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My hope with this article is to make things easier for anyone out there trying to break into the outdoor writing world based on some of the lessons I've learned along the way.
Tips for Getting Started as an Outdoor Writer
by Drew Haerer
I remember one day in grad school, I picked up an outdoor magazine, read through a few articles and thought "you know, I could do this." I'd been blogging for a while and had written a few short pieces for various websites. In hindsight, I was overconfident and completely naive to what goes into the process of writing an article from start to finish. That is kind of ironic, given that I had published papers in scientific journals, which can seem nearly impossible at times (*shifts eyes to reviewer #2*). Eventually, I caught a break, and despite fumbling along the way, I'll never forget holding a check from my first feature article. It was pretty surreal. My hope with this article is to make things easier for anyone out there trying to break into the outdoor writing world based on some of the lessons I've learned along the way.
Prior to my first full piece, I contributed to a couple Kayak Angler Magazine articles, thanks in part to Drew Gregory and remaining in contact with Paul Lebowitz, then KAM editor and eventual founder of Kayak Fish Magazine. However, I wasn't a regular with KAM, and many emails to Paul never garnered a response. So, the first article ideas I ever proposed were to NC Sportsman Magazine. I sent 4 or 5 ideas in a bulleted list and attached my resume. In this case, the resume included some of my fishing accomplishments, my job at the time, and my educational background. Trust me, your ideas will carry a little more clout if you have a strong educational background combined with a strong fishing resume (e.g., guiding, tournament wins, etc.). I still take a similar approach when emailing new publishers/editors today, although I generally now annotate my article ideas. Specifically, I give a creative (at least, in my own eyes) title and a brief explanation of the key points of the article.
The editor of NC Sportsman was very honest with me and told me that all of my ideas were too general and had been done. So, I threw one last idea at him - a destination piece for the Cape Fear River not far below Jordan Lake. The Cape Fear is a fairly well known catfish river, but the spotted bass (northern strain) fishery has exploded. The average size isn't great, but the numbers can be crazy. You could literally get tired of reeling them in. Given enough time, you could sort through the runts and find some nice fish, including some "citation size" specimens deemed trophies by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. He said that idea sounded perfect and sent me the writer guidelines. Based on the format of NC Sportsman, the article required a certain number of photos, a couple text boxes with specific info, and minimum and maximum word counts.
It didn't take long to outline the article, and I knew I would easily hit the required word count. However, I remember being given a deadline of "late August". Although I bugged the editor with a number of questions, I never asked for a specific deadline. That was a mistake. In late August, the article was about 70% done, and I was in Wyoming on vacation. After being in the mountains without cell service for a few days, we drove into town where I got the email "Hey, Drew. I really need that article by Friday." It was Friday morning. Thankfully, I had my computer with me and was able to eventually track down an internet connection. I was extremely stressed, but the rest of the group was understanding and we shifted our plans around so that I could finish writing. Trust me, you don't want to email a dozen photos at borderline dial-up speed to meet a last-minute deadline while on vacation. I was pretty embarrassed at the time, although now, I know that editors deal with those situations all the time.
A few months later, the magazine hit news stands. At the time, NCangler.com had very popular forums that I regularly visited and contributed to. I had a lot of folks online congratulating and complimenting me, including people I didn't know. I also had some people who weren't as positive. If you write enough, you'll quickly find that you'll have some haters, mainly for really dumb reasons. Ignore them. Most of the time, even responding isn't worth your time.
After contributing to a few more articles, I was yearning to write another long piece. As I began to plan the BASS Slam, the wheels started turning for an article. We had already planned on documenting everything with photos and videos. Why not pitch the idea to KAM? Paul L. had moved on from KAM, so I emailed Rapid Media founder and publisher Scott MacGregor. Probably two months went by with no response. Then, one day I get an email back from Scott completely out of the blue. "Sorry for the delay. We are actually sitting down Thursday to discuss some feature article ideas. This sounds perfect. I'll be in touch." Talk about a swing of emotions. I went from disappointment to happiness and nervous excitement in four short sentences. That Friday, I got an email from Ric Burnley, the new head editor. The article was a go.
The first page of the BASS Slam article in KAM
This time, I asked about the deadline, and I had the article finished and submitted to Ric about a month early. I'll never forget the call I got from Ric around 10 AM on Thanksgiving morning. "Hey, Drew. I'm trying to squeeze a little work in today because the publishers really want some finished content for the next issue. Since your article looks pretty good, it would be huge if I could send it over to them. Do you think we could chat some time today?" Turkey baster in hand, my first thought was that I had no idea how my now wife would take my answer, so I whispered "Yes. Can I call you back in a couple hours?" I finished preparing different dishes, jammed as much as I could in the oven, and stepped out on the porch to call Ric. We hammered out some final details as I paced the porch and driveway. I was still on cloud nine about everything, and Mary May could see that. She took the whole thing in stride, and I didn't even burn anything.
That was the start of a really good working relationship with Ric, as well as Ben Duchesney, who was the KAM web editor. For the next couple years, I wrote/compiled at least one article in every KAM issue. Eventually, life got crazy for me when I moved, got married, switched jobs, and had kids. As a result, my writing slowed down. I did find that online magazines and publications were easier to write for because many are more lax than print media. I wrote a few articles for The Fisherman's Journal, Kayak Bass Fishing Magazine, KAM online, and others. I also got the chance to contribute to a kayak fly fishing book that Ben wrote. Now, I still enjoy penning an article for print when the opportunity presents itself, but I am also happy to focus on my blog and the Wilderness Systems blog.
An article I wrote for KBF magazine about the Ned rig
So, what are the some of the biggest things I've learned along the way?
1) Know the writing guidelines. Sometimes, an editor will send them to you. Other times, they may be posted online. Some magazines might not have any, but in those cases, and really in most cases, go back and look at past issues. Not only can you get an idea for the style and content of the specific publication, but you can also see what has been done and what types of articles they typically run.
2) Be a good and flexible communicator. If an editor emails or calls you, expect that they want a fairly quick answer. If you contact them, know that it may take the better part of a week to hear back. Also, don't overcommunicate. No-one wants to hold your hand through the process. That is a good way to not have article ideas accepted in the future.
3) Give credit where credit is due. This goes for photos taken by others, help you've been given in compiling an article, or maybe a tip on a hot bite. Not giving a quick shoutout to someone who deserves it is a good way to burn a bridge.
4) Don't be late. If you can, please be early. I say that as someone who compiled a number of "multiple expert" pieces when working with KAM. Nothing is worse than the folks who constantly say "I'll have it you soon" and then fail to follow through. I fully suspect delays at times and deadline shuffles, but the chronic procrastinators can make it tough. For me, no matter how good your content is, failure to follow through makes me want to not work with you again. Editors feel the same way. It is almost a one strike and you're out system. I've even had folks tell me for months that they'll have a piece done by the end of the week and then on the day the content is due, have them tell me they can't do it at all. That is an automatic blacklist in my book. It is also a good reason to always have one or two go-to contributors in your back pocket who you know can get you solid content in less than 24 hours.
5) Be prepared to work with a wide variety of people, some of whom are very different than you and may not be easy to work with. If you are a writer, you likely have a distinct style. I certainly do. Well, so do various editors, publishers, other writers, etc. Know that you may have to concede some of your style to get an article to print. In fact, I've seen words and even sentences changed between the "final edit" and "print edition" that introduced errors into the article. I've seen misprints. I've seen things I didn't say attributed to me. These things will happen. Sometimes, it can be awkward, but it is part of the business, so be prepared. You'll eventually end up working with folks that aren't always easy or fun to work with. Taking that in stride is part of being a writer and an outdoor professional.
6) Manage your word count. One of the worst feelings as an editor or author of a multi-contributor article is to give someone a word count or word count range only to receive their article/contribution and have it be way over that count. I think a lot of folks believe that more info is better, but that isn't true. As a writer, you need to be able to concisely tell your audience what you want to say. If additional details are needed, trust me, someone will be in touch. Going over a word count is just creating more work for editors and publishers, and it is generally frowned upon.
7) Don't write with an accent. This is two-fold. First, we all have a tendency to write the way we talk. That can be troublesome for a variety of reasons, and the biggest, in my opinion, is that you may not get taken seriously. My goal is to always sounds like a professional writer and to slant my style toward the publication I am writing for while still maintaining my individual voice. Additionally, trying to really lay on an accent can be a real turn off. A little southern charm can go a long way, as could a couple well placed "eh"s from a Canadian author, but moderation is often key.
8) Take a lot of good photos. You are going to want a lot of high-quality photos for a variety of reasons. First, you generally get paid well for photos. The "stock photo" market is super competitive, but in an article, if you have good photos, they are almost guaranteed to get printed. That is a win on so many levels - less effort, more money, face time with a broad audience, etc. Also know that you'll have a lot of photos that you think are good get rejected for various reasons. If you aren't great at taking photos, make friends with a couple folks who are and who are reliable and easy to work with. All too often, a great conceptual article will go nowhere without the right photos.
9) Get good at taking stock photos. These photos may be pre-launch rigging shots, drone pics, release shots, etc. Not every picture should be a "grip and grin", trophy fish, or sunset. However, don't get too far and start staging everything. Trust me, there are writers out there who stage the large majority of their photos. I will never forget shooting some marketing material with my buddy Bill Kohls one day when he caught a bass that absolutely inhaled one of the crankbaits we were covering. The bait was way down in the fishes throat. He took a quick cell phone picture and and sent it to a company rep who is a regular on the FLW tour. The response he got was "Sweet. Real or fake?" That was a startling realization for us because at the time, we were pretty naive to the ways of marketing and sales in the outdoor industry. So, be real, but don't overlook the little stuff.
10) Find something that makes you unique/stand out. Honestly, one of the biggest things that helped me get noticed was my Duke degree. As soon as they see that, most editors know I will send them something in good shape, and that goes a long way, as every editor has opened the first draft of an article and immediately felt a few hairs go grey. Find ways to be creative, think outside the box, and be different while defining your own style. No matter how good you are at fishing style "x" or catching species "y", in all likelihood, so are thousands of other anglers. How can you frame these topics to make them more interesting than what the average guy has to say? It may be that you need to be more specific. For instance, instead of "chucking big swimbaits for giant bass", you may write "chucking big swimbaits along intermediate grass lines to catch bass moving up to spawn as water levels rise in the spring due to cold snowmelt runoff." In other cases, you may need to be more general. For example, instead of "chucking big swimbaits for giant bass", you may write "chucking big swimbaits for giant bass - favorite techniques from the top pros in Texas, California, and Florida". I once wrote kayak fishing fitness article with a paragraph about the benefits of microwaving vegetables - true story.
Articles don't always have to be super technical. Have a killer recipe (such as smoked rainbow trout) stashed away? Don't be afraid to throw it out there as an article idea.
11) Be prepared to sacrifice a fishing spot. The easiest way to get published is to write a destination piece, which is why most of the destination pieces you see written are about big, diverse bodies of water. At times, certain editors will be OK with something like "small lakes in central North Carolina." Other times, they want names, and if the article gets published, those spots will get a bit more crowded.
12) Know your weaknesses and embrace feedback. On multiple occasions, I've given Ric Burnley's email to an aspiring writer after talking with them and knew that they weren't going to get their ideas published. However, don't let that deter you. Being told no can help you pinpoint what you can change to be a better writer, and a lot of times, just contacting folks can help you get a foot in the door. Editors get dozens of emails every issue, many with the same topics, especially if a certain lure, technique, boat, etc. is hot at the time. Getting rejected is part of the process. Additionally, if you do get published, be open to any feedback you may receive from other writers, editors, publishers, etc. - but generally avoid feedback from the peanut gallery of social media.
13) Collaborate with link-minded folks who will co-sacrifice. It isn't always easy to find fishing buddies who can take good photos and are willing to sacrifice large chunks of fishing time to chase the perfect shot, especially without pay. In an ideal situation, you can find a fishing buddy who is willing to trade off between photographing and being photographed. Then, if a photo gets printed or an article you wrote together gets published, split the pay.
14) Good anglers don't necessarily make good writers. Some of my favorite writers aren't superb anglers. Don't get me wrong, they can more than hold their own, but they aren't usually the guys holding up the big checks or wrapping their trucks and kayaks. The best writers are experts that are relatable, informative, detailed and humble. In some cases, outdoor writing doesn't even have to be overly technical. Plenty of well-known writers pen funny outdoor stories and anecdotes for a living.
15) Consider online media. As I noted above, getting published online is generally easier than it is for a print magazine. In fact, I've turned in a few rushed articles that I am not overly proud of to online publishers. However, in today's social media craze, an online article might actually get your more publicity than a print article, although I think there is still more esteem associated with print.
16) Don't be afraid to submit. Again, the worst you will hear is "no". Additionally, a lot of magazines are constantly struggling to fill certain spots. Identify those needs and take advantage. For example, the "Grip 'n Grin" section of KAM is almost always in need of photos, and anyone can submit.
I remembering submitting this photo and brief caption to Bassmaster thinking I'd be incredibly lucky to be selected for their "Best of Fall" album. Not only was the photo (taken by Jerry Li) selected, it was the album cover and got my shoutouts on the Bassmaster social media accounts.
17) Be prepared for your idea to show up without your name on it. On multiple occasions, I've submitted a list of article ideas to a magazine and had one (or more) accepted. Then, when the magazine was released, I stumbled upon another article that I conceived but didn't write. I'm not talking something general or even mildly specific. These were extremely specific topics. Unfortunately, this is one of the ugly sides of the industry. Every article covered in house means lower expenses for the publisher, especially on long feature articles with lots of photos. As a writer, it is probably the toughest thing to have happen because you are torn between understanding it as part of the business and feeling betrayed that your idea was essentially stolen.
18) Network yourself. Talk to other folks in the industry and let them know that you are interested in writing and/or contributing. Most people are more than willing to help however they can, without some of the competitiveness and jealousy that exists in other parts of the industry.
19) Develop a resume. Resumes are time consuming, especially because they require regular updating, but they are extremely handy in the outdoor world. Keep them short and sweet (one page, front only) and tweak them based on the target magazine or article. Include your fishing accomplishments, educational background, job, and any previous writing, web, or media experience.
20) Don't forget English 101. When penning an article, go through the basic steps in writing that you were taught in high school. Come up with a title, make an outline, write a draft, proofread the draft, have someone else proofread the draft, make final changes, check the details (word count, repetition, conciseness, etc.), and submit the final article.
21) Keep a list. I keep a running list of blog/article ideas in my phone because if I don't I'll forget half of what I wanted to write about. I include a brief title and a few notes about each subject. I'll randomly add to these notes and use them to help outline the structure of an article.
I have been extremely fortunate to work with a lot of different editors, writers, and anglers over the years. If you managed to read this far, I want to say thank you to you all. You've helped shape my life in many ways, and I hope the memories and advice blogged here can help others in their journeys. Also, if you are reading this and have something to add to this list, please let me know. I would be happy to add the info to the blog (and give you credit, of course).