Al Campbell, Field Editor

November 19th, 2001

Get Rich Quick - Outdoor Writer
By Al Campbell

"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 good start.

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 article space.

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 to start.

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! ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns
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