Walker is an award-winning science writer based in Santa Barbara, California. She covers a wide variety of topics both in the outdoors and in other science fields such as cancer immunotherapy.
She’s been freelancing for more than 16 years, so she knows her way around being a freelance science writer. In fact, she co-wrote the book on it! Walker co-wrote The Science Writer’s Handbook with the Writers of SciLance (which is a FANTASTIC resource for anyone getting into freelance science writing).
Walker did a year-long science communication graduate program at UC Santa Cruz (it’s now a master’s degree, but at the time it was a non-degree program) and two different internships – one with the California Academy of Science and one with Outside Magazine. She then jumped into full-time freelancing.
Her work has now won awards from the American Society of Journalists & Authors, the American Institute of Physics, and Hidden River Arts Press.
How has she managed to do all this? Let’s dig in.
Year started freelancing full time: 2004
Age when started freelancing full time: 28
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch?
I should have a better elevator pitch–if I’m introducing myself, I usually say I’m a writer, I’m based in California and I write about nature and science.
I write a lot about wonder and mystery in science and nature and how things are connected. But that’s more of my own personal interest rather than my professional elevator pitch.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
When I was at Outside [as an editorial intern], my boyfriend at the time came out to Santa Fe and proposed and he was in grad school in Eugene [Oregon]. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of other work there, so it just seemed to make sense to freelance.
What was your education before you started freelancing?
I did an undergraduate in biology and a minor in creative writing and then I went to a year-long science writing program at UC Santa Cruz.
When you were starting out as a freelance science writer what helped you the most?
Contacts from graduate school and internships.
How did you get clients when you first started?
Right after graduate school, I did an internship at a nature magazine at the California Academy of Sciences. The magazine is no longer in existence, but it was called California Wild. So after working there, I still had a few stories with them. Then after leaving Outside, I had a few Outside stories going and then one of my intern buddies went to Skiing and I got a couple Skiing stories and so it unfolded like that.
The other thing I would do is go to writing conferences and they have these sessions where you can meet with editors individually, or have a pitch slam, where you can pitch a panel of editors. So I did a couple of those and got a few contacts and stories that way.
How do you decide what to write about?
I think it happens in different ways depending on the types of places I’ve been working for. Most recently I’ve been doing some work for Cancer Today Magazine, so that’s just always in the back of my mind like, oh, I see some research about cancer or a person with cancer is telling me something.
I’m on different Google news alerts and I’m on a bunch of press release lists.
I know when I started out I felt very scrambly and desperate. I remember being in my mom’s house because I had just finished an internship and didn’t know what was next and looking through the press releases and being like, I’ve just got to pitch something and felt like I was throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Now I have a better sense of what really is interesting to me and those are the things that work out the best, because you put your real self into them.
How did winning the American Society of Journalists and Authors award work?
They have an application period, so I submitted it and I think there’s a fee–maybe ten dollars at the time.
I’ve also been on the judging side of that and they have a panel of judges that review the entries for each category of awards.
What was it like getting the award?
It was great.
I was really happy with that essay [The Sadness of Solving a Mystery]. I know my editors were happy about the award and practically speaking, I can say I’m an award-winning writer. (For whatever that’s worth!)
I don’t know if it’s done anything specifically for me as far as my career, but it was a nice recognition that I might be headed in the right direction with this kind of work.
On your website, you talk about being in science writer groups. How have those groups helped you?
It’s just great to have other people who are doing the same thing. You can share your frustrations and successes and have side chats.
One of the groups [called SciLance] started with a woman named Kendall Powell who I went to the Santa Cruz program with. She started a group of science writer freelancers. I think there’s between 30 and 35 of us and we’ve now been together for more than 15 years. We all wrote a book together called The Science Writer’s Handbook. It’s just really a wonderful group.
How do you normally start interviews with people?
I think it depends on the type of story. If it’s a science news story, I often will ask how the researcher got into doing whatever work they do.
But I like profiles because you can do this more conversational interview and really get into someone’s background and have a nice talk with them which I love.
Is there a Secret Sauce to writing good profiles?
I read a lot of profiles. It helps to be a good listener and be interested in people. I think people who are interested in people are drawn to writing profiles.
I like finding those quirky details about people that make the profiles richer and make the people interesting, like there was a researcher who studies Acorn Woodpeckers who is a huge Star Trek fan. So every time he releases a bird, he says “live long and prosper” and sends it off and I’m like, oh, I love that. He’s just a great guy. And so that was super fun to meet him and talk to him.
How do you work in vacation or sick days?
I don’t know. I think part of it now is just being a parent. Like you don’t have those things anyway, so now I don’t even think about it.
How do you handle your accounting and taxes?
I keep my own records. I have a very old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet and then I use an accountant to do the heavy lifting of how to do my taxes right.
How do you manage retirement funding?
I just would set aside some money and contribute to an IRA. Everything got a little more complicated once I had kids and childcare expenses, and now I occasionally contribute to my IRA. So I’m working on that one.
How do you decide you’re at capacity?
Early on I took everything that I was offered because I could and also I felt like I should.
Then when I had to think about my kids and child care, I would just try to guess about how many hours I had and how much work I thought I could do.
But I think underlying all of that is if I start to feel resentful, not wanting to work, not looking forward to calling people or sending that email, that’s when I start to think: Okay, maybe I’ve got too much or maybe I need to refocus on something else that I like.
What signals a red flag to you about a client?
Vague communication. They’re not quite sure what they want. How they explain the project or if we’re on a phone call and I just get a funny feeling.
It’s not always something specific but it’s some combination of funny feelings or if the rate is really bad and there’s not another reason I would want to do it.
What constitutes as a bad rate in your opinion?
It depends on how long it will take. I often look at how long I think a project will take me, and use that to figure out what the hourly rate might look like, and see if that’s reasonable.
Right now I usually say I don’t take things for less than a dollar a word. And it’s an easy way to say no, too.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome and how do you manage that?
[To deal with it] I start writing. I don’t know if I feel like less of an imposter, but once I’m actually doing something I’m okay. It’s just the idea of whatever it is.
So right now, I have this children’s book project. Before I actually started working on it, I was like, I’m never gonna be able to do this. I don’t know what I’m doing. How could they think I could do this?
Then once I started sending emails, started calling people, started writing, I’m like, Oh, I’m doing it, it’s okay.
Have you ever gotten burnt out? If so, what did you do?
I don’t think I’ve ever been burnt out on the actual writing, but I think I’ve been burnt out on particular topics or stories. Usually finding some other creative outlet helps me get through it.
One of the other groups I’m with is this group of science bloggers—our blog is called The Last Word On Nothing and that feels very creative and very free.
So having some other creative outlet or doing the sport you love, being outside, getting exercise—all those things.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman writing about the outdoors?
There isn’t something that stands out for me—I don’t know if there are stories, for example, that I haven’t been assigned because I’m a woman.
Also, sometimes people don’t know I’m a woman because of my name.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into outdoorsy, nature writing, what would it be?
I would say that there’s a place for you and what you do and how you do it.
You don’t have to do it like someone else does. The thing that makes you unique is going to help you and you’re going to find a way to do it the way you want to.
I know I felt like that starting out – like I wasn’t the right kind of journalist, or I didn’t have that journalistic drive. Thinking about what I was actually good at and what I was actually interested in has helped me find the kind of writing I love to do and do better at it.
Is there anything else you’d want to mention?
I would definitely recommend joining whatever your field’s organization is or some sort of group because they have opportunities and you get to meet people which is the best part – knowing other writers or other people in your field.
Also, I know that at the time, Outside and many other internships didn’t pay very much and not everyone can do that financially. People have student loans, they need to make money to survive. Now I feel like there’s more effort on fellowships and other programs that actually pay early-career freelancers to get more experience, and I’m glad about that.
One of the ones I was thinking of is a science journalism website called The Open Notebook They have this great fellowship program that gives you lots of good experience and pays well. I was a mentor for this program to a wonderful writer, Julia Rosen. So hopefully things are changing in that area.
A few of her stories:
Keep Reading About Freelance Outdoor Writers
(Lead photo credit: Sara Prince)