July 29, 2010

3 ways that curiosity helps me be a more productive freelancer

This is a modified version of  a comment I wrote on Ed Yong’s On the origins of science writers” blog thread, which is really fun and you should read all of it.

My about” text says I am curious for a living, but what does that actually mean? It’s not just a hand-wavey philosophical quip. It’s quite literally a summary of what I physically and mentally do each day at work. (Or try to, on less productive days.)

First a smidge of background: I fell into journalism by accident, and then into science journalism almost by default. I started writing movie reviews for my college paper because it was the only thing I knew anything about (I went to film school). Then that got boring, so I decided to reorient towards reported nonfiction. But I still didn’t know anything about anything. After spending a couple years after graduation in Chicago writing about low-hanging fruit (myself, movies, and local events), I realized something: If I was ever going to really make a living by being curious for a living,” I’d better get a grip on what the hell I tend to be the most curious about. Once I asked that question, science” was the simple, obvious answer.

I don’t have a formal degree, or even a beat. Just plain old honest curiosity—built up from a childhood of watching NOVA and flipping through my Dad’s popular science books on quantum mechanics, cosmology, and chaos theory. It’s a powerful engine for a career and I feel lucky that I can rely on it. But it also has practical advantages that I call upon every day:

  1. Focusing on curiosity helps me set aside my substantial fear of asking questions and interviewing people.

This is kind of important if you want to write nonfiction for a living. (On my first piece of reported writing in college, I actually shared a byline with a friend whom I convinced to do all the interviews for me.) I had to figure out a way to trick myself into getting the information I wanted without feeling intimidated or paralyzed by self-consciousness. Adopting an attitude of, I’m not doing this for work, I’m just asking this person questions that I’m personally curious about” was just the mind-hack I needed. And it helped me ask better interview questions, too.

  1. It also makes finding and honing story ideas much simpler.

That may sound galactically obvious, but I used to waste a lot of time worrying about what I could/should write about instead of actually pitching and writing. I was lucky enough to get some personal advice on this problem from John McPhee. It boiled down to: just try to answer questions that YOU wonder about. Who cares whether it’s a good” or important” topic, or is done to death, or all that b.s.—it just blocks you. Finding story ideas can be daunting enough without constantly second guessing yourself or trying to reverse engineer the perfect pitch for this or that client.

Querying your own simple curiosity is a wonderful, clarifying tool for answering that scary question that freelancers face every day: What the hell am I going to do with myself today?” (And its evil offspring: OK, now that I know, where the hell do I start?”)

  1. Curiosity helps remind me that many things aren’t as hard” as they appear to be at first glance.

This is a crucial attitude for doing science writing. If you genuinely want to understand, you will find a way. I recently pitched and wrote a story about new programming languages even though I knew nothing about programming and have never written a line of code in my life. Of course I didn’t mention that in my pitch, but after I got the assignment, I just trusted the curiosity that generated the idea in the first place (”hm, why would anyone want to make a new programming language, anyway?”) to guide me through reporting it. And it worked out fine. (I did end up over-studying the topic on Wikipedia, but it felt like fun, not work.)

So here’s my big tip in a sentence: be curious and act curious. (They’re two different things, and you need to do both.) Everything else will work itself out from there.

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