[head back to your hotel room.]]
You quicken your pace and try to get far enough ahead of the bragging reporter that you don't have to pretend to listen to them, but of course they interpret your movement as a challenge.
"Race you to the end of the trail!" they yell as they plow through the snow until you can no longer see them. Problem solved.
After listening to the tour guide talk about how old the trees are for half an hour, you realize that there is nothing out here at all and [[head back to your hotel room.]]
Back in your room, you realize that the conference is almost over and no one has officially bought a pitch from you yet.
[[Post to all of your social media accounts that you have amazing ideas and all editors should contact you immediately.]]
[[Go to sleep.]] It's been a long day and you can always try again tomorrow after the awards ceremony.
You send out a veritable Bat-Signal over social media. You get a few upvotes and likes, but no response from editors. Frustrated by the failure of technology, you [[go to sleep.->Go to sleep.]]
The next evening, you attend the final event of the conference: the awards banquet.
This year, some truly impressive reporters and authors who are not you have won prestigious awards.
You enter the banquet hall. On one side of the room you can get appetizers, and on the other side, alcohol.
[[Go for the appetizers.]]
[[Go for the alcohol.]]
[[Turn around and go home.]] It's too painful to watch other people win stuff.
You take a seat next to the frightened young science writer. They immediately tell you their entire life story without stopping to take a breath, then ask you what they should do to be successful in the industry.
[[Just keep writing, you'll make it eventually.]]
[[You should buy my book.]]
You take a seat next to the veteran reporter and introduce yourself.
"Great to finally put a face to the name," they say. You nod in agreement.
You both sit in silence for a while. Finally the bus reaches its destination.
"Well, talk to you through email I guess," you say as you wave goodbye.
[[That was awkward.]]
You step off the bus, hoping to avoid further conversations with the person you sat next to.
In front of you is a vast tundra and two teams of real, living dogs hooked up to sleds. The sled technician explains that with new technology, the dogs can be controlled through an iPad that "barks" orders. You wonder why you expected anything else.
The technician asks if anyone wants to hop on a sled for a lap around the track.
[[Volunteer to get on a sled.]] It would make a great lead for an article.
[[No way. You don't trust the autonomous technology yet.]]
The kid nods, then pulls out a spiral-bound notebook and writes down what you just said. You roll your eyes.
[[Meanwhile, the bus reaches its destination.->That was awkward.]]
You suggest that the kid buys your book, and while they're at it, they might as well buy a few copies for their friends and family too. You look over their shoulder to make sure they place the order correctly on Amazon. Cha-ching.
[[Meanwhile, the bus arrives at its destination.->That was awkward.]]
You hop on a sled. The technician fusses with the dog harnesses, and then swipes an iPad. A computerized barking sound emanates from the speakers of the iPad and the sled dogs start running.
Your sled moves briskly around the track, but you notice that the dogs are veering dangerously close to a very large snowbank. What should you do?
[[Grab the reins and try to pull the automated sled dogs away from the snowbank.]]
[[Trust that the technology will correct itself before crashing.]]
You choose not to volunteer and watch as a few other science writers eagerly get on board.
The technician fusses with the dog harnesses, and then swipes an iPad. A computerized barking sound emanates from the speakers of the iPad and the sled dogs start running.
"And as you can see, we only need to give it the brake command when it comes back into earshot," the technician says. The group nods in approval.
You watch as one of the sleds collides into a soft snowbank. Thankfully the passengers and dogs are unharmed, but you regret not being there to get a first-person lead for an article about autonomous sled dog racing. Obviously there are still some kinks to work out.
[[After the demonstration the bus takes you back to the hotel.->head back to your hotel room.]]
You grab the reins and steer the sled dogs away from the snowbank just in time. Looking around, no one seems to have noticed your heroic efforts. When the sled gets back to the beginning of the track, the technician swipes the iPad again to produce the "stop" barking command.
"See?" the technician says, "Everything worked perfectly."
You manage to stifle a chuckle before you [[head back to your hotel room.]]
You suppress your instinct to intervene, and watch helplessly as the sled dogs run right into the snowbank. Other than getting a little wet, not one is seriously injured. Once the technician digs you out, they apologize for what appears to be a bug in the code.
No matter to you, now you have fodder for a thrilling first person lead for an article.
[[Head back to your hotel room to dry off.->head back to your hotel room.]]
You scarf down some seal-blubber sliders. From across the room, you spot the editor of your favorite publication that you have never written for. What do you do?
[[Walk over there and introduce yourself.]]
[[Alcohol first, networking later.]]
You grab a glass of wine and force yourself to smile as writers who are more talented than you win recognition for their work.
Across the room, you spot the editor for your favorite publication that you have never written for. What do you do?
[[Walk over there and introduce yourself.]]
[[You need more wine first.]]
You hop on a plane and go home a little early. Who needs networking anyway? Good luck being a science writer without it.
You confidently strut over to the editor, who is already being swarmed by other buzzards - you mean writers - trying to get their attention.
You manage to push your way through. What do you say?
[[Claim that you have a mutual friend who encouraged you to work together.]]
[[Mention your bedbugs pitch; for some reason editors seem to like that one.]]
[[Nothing. Let them speak first.]]
You're feeling a little tipsy, but your confidence still needs to be shored up a bit more. You swallow another glass of wine, then another, and another. Suddenly Alaska doesn't feel so cold anymore.
[[Now that you are finally prepared, you walk over to that editor you've heard so much about to tell them exactly why you're too good for their publication.]] That was what you originally wanted to do, right?
You drop your remaining food onto the tray of the nearest server and walk over to the bar. A few glasses of wine later and you feel much more confident. And smart. You could do anything!
[[More wine!->You need more wine first.]]
[[You're ready to talk to that editor now.->Walk over there and introduce yourself.]]
You stomp over to the editor and say some things. You're not sure what those things are, but you're pretty sure they're having an effect because the editor's face turns bright red and they start yelling at you. You don't like that very much, mostly because the yells are very loud and the lights are quite bright, so you're somewhat relieved when a security guard generously helps you not fall over. Wait. How did you end up on the icy ground outside?
The next morning you fly back home with a killer hangover. You log on to social media to find a widely circulated video that depicts someone who looks a lot like you saying some very unsavory things to your favorite editor who still has not hired you.
Well, there's always next year.
When the editor asks who this supposed mutual friend is, you choke, unable to name the fictional person.
The editor shrugs and turns back to their previous conversation, where you overhear another writer sell a pitch. That writer was able to put food on the table, at least for another day. The vicious cycle of science writing continues, and this time you were the one left out to dry.
You pitch your bedbugs article again, including the still-fictional lead about how you were afflicted by them. The editor thinks for a second, then pulls out a contract for you to sign right now. Giddy with excitement, you sign your name. You sold your first pitch of the conference! At the last possible moment, too!
You move to shake the editor's hand, but they pull away; obviously they would not want to touch someone covered in bedbugs. You're just glad that you were able to put food on the table, at least for one more day.
[[You pack up and fly home.]]
You stare at the editor. The editor stares at you. No one makes a sound for 30 seconds.
The editor breaks your gaze and turns back to a conversation with a different writer. You slink away, defeated, and sell no pitches at the conference. Maybe next time you should try for substance over style.
A week later, a package arrives in the mail. You unwrap it gingerly, revealing a jar filled with what looks like thousands of tiny, bouncing grains of sand. But you know what they really are.
You bring the jar over to your bed and carefully unscrew it before emptying the bedbugs out onto your sheets. You close your eyes and lay down on the bed, wincing as you feel tiny pinpricks spread across your body. In just another week you'll have a shiny new article posted online, and then it's off to the next conference.
Congratulations, you win at freelance science writing!