As a freelance writer and illustrator not even four years into his career, Asher Elbein has already published multiple times with journalism behemoths including The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Smithsonian.
Elbein knew when he came to The University of Alabama that he wanted to be a science journalist—after all, he’d been obsessed with drawing and learning about dinosaurs from childhood. But rather than pursuing a journalism major, he thought an interdisciplinary approach through New College would serve him better.
“I took paleontology courses, natural history courses, and as many history, creative writing, and journalism courses as I could get my hands on,” Elbein said. “Frankly, I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as a freelancer if I hadn’t been at The University of Alabama with the interdisciplinary opportunities offered by New College.”
In fact, it was one of Elbein’s final courses at UA that gave him his first taste of success in freelance writing. For the senior class, a feature-writing workshop with Rick Bragg, Elbein had to write three pieces, and after graduation, he successfully sold each of them to a different publication.
“Now, I never write a piece and then try to sell it,” Elbein said. “It’s too risky. Mostly what I do is a little bit of preliminary reporting, and then I start pitching to see who bites.”
Scared of being type-cast, Elbein also doesn’t just write about dinosaurs and natural history—though he is well-known for that work. One of his biggest successes was actually an article he wrote for The Atlantic on why he likes Superman—and he’s also covered media criticism.
“It’s easy to write about things that interest you,” Elbein said. “If someone assigned me a piece about business strategy and corporate America, I could write it, but it would take a lot longer.”
Despite his success with big-brand media publications, however, Elbein says that his favorite piece is one he wrote for the Oxford American.
It was an in-depth, 9,000-word feature that took him roughly two years to fully research and write, and, in the end, it revealed the decades-long consequences of ex-con Dwight York’s invented religion—which led to the abduction and repeated rape of one of Elbein’s high-school classmates, Iasia Sweeting, in 2014.
“It was a hard story to write,” Elbein said. “I wanted to be sensitive to her story, and I went through multiple drafts. Then I argued with the editors, and I argued with the fact checkers. But when the story came out, it was great. I’m really proud of it.”
In total, Elbein has written more than 50 freelance articles, some of which he also illustrated, and he plans to continue as a free agent—filling his free time with a bit of fiction writing on the side.