Rebecca Renner is a freelance journalist and fiction writer operating out of Orlando, Florida. Her fiction writing is quite funny and her nonfiction articles are detailed and accessible to non-science audiences. She covers a lot of scientific and environmental issues, which made her a good person to talk with about that part of the writing business. She was also gracious enough to introduce me to the Voice Memo app on my Mac for conducting this interview, so in addition to being a good interviewee, she’s also a helpful human being.
Bart Leahy: Let’s start with something simple like how did you get into science writing?
Rebecca Renner: I started out my journalism career as a book blogger.
BL: Like, reviewing books?
RR: Yeah, on my own website, and posting them on Instagram and stuff like that. I started branching out from there because I started making more friends who were writers and that’s what they were doing for a living. People told me all my life that writing was a vow of poverty and yet I knew all these people who were doing it, so I started following their lead on how to do it. I was reading more journalism. For years I had been reading long-form stories to research for fiction. I’d read so many of them and I liked them so much. And I read science and adventure journalism books that I really loved. I was like, okay, this is what I want to write. This is what I love to read, so it should be what I write. That was very hard to break into at first. I sort of feel like I skipped several steps because I went from my first feature published in late 2018 and now I’m writing consistently for National Geographic.
BL: How do find stories to write? Do you pick them?
RR: It depends. This year I’ve been writing a lot about coronavirus, a lot of things that are important or questions that haven’t been answered thoroughly enough. In my usual life, it depends on the publication that I’m writing for. Sometimes I see something in my day-to-day life that feels important. For example, I’m writing a story for SierraMagazine right now about Orlando’s Rights of Nature law that we voted on as a ballot initiative, and it got passed by 89 percent. For some reason there was no news coverage on that outside of Florida at all even though it’s significant in a truly international scope. So I thought that somebody should be writing about that. It’s really just a little bit of everything. Sometimes I just want to tell a really great story. I imagine characters and try to find those people’s real-life analogues and see what they’re doing what I think they’re doing.
BL: So…frustrated fiction writer?
RR: No, I think that’s a really great to come up with stories. I’m not the only person who does that.
BL: We get into brass tacks on this blog, so I’ll ask something that’s a little direct. You don’t have to answer specifically, but how do you determine what to charge for articles, or does your employer—the publication really set that for you?
RR: Well, I determine my bare minimum to charge. I don’t know how it works with technical writing, but with journalism and with freelancing, you sort of know how much publications tend to pay before you pitch them. That’s sort of part of doing your research on a publication. So I’m not even going to pitch to places that pay below my base, bare-minimum rate, which right now is a dollar a word. I have said no to work this year because it did not pay. At first that was very hard because it seems like very recently I was struggling for money. At one point a couple years ago I was writing a lot of content. It was a content mill, basically, and I was getting paid…I think it was eleven cents a word, but that sounds very generous.
RR: Yeah. It was not very much, and I was just writing and writing and there was one day I wrote over 12,000 words. That was miserable, and my hands hurt. I don’t even want to do the math for that. Twelve thousand words at eleven cents a word—it’s not good for the amount of work I was doing.
BL: Well, then, how many articles will you work on at a time? Do you do one at a time and go or do you have multiple irons in the fire?
RR: Right now or then?
BL: In general, right now.
RR: I usually do more than one at once. I’m trying to not do too many, but sometimes I overdo it. I’m working on…three, four right now? I told myself I didn’t want to work this far into December, and yet here I am.
BL: It’s heck being popular. Okay, random conversational turn here. You’re doing a lot of research, obviously. I loved the biology article for NASA. That was great. Lots of research in there. But how do you determine when you’ve done enough.
RR: When I run out of time. When my editor says it’s good enough. I don’t know.
BL: You’re working on a book proposal right now. That’s fiction, isn’t it? What’d you say it was? Fictionalized nonfiction?
RR: No, it’s nonfiction. Hard-core research, investigative journalism. Narrative nonfiction. Kind of like what the New Yorker does: literary, journalistic nonfiction.
BL: But it’s going to be novel-sized.
RR: Yes. It’s going to functionally work like a novel, but everything in it is real.
BL: Okay, cool. Looking forward to it. You mentioned that ballot initiative. If you’ve got a political story, how do you approach your subject? Are you approaching it from the political content first, or do you look at those differently?
RR: No, it’s sort of the same to me. I think maybe at one point political journalism and science journalism were very different, but they have sort of merged a lot recently because everything has been politicized.
BL: Yeah. Unfortunately.
RR: So I’m writing politics whether I’m liking to be or not. We all read a lot of political journalism—straight political journalism—because it affects all of us. Even if we’re not registering that we’re reading a lot of it. And one of the things that political journalism does really well is tell stories. I try to do that as much as I can, no matter the content of the story I’m writing.
BL: You’re 100% freelance. I’m freelance to the extent that I don’t have a full-time employer. I’m working off the full-time employee grid, but I’ve got regular contracts and stuff that I do. But you’re like going after each individual piece, is that right?
RR: Kind of. I write regularly for National Geographic. I do at least one or two short stories for them per month. After I make this book deal, I’m hoping to do a lot less freelancing. Hopefully, it’s going to be a significant amount of money.
BL: Okay, you have checked one of the boxes that I’d like. So how did you get a job with National Geographic?
RR: I have found that when I have broken into these huge publications somehow the editor I pitch has already read something I’ve written.
BL: Ah! That helps.
RR: Yeah. My current editor—he and I had interacted on Twitter, too. And luckily we both have the same strange kind of dry, pointed sense of humor. At first when I started writing regularly for them I thought I’d have to tone it down on Twitter. And then I paid close attention to the things he was posting, and I was like, “Never mind!”
RR: I’ve found that good writing is its own sort of marketing. Its own PR. Even when you don’t see the people sharing your story and you don’t see them commenting or talking to you about it, there are a lot of people reading your work. And a lot of those people, it turns out, are writers and editors.
BL: I think I asked you this before, but in a different way: have you always been a freelance writer, or did you come at this sideways?
RR: I have had a lot of careers. I won’t give you the litany of all of them. In 2017, I quit my job teaching high school to write for a magazine. I had thought the magazine was my dream job. It was not my dream job. It was not anybody’s dream job.
RR: No, it was really bad. It was to the point where if I have not already, I would say it to my former boss’s face. It was awful and they treated me very poorly, and there were a lot of circumstances that pushed me into feeling like I am better off with no job than this one. So, with no safety net and no possibilities and with a few publications behind me, I just jumped off.
BL: Gotcha. So aside from the no safety net thing, what’s been your biggest challenge as a freelancer?
RR: For a while, it was getting editors to respond to me and getting pitches accepted. And sometimes that’s still hard. But this book I’m about to sell that has a lot of people interested it—it started as a magazine story that I couldn’t sell. And I am so glad that I couldn’t sell it. I’m not sure how I went from, “Oh no, this is never going to sell” to “This is an amazing book,” but it happened. I think it’s because of the characters—the people in it that I started connecting with—and they’re just so interesting and so cool and the kind of people who I’m very happy are going to be living in my head for a few months.
BL: Is this related to the python-hunting expedition?
RR: Tangentially because everybody in the reptile community sort of knows each other. It is about a sting operation to catch poachers in South Florida. I’m trying to describe it without giving it away. It’s brought me into an investigation that’s much more than I ever bargained for.
BL: So how would you describe your favorite kind of story to write?
RR: If I had a wish list of things…if I was creating my favorite book that I was going to read, it would be adventurous and dramatic, like something Jon Krakauer wrote. And it would have a female protagonist and it would have a love story and drama and mystery and investigation. And I’ve managed to do all of that in it.
RR: It’s going to be fun to write it.
BL: So you’ve got this book planned. Any more long-term plans that you’re looking at?
RR: I am trying to get a podcast going. I’ve been talking to some producers on that. I also have several drafts of novels that my agent has said are not quite there, which I agree. One of the weird things about freelancing and writing with the help of all of these brilliant editors is that my writing ability has suddenly just become so much better. I can see a major difference between what I write this week with what I did in January. I think I had a major breakthrough this year despite everything else going on.
BL: I know I liked your story on pandemic dreaming. I’ve been writing down some of my dreams because they’ve been getting stranger over the course of the year.
RR: Yeah, I’ve had some really weird ones lately, too.
BL: I’m wrapping up here, so you’re in luck. If there’s anything about the freelance science-writing life you would want people to know or anything like that, what would you share? Like, especially for someone who’s wanting to get into the business of technical writing or freelance writing.
RR: I don’t know. Just to keep trying and don’t sell yourself short. I think selling yourself short is a problem a lot of people have at first. It’s that they self-reject. The don’t go for the big places, the big bylines, the big stories because they don’t think they can sell them, they don’t think they can do it. And sometimes you won’t, but when those stories land, it’s a good deal for your career. So it’s worth trying, even if you might fail.