Life of a science freelancer: Lisa Palmer


Photo courtesy of Lisa Palmer

COLUMBIA, MO. – Lisa Palmer spends her days writing, interviewing and reporting from the comfort of her own home in Maryland. As a full-time freelance writer, Palmer created a career for herself writing about science for publications across the country and around the world.

Palmer spoke with the Science Health and Environmental Writing class via Skype on May 5. She shared her experience with freelance reporting and offered tips for becoming a successful freelancer.

Palmer started her career as a journalist working as a newspaper reporter. She said her work with the Boston Globe weekly community publications gave her the experience she needed to transition into national freelance work. Covering stories spanning many communities required her to pitch stories that were relevant to a wider audience.

“I was always drawn to what people were doing outside so I kept pitching stories about that,” she said. Her love of the outdoors led her to a career in science reporting.

As a freelancer, Palmer writes stories for lots of different publications, working remotely instead of as a part of a newsroom staff. She writes for national publications such as Slate and Scientific American. Palmer said working as a freelancer can sometimes be isolating. She said she tries to leave her home office as much as possible.

“I missing being around people in an office setting,” she said. “The reason I’m a reporter is because I like to talk to people. I’m not somebody who likes to be alone all day.”

To support herself as a freelancer, Palmer said she typically writes for no less than $1 per word. She may make exceptions for some publications where she can reach a wide audience.

“I always ask for more money,” she said. “I’m not always successful, but even if I can get them to give me $50 more, that’s another tank of gas.”

Palmer also participates in fellowships, which allow her to do more researched and long form articles. She is currently a science communications fellow with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.

Since Palmer writes for a wide variety of publications, she likes to familiarize herself with the kind of work a newspaper or magazine publishes.

“If you want to write for Scientific American, read Scientific American,” she said. “You want to mimic what they have.”

To get published, Palmer sends a query letter via email to the editor of a publication. She always follows up within a few days to make sure the editor received her message. If her pitch is accepted, Palmer starts working on interviews and has to pay attention to the deadlines set by the editor. She is always juggling multiple projects at once.

Her biggest piece of advice to young journalists? Don’t be afraid of the rejection freelance work can bring.

“Just because you’re starting out, don’t limit yourself,” she said. “It’s easy to feel like you’re rejected, but there’s no such thing as rejection. It just means your story wasn’t quite right for that publication.”

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