"I'm going to quit work and become an outdoor writer.
That way I can get paid to fish and write about it."
Are you kidding? This is another area I know a little
bit about. It's also the hardest of the four occupations
(actually five, I'll have another one next week) to actually
make a living at.
I know a lot of outdoor writers, but I only know two who
make a living doing it who aren't part of an editorial staff
for some magazine somewhere. And, those two are excellent
photographers who actually make more money with their cameras
than they do with their keyboards. If you want to be a writer,
there are a few dues you'll have to pay before you can get a
My first question to you is, do you even know how to write an
article for a magazine? I've helped maybe a dozen people get
their first article published; but I've also turned away over
100 people who didn't have a clue. Their biggest problem was
a lack of understanding when the English language was the tool.
In short, they didn't know how to create a sentence or punctuate
it. They also didn't know how to spell or tell a story that
others could understand.
A good story needs a beginning, an end that stresses or
supports the beginning, and a bunch of supporting stuff
in the middle. It needs to be written in an order that
flows from one thought to another. It must paint a picture
in the reader's mind that is at least similar to the picture
every other reader sees. It better have a point that is
supported by the text.
A good story should be written in simple enough language
that a fourth grade student can understand it; but be
entertaining enough that a college professor can enjoy
it. That leaves out the hundred dollar words that you
need a dictionary to understand. If a reader encounters
more than one or two words he/she doesn't understand in
an article he/she is reading, that reader is likely to
read something else; and it won't be a dictionary.
Have you ever read an article that was loaded with flowers?
By that, I mean flowery words and terms that lengthen the
article without adding anything but words. "The sun rose
like a butterfly over a sea of roses." Really? My sunrise
shattered the dawn; that is until I realized how dumb that
sounded. It only has a bearing on your article if you are
writing about the sunrise, or if it genuinely emphasizes
a point you really want to make. You don't get paid by
the number of words you use, and editors will likely cut
out the flowers to make room for the meat of the text or
for advertising that pays the bills. If the editor has
to cut too much, someone else will usually get the
assignment so the editor doesn't have to work so hard.
In other words, a picture may paint a thousand words,
but your job as a writer is to paint as many pictures
as possible with the thousand words allotted to your
If you're going to be a writer, you better learn how to
use the tools of writing. By that, I mean an outline,
proper sentence and paragraph structure, proper spelling
and punctuation, and a thorough edit at least twice after
you think you have it just right. Even if you use all
those tools well, you're likely to find errors when you
read it again a few days later. It's better if you find
them and fix them before an editor does.
What experiences do you have that are valuable enough
that someone would pay you to share them? Do you have
unique talents that others don't possess? I'm getting
better, but I still get at least five rejections for
every article accepted by major print magazines. If
it isn't new, unique or a different idea, it won't go
to print in a major magazine. It probably won't go to
print in a small regional magazine either if it isn't
something different from what they already have.
I mentioned paying some dues earlier. More than a decade
has passed since my first article was published in a
regional magazine. Since that time, I have been published
in many of the fly fishing magazines (regional and national),
several regional hunting/fishing magazines, several
newspapers, several web sites, one international fishing
magazine, and Outdoor Life magazine. Some of those
magazines have published my work quite a few times.
However, before I could get a regional magazine to
accept or even look at an article, I had to show them
I had experience as a writer. My regular column in the
local newspaper helped in that area, but before they
would even look at my writing, I had to pay my dues by
writing reviews and training packages at my regular
occupation. I used that experience to start and the
rest grew as I gained experience.
You can start paying your dues by writing articles for
the Reader's Cast column here on FAOL. Yes, FAOL
has some very good and professional writers who write for
them. They also have some readers who aren't professional
writers who write occasional columns here. They don't pay
for their articles, but the experience you gain by writing
occasional columns for FAOL will go into your resume that
will be required if you want to write for anyone else.
If you want to be a writer, this is your great opportunity
I mentioned experiences that would be something others would
want to read about. What experiences do you have that others
want to learn? I have the advantage of age, and with age
comes experience; (at least that's what I've been told).
I spent ten years of my life guiding fly fishermen and elk
hunters; all the while holding down a regular job to keep
the bills paid. I have worked the better part of thirty-five
years with or for one fly shop or another. I have been tying
flies and building fly rods for three decades. I have some
experiences to relate, but I don't have them all. What do
you have to share?
Are you a photographer? More than a few of my proposed
articles have been rejected because I didn't have supporting
photographs, or the photos I did have weren't the quality the
publisher wanted or needed. Most magazines won't accept print
film or prints for publication. They want slides because the
color is usually more vivid and true. The few thousand magazine
quality slides I own are just a drop in the bucket compared to
the tens or hundreds of thousands of slides some writers I know
have in stock and cataloged. Good photography is almost a
necessity if you want to be published frequently.
Let's talk money for a minute. The best paying magazine I
have written for is Outdoor Life magazine. They paid me
$750 each for several of my articles and the lowest payment
I ever received from them was $300. Three hundred dollars
is more than most regional and a few national magazines pay
for feature articles. Add it up; how many articles will
you need to have published each month to survive? How
many magazines publish articles in the specialty you can
write about; and how often are they published? With
that kind of income, how often will you be able to afford
to travel and fish?
Editors go on assignment; writers rarely do. Most of the
articles you read are the product of a writer who spent
his own hard-earned dollars to go somewhere and then wrote
about it, hoping to defray some of the costs of the trip.
No one is going to pay you to go fishing and write about
it. You'll be lucky if you manage to completely pay for
a distant trip with the cash you can extract from the
few articles you manage to get published after the trip.
If I wasn't sitting at the keyboard writing this, I might
have more time to go fishing. I'm making a point here.
If anything, writing is likely to detract from your fishing
time rather than enhance it. It takes time to write articles
and review them. It takes time to sort through hundreds
of photos and reject 95 percent of them because they aren't
"magazine quality" or the shot just didn't turn out the way
you had it planned. It takes time to write proposed articles
(queries) for magazines, only to have most of them rejected
for one reason or another. All that time could be spent
fishing if you weren't a writer.
Do you still want to be a writer? If you do, you need
passion and skill. Passion is easy; skill is another thing.
It shouldn't surprise you that the majority of magazine
editors have a college degree in English. A college degree
isn't a necessity, but good writing and language skills are.
If it has been a while since your last college level English
class, you should enroll in one now. You can't get by with
basic writing skills.
There you have it; the basic recipe to a career in outdoor
writing. Get rich quick? Only if you win the lottery!
Make a living? Keep your day job. Fish a lot? Fish
less is a more likely outcome!