Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Brooke Borel. Borel is a freelance science writer and author. She organized a session at the 2014 meeting of the National Association of Science Writers on what it takes to make a “passion project” a success, and I asked her to write a guest post on the subject.
Last month, 430 science journalists and communicators took over a Marriott hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio for their annual meeting, which included talks and panels to help hone our craft. This year, I planned and moderated a panel for the first time. It was equal parts fun, exhausting, and fulfilling, and I’m both glad that it’s over and eager to do another one in the future.
My panel was Making Passion Projects Happen, and I got the idea, in part, because of my own passion project, which I’ve been working on for the past several years. That project is a book about bed bugs and it will publish this spring from the University of Chicago Press (here it is: Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World).
When I was reporting and writing the book, I also worked full time as a freelance science journalist and writer for a number of outlets, including Popular Science, where I’m a contributing editor—once I’d spent my book advance, the book project was bringing in zero income and there was no way I could quit my day job. To help make sure I could pay bills and move the book project along, I had to rethink what kinds of stories I was pitching as well as come up with creative ways to get more funding for the book, which ultimately included launching a Kickstarter campaign and receiving a book grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
As I was working through all of this, I got a lot of questions from colleagues and friends who similarly wanted to tackle their first book but weren’t sure where to start or how to make the time. I also noticed a few of my peers launching their own big projects, and they were pulling it off. And so, for this year’s NASW meeting, I decided to mash all these things together into one informative (I hope) session.
For the panel, in addition to advice I gleaned from my book project, we heard from Ben Lillie, the director of the Story Collider, who talked about making his live storytelling event a reality; Rose Eveleth, a freelance journalist, podcaster and designer, who talked about launching the multimedia curator Science Studio; Maki Naro, an illustrator who talked about his science-themed comic BoxPlot; and David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired and an author, who talked about his digital anthology Firsthand.
We all approached our projects differently in some ways, which makes sense. Books, live events, multimedia databases, comics, and anthologies are all different creative animals that require specific taming and training. But there were some similarities. Many of us, for example, used crowdfunding or applied for grant money to help support our projects financially, and we all had to work hard on time management. Many of us also fumbled a bit as we figured out how to make our projects work—just because the end result is a success doesn’t mean it was easy or straightforward, and it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what works (well, maybe except for Rose, who we learned is insanely organized with research and spreadsheets).
Most importantly, I think, all of us relied heavily on our networks of colleagues and friends to make sure we’d hold ourselves accountable to our projects. There’s nothing worse than telling someone about the big project you’re so excited about, only to have to admit, the next time you see them, that you’ve let it wither from neglect. Talking and Tweeting about your project forces you to do follow through.