How do you charge for an idea that comes to you in the shower?

by Janice Nigro

Ten weeks into lockdown in California, and I can’t shake the strange factor. Nothing is yet routine. The beaches are now open, but after all this time without them, I haven’t been out there much anyway. I’ve been working. Even over the holiday weekend. Surprise to me, my clients from other countries have been busy writing papers and other documents that they pass along to me for polish and discussion. Yay for them.

Even though they are clients I know well, they threw me some new challenges this week. So I found myself overcoming some fears about what I was capable of doing, under lockdown.

This week I had to see how I could work under a rush deadline with data I had never seen before. Editing a scientific document isn’t so difficult to do under a tight deadline. Making insightful comments on what’s missing in a document is. Just as for any other creative process, science ideas take time to stew, to percolate before they become tangible.

I only had about 48 hours to edit a piece. Science, especially in grants, can be meaty, or dense material to follow, but minor organization and polish is easy enough to do with a basic grasp of the concepts. It takes as long as it takes to read the document.

The problem came this weekend when I was asked to write a summary about the work I was helping with. This is an impossible task if you don’t have a good grasp on the basic question. As a writer, I know that the key to a piece about anything is knowing why you are writing it. Some people might be able to fake their way through it. I can’t.

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing.” (William Zinsser, On Writing Well)

I wrote a summary to get myself warmed up. Blah, blah, blah, I wrote, pretending I knew what to write. The words were uninspiring. Lead. I knew it. It helped though to force myself to write something, anything because I soon realized why it was that I didn’t know what to write about.

I sent off my version with a couple of questions and got a quick response from my client in another time zone. I told them what the problem was for me. Their response was, “Yes, I know, tell me how to fix it.”

Ugh. I stared at the screen for hours. I tried painting for a while. Then went back to staring at the screen. I stayed up until 01:00 Sunday, filling my brain with the science facts in this piece, and then decided to sleep on it. Let the magic happen.

The answer wasn’t there when I woke up. But a question was. It kept bugging me. “What was different about what this client was doing in this piece from their previous work?” It didn’t seem all that different on the surface. Cutting edge technology, but was it a deflection from the possibility that nothing was new?

Then I stepped into the shower. Pop, it occurred to me then how to put the piece together. Changed a few lines (after I got out of the shower) and the client was happy.

I was nervous for those two days that I wouldn’t be able to find a solution in such a short time for something so big. I did, though, and we both learned something.

Having managed that crisis, I now had to ask myself, “How do I charge for an idea that came to me when I was in the shower?”

It was an editing job which I’ve found no other way to work except to charge by the hour. I’m not timing myself in the shower and the real work might have even happened in my brain while I was sleeping. And all those other hours the facts were in my brain but not yet making sense.

But it was more than an editing job, it was a writing and a consulting job. I decided on a project based fee. It’s a bit backwards-coming up with a fee after the work is done-but the client told me they didn’t care and I’ve worked with them for years. I fretted over a number for a day, discussed it with some friends, made a small compromise, and sent it off feeling greedy.

The fee was paid immediately and arrived with a thank you message and a little bit more – that they liked above all the scientific discussion we had about the work. I didn’t expect that, thinking my questions were too simple.

Their response made me realize what can be missing in discussion with close colleagues. They may be too familiar with the story to make it clear for an outside reviewer to read. What is understood by them is not always stated in the document. The problem wasn’t the technology; it was the story.

When I received the payment-no questions asked-my first thought was, I didn’t charge enough. While this might be true, I realized I had also learned something from my client. I learned how to work through this type of problem. Next time I would know better what to look for and to do to achieve the goal in a similar type project for any client.

I also realized my value as a science writer was more than the words I wrote. The client appreciated my thoughts on the science and maybe that I did the simple thing of taking the time to listen to them.

I don’t have a perfect formula yet for how to price freelance work. I make estimations at best. But if you’re having an “aha” moment in the shower, it’s probably worth more than you think.

Stay well and happy cocooning if you’re so lucky.


©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


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