The Life, and Why I’m Sticking It Out (for Now)

December 15, 2015

Freelance Files


Angela Swafford examines Colombian birds in the Smithsonian bird collection in Washington, D.C.

It is a lovely afternoon in Miami Beach. I just walked out of my tiny condo, crossed the street and landed on the sand. Now I am sprawled like a sea star on my chaise lounge, under an umbrella that mirrors the colors of the water lapping at my feet. Not too many people around — after all, it is Tuesday.

I take my iPad from the beach bag, which is also crammed with magazines, newspaper clippings, a notebook and my lunch. I nibble on green grapes as I settle in to write this column. This is it, right here: my freelance payback for the day. The perfect moment of freelancing bliss.

Three hours later I am back home, shaking off the sand from my sandals and turning on the laptop. At hand is the most pressing problem: paying this month’s bills. The money should have been in the bank days ago. Alas, three of my clients have failed to deposit their payments. In two cases it has been two months. I know I shouldn’t count on those checks to always be on time, but how could I have imagined three of them would fail at the same time?

I curse the freelance life. “This is not sustainable,” “freelancing sucks” and “our profession has gone to hell” are concurring thoughts.

Still, I am amazed at how long I have managed to be a freelancer. It’s been 20 years! How successful? It depends on how you look at it. I have always been able to pay my mortgage and bills, save (a little) money for retirement, travel (mostly through work, but that is travel), sometimes even splurge on stuff I like (and don’t need).

How it all started

I used to be a full-time reporter and then section editor at El Nuevo Herald newspaper (The Miami Herald Spanish sister publication). That was from 1988 to 1996. I loved my job at first. I was the food editor. I got to review restaurants and write about artichokes. But in the end that wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted to be a science and environment writer. I managed to write a biweekly op-ed column on the environment. That kept me somewhat happy, until the paper’s quality declined in favor of cutting corners. They couldn’t care less about an environmental/science beat. And I felt like a prisoner always looking at the sun through the jail bars.

That’s when I began full-time freelancing. For almost 10 years, my main client was Spain’s Muy Interesante, where I was on retainer with a fantastic deal. But when Spain’s economy imploded around 2013 and the magazine began paying per story, the arrangement was no longer as lucrative.

Slowly, I discovered the number one trick was (is) to cultivate a variety of clients. Now I write magazine and newspaper articles; I am an author of a collection of young adult novels; I research content for a documentary production house and edit stuff for a local hospital. I also train journalists and scientists at universities in Colombia, Chile and Central America, give inspirational talks here and there, and do translations (English/Spanish). I do this because it is impossible to make a freelance living by focusing on just one area.

If nothing else, my Muy Interesante experience taught me not to place all my eggs in one basket. In fact, it was after I lost my retainer that things started to go south, and I don’t mean badly, but geographically. I realized there was a niche in Latin America for science and environment articles. The drawback is that those papers and magazines have small budgets.

In order to meet my financial goals, I need to write two 2,000-plus word features monthly, one op-ed column, plus around four 800-word pieces for other magazines such as Scientific American, Español Online and a newspaper in Colombia. This means I am constantly working on at least four or five pieces at the same time.

Last year was particularly good because I also landed a three-month gig with Discovery Channel Latin America. This year also started out well because I was hired by the Colombian Navy to be its blogger for a three-month expedition to Antarctica on board one of its ships.

Turning down full-time work

But these were extraordinary situations. Let’s be clear, the freelance world is uncertain and more than once I have considered permanent positions. But either I can’t find the right job, or I can’t pry myself away from what I love about freelancing. The truth is that over the years I have turned down jobs as a science writer and media liaison at the University of Miami. I love UM, but the idea of being responsible for media coverage of the university’s research made me very anxious because I couldn’t guarantee journalists would cover the stories.

One of the hardest decisions I made was a couple years ago, when Scientific American announced the position of editor of its new Spanish-language online edition. I applied for it, I had some very positive talks, and I think I could have easily landed the job. But it implied moving to New York, and the money was not going to be enough to keep my beloved Miami condo. I secretly hoped to convince Scientific American to let me work from Miami, but it turned out I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too.

“What have I done?” I remember thinking the day I said no to that opportunity. I took a stroll down the boardwalk and tried to shake off my fear by focusing on why I like freelancing. I can go on expeditions, I said to myself. I can write on the beach. I can accept teaching seminars in other countries and I can write about whatever pleases me. I don’t have to commute, I can translate a text in my pajamas, have a Skype interview while wearing shorts and accept journalism fellowships anytime, anywhere.

And I can set my own goals. One of my current goals is to work with the future Frost Science Museum in Miami. It is going to be something to behold. It is a fantastic new museum opening in the fall of 2016. I started watering that terrain over a year ago, offering my services as a bilingual science writer, editor and speaker. I am making headway: I was a consultant in planning the main exhibit. Museologyis a new realm for me, and I feel its pull.

While I’m excited by this new opportunity, I have to be honest: Freelancing takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of planning, and it takes a lot of guts. These days I am worried about its long-term future. I know it is time to reinvent myself yet again: perhaps a steady part-time job? Time for another walk on the beach.

Angela Posada-Swafford has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and was the first Hispanic selected as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism at MIT in 2000. She is the author of a series of eight science and adventure novels for young adults based on her own field reporting in several corners of the world. She has been writing about science, environment and exploration for 25 years, for digital, print and broadcast, in Spanish and English. Her stories have appeared in Astronomy, WIRED, National Geographic Espanol, Esquire Latin America, Scientific American, Science, Boston Globe, Discovery Channel Online and NPR.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015/2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: