How I became a writer

February 1, 2017

I never had any intention of becoming a writer. Because I could always draw well, I originally wanted to become an artist. By the time I got to college in 1979, I had turned that natural talent into the more practical goal of pursuing a degree in communications design (graphic design). I grew bored with that after two years, and I switched my major to biology (because I was always interested in wildlife and nature). I stuck with that for two more years. But after four years of confusion, and without anything really turning me on, I quit school with no degree.

I managed to get a job in graphic design in 1983 or 1984. Back then, there were no computers in the profession. It was literally cut (with an x-acto knife) and paste (with glue). Once again, I found myself bored and uninterested, but I knocked around in that field for a couple more years. Then in 1986, I concluded that I really needed a degree to get any kind of decent job, so I returned to school—this time Governors State University—to finish my biology degree. I finally got the degree in 1988 with high hopes of finding a job that I liked.

I eventually found that job with a Chicago company under contract with the EPA to monitor the water quality of the Great Lakes. We would take the EPA research vessel out on the lakes for a month-long cruise a couple times a year to collect water samples. Then we would bring the samples back to the Chicago lab for analysis. My main job was to look through a microscope and identify and enumerate the various zooplankton species in the samples. I truly enjoyed that job, partly because I thought the work was fun, as well as important, and partly because I liked the people there. I especially liked my Hong Kong-born boss, Kit, who had a wild, off-beat sense of humor. We're still friends today.

Unfortunately, I had to leave that job in 1992 because I moved to a far southwest suburb, making the commute to the city very inconvenient. It was inconvenient because my job was off-hours (3:00 to 11:00 pm) and the Metra train in my area did not operate during those hours, and I didn't want to drive that far every day. So I was forced to find another job. I knew I would never find another biologist position that I liked as much as that EPA job, so I wasn't sure what to do. In looking through the newspaper want ads, I happened to see a posting for a "science writer/editor" position with an encyclopedia company called Standard Education Corporation. I thought that sounded intriguing, because my teachers always told me that I was a good writer, and I had even written educational nature articles for the forest preserve district, where I had worked part-time in the 1980s while going to school. And, of course, I had the science background and education.

That encyclopedia company hired me, launching my generally enjoyable and rewarding—though sometimes frustrating and vexing—career as a professional writer and editor. I discovered that I had a genuine talent for moving words around on a page to create interesting and engaging text. I was able to take a complex science or medical topic and explain it in a way that made it understandable for the average person. I got a kick out of researching a topic, writing about it, contacting experts for more information, selecting photos and other graphics to accompany my articles, and participating in staff meetings to brainstorm ideas for new articles. Occasionally, I was able to use my art skills by drawing black-and-white pictures to use with the articles. So I was combining all my major interests—science, art, and writing—into a career that I was good at and that I enjoyed. Isn't that what everyone wants?

From that small encyclopedia company, I moved on to World Book Publishing, where my career really thrived. I was eventually promoted to assistant managing editor for the Annuals Department, which was responsible for such products as Year Book and Science Year. My favorite part of that job was meeting and collaborating with some very prominent scientists on educational articles. The scientific luminaries I worked with included Alan Guth (developer of the inflation theory of the universe's origin), Robert Kirshner (discover of the accelerating expansion of the universe), and Donald Johansen (discoverer of the "Lucy" human ancestor).I also expanded my expertise into world events by being responsible for the Annual Department's Middle East articles. In editing those articles, I had the opportunity to work with such renowned Middle East experts as Christine Helms and Marius and Mary-Jane Deeb.

I further expanded my professional horizons in 2005, when I took a staff editing position with the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the main professional organization of osteopathic physicians in the United States. There, I learned the special skills of a medical journal editor, and I became acquainted with a number of people in the osteopathic medicine and osteopathy professions. These are commonly misunderstood professions that most writers and editors know nothing about. But I have become quite knowledgable about this fascinating field of healthcare, which is now one of my specialties. Much of my freelance work continues to focus on osteopathy, and I have collaborated with a number of osteopathic medicine/osteopathy clients in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

I began freelancing while still at the AOA, and I have done it full-time since 2006. Some of the contacts I made at World Book and the AOA led to much freelance work for me—especially through a Canadian osteopathic manual practitioner named Jane Stark, through whom I have obtained many clients from Ontario. I've worked with a wide variety of individual and corporate clients, and my horizons keep expanding. For example, I began intensely researching and writing about sexuality and LGBT issues for an educational company called ABC-CLIO. So that has become another of my specialties, leading to work for such LGBT publications as Windy City Times, OutFront magazine, and the Community Alliance and Action Network newsletter. I've also become quite proficient as a book and thesis editor as a result of working with many individual authors, whom I actually enjoy working with more than big companies.

When reviewing my lengthy writing and editing career, one theme is clear: one thing leads to another, and ultimately it all comes together. The freelance business has its ups and downs, and sometimes the downs (mainly slowdowns in getting good work) last way too long. But, overall, I feel fortunate to have fallen into this profession—a profession I never intended to pursue.