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Keys to becoming a complete (outdoor) communicator

Editor’s note: Following is text from a presentation from the June 13, 2009, OWAA conference workshop “Becoming an Outdoor Communicator: Working with Magazines.”

Tip 8: Sometimes you have to put down the gear and just take photographs



The world of freelance writing is extremely competitive, especially in these tough economic times. Money is tight, markets are shrinking, and editors are reluctant to assign stories to people outside of their “stables” of writers. It’s just too easy for editors to say, “No, thank you,” rather than taking a chance on people they are not familiar with. Because anyone would like to get paid for having fun outdoors and writing about it, freelance gigs for outdoor communicators are even more difficult to come by.
The key to breaking into the magazine market, therefore, would seem to be to make it difficult or impossible for an editor to say, “No.” And the key to that is to present yourself as 100 percent professional in attitude, attention to detail, work ethic and work quality.
Most of the suggestions below would apply to anyone trying to improve him/herself as a communicator in any field. The final one, however, seems to be particularly apropos for people trying to get a handhold in the field of outdoor communications. Other than that one, they are presented in no particular order. They come from my experiences as both a writer and an editor.
1. To write for money, you are telling an editor and the public, “I am a professional.”
Professionals learn the technical aspects of their jobs; in this case that means grammar, proofreading and extreme self-editing.
Those imply looking for what’s bad. But you can also look for how to make things better: parallel structure, using lively language and metaphors more than similes.
Just about every other tip that follows is an extension of this one. Be a pro.
2. Work to establish a rapport with an editor.
Not so much that when you call he says, “There’s my buddy, let’s go fishin’,” but that he says, “There’s that person who is a pleasure to work with and who has taught me to have confidence in what he/she proposes.”
3. Give the editor what he/she asks for.
If the guidelines say to deliver photos in digital form only, don’t send him a handful of prints and expect him to get them scanned for you. If he tells you he wants 1,500 words, don’t send him 2,300.
4. Remember, the editor is the freelancer’s client, not the other way around.
Basically a corollary to tip No. 3.
5. Don’t turn down work.
Another corollary to No. 3. If things get to the point between you and an editor that the editor is steering work your way, take it. It’s OK to be a bit anxious if it’s on a topic or task you are unfamiliar with. That gives you reason to learn new skills.
For example, several years ago, an editor asked if I wanted to take the tabletop photos of fishing lures for a gear review issue of his magazine. I told him, “Sure,” even though I had no idea how to accomplish the task. After a little research and a minimum investment for the appropriate equipment (about $100) I started cranking out those images as if I were a pro. But wait! I am a pro, so that should be expected, right? Even better news is the high-quality work I turned in on that assignment led to about a dozen more of the same.
6. Don’t tell the editor what you cannot do.
In other words, don’t reveal your weaknesses. Why would you want to do that? Another corollary to No. 3, actually. If the editor tells you he wants photos in digital form, don’t tell him “I’m a dinosaur” with digital photography. You know what happened to dinosaurs. Figure out how to get those images to him in digital form. If he asks for a certain format in which you submit articles, don’t tell him “I’m not very good with computers.” In this day and age, a writer saying that is tantamount to an office receptionist saying, “I don’t know how to use a push-button telephone.”
If the editor tells you you’ve got too many passive-voice verbs, don’t tell him you don’t know what he means. Find out what those are and get rid of most of them.
If the editor tells you that you need to improve the types of photos you are submitting, don’t expect him to teach you to be a better photographer. Do the research to see how your images compare to what’s “acceptable” or “required” and make the adjustments.
7. Passive-voice verbs should generally be avoided.
8. Learn to take good photos and you will sell more stories. That’s the sad fact of the matter for writers, but there it is.
Digital photography, though has made it much easier for “by-necessity photographers” to take dozens and dozens of images and to try different techniques to get their “best” shots.
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to put down the shotgun or fishing rod,” veteran outdoor communicator Tom Huggler once advised, “and just take photographs.” While we want to enjoy our experiences outdoors, if we are there for work; at some point we actually have to do the work.
9. Be sure to give specific titles to images and to supply captions clearly matched with those titles.
When submitting a complete story packet with text and photos, don’t merely toss in a CD with a bunch of photos with labels like “DSCF0058.jpg” and so on.
That sends the editor on a wild goose chase. Be sure to provide a contact sheet so the editor can compare photos easily instead of having to open them all up and maneuver them around his screen. (Many photography programs will create a contact sheet automatically.)
Instead of keeping the code for the images, give each one a clearly identifiable name: “1. Guide setting decoys at dawn,” or “2. English setter leaping after flushing woodcock.” Something that distinguishes them from one another.
Then, in some kind of orderly fashion, match the appropriate photo to the suggested caption. For example: “1. Guide w/decoys at dawn – Getting a head start on the action, guide Gary Posen makes sure his decoys are set well before first light.” There’s no way a caption for the setter and woodcock could mistakenly be placed with this photo.
10. Avoid complicating matters. The easier you make it on the editor to figure out what you are submitting, the easier things become on you.
You make the package impossible for the editor to mess up and you’ll realize two residual effects immediately. First, you’re not likely to get calls or e-mails asking where this is or that is. Second, the editor will trust you to do the job well and will likely steer more work your way. That’s part of the rapport building mentioned in tip No. 2.
It probably comes as no surprise to you when I say the most complete packages I receive as an editor come from a writer who was an editor herself. She submits a printed article, photo contact sheet, list of suggested captions and a CD with digital versions of everything. It should also come as no surprise that I don’t have to harangue her for more items to make her packet complete, but I do contact her to see if she’d like to do more work.
11. Deadlines are sacrosanct.
Don’t wait until a deadline has arrived or (Gulp!) has departed before you let an editor know you need more time. But better yet, don’t ever put yourself in a position of needing more time.
12. When in doubt, leave it out.
Cut. Cut. Cut. Don’t wed yourself to your words with an emotional attachment. An article is a piece of work. Doing whatever you can or need to in order to make things easier on the reader is an act of craftsmanship. And pride in craftsmanship is an attendant aspect of professionalism.
13. Don’t worry about using fancy language or big words – especially just for the sake of using them.
The attempt to try to sound intelligent by using big words with which we are unacquainted often leads to our exposing ourselves as being simply inept.
Focus on painting simple but precise images with your words, images the reader can easily connect to and enjoy. The readers will find deeper meanings, whether you intend them to or not.
14. If you want to write well, read a lot – and not just outdoor stuff.
The more we read, the more experience we get with the language of literature (as opposed to everyday conversation). We subliminally grasp the “feel” of words and their sounds and rhythms. We develop the ability and the need to bring such music to our own words. We become better writers.
15. Prepare! Prepare! Prepare!
When going into an interview, make sure you have a prepared list of questions and follow-ups written down. That way, you’ll never be at a loss for what you want to find out and if the interview goes down an unexpected road, you can always get back on track.
16. Take accurate notes.
Interview subjects totally appreciate when they’re quoted accurately. Wait for a break in the action to check to see if you heard what the person actually said.
17. It’s not worth the risk!
If you can’t read your notes, either double-check the info with the subject of the interview or just leave out that information. You must not risk misquoting someone.
18. Make sure you study the publications you want to write for so you deliver the appropriate slants in your queries and the appropriate styles in your articles.
19. You’ll hear, “No,” or “This doesn’t meet our needs,” about 100 times more than “Yes, please,” and “Nice job.”
Tough as it sounds, we need to develop thick skins, at least to the degree that we don’t take rejection personally.
20. A tip that applies especially to outdoor writers: If the story is not about you, then keep the first person references to a minimum. Examples:
Article – A writer submitted a story that was supposed to be about hunting chukars. The story was 1,700 words long; 10 percent of the words referred to himself, 3 percent to the birds.
Book review – 16 paragraphs, 53 first-person references, two references to the book and none until the 12th paragraph.
Article – “Bluegills on a Fly-Rod,” (how-to) approximately 2,250 words, 74 first-person references, 28 to the fish (13 to “bluegill,” 15 to “fish”).
Article – “Florida Keys Getaway,” (destination piece) 24 paragraphs long, 18 of the first 19 paragraphs have first-person references, at least 44.
This is not to suggest first-person references should never be used but rather that writers should evaluate their use, checking to see if they are necessary or if they draw the reader’s attention away from the topic and toward the writer.
What’s wrong with such stories?
The focus on “the outdoor writer as hunting/fishing hero” has become a rusted cliché.
When stories continually arrive with “I went hunting and had a good time” as their main theme, it’s time to see what we can do about it, if the delivery of high-quality writing to the readers remains our primary goal. And those in the end are the people whose needs the writer must focus on serving: the readers’, not the writer’s.
How does an overdependence on self-references reduce the quality of the writing we’re producing?
In the first place, it’s monotonous. Second, such references establish a speed bump in the story’s ability to “come alive” for the reader. Instead of seeing/living the experience, the reader watches the writer having the experience. Consider the following example:
My dog Scout ran into the aspen stands ahead of me. By the time I had walked in four steps, he was on point about 20 yards ahead of me. I walked up and tried to keep as quiet as I could. Before I could get to the dog, I saw a grouse fly off to my right. I fired off two shots, but I missed.
(Eleven references to self in four sentences; 11 out of 66 words – 17 percent. And don’t laugh. I’ve edited pieces in which the percentage was this high.)
The reader just sits there watching the writer go hunting. An unsolicited response from an unbiased source: “It was irritating.”
What if we reword it?
Scout dashed into the aspen stand and about 30 yards in slammed onto point. As I made a quiet approach, he turned his head to the right and stared at a spruce scrub at the edge of the swamp. From the tree’s base a slight flicker of movement, then the whirr of grouse wings. Despite the two quick shots I offered, the bird disappeared untouched into the depths and darkness of the swamp.
(Two references to self in four sentences; two out of 73 words, about 3 percent.)
I took about two minutes to write the first sample and about three to write the second, so I’m not suggesting it’s print worthy. Notice, however, how focusing on reducing details about self also tends to get the writer to deliver more details about other elements in the scene – dog, bird, setting – and gives the reader a better chance of feeling the experience.
The real effort to write about something other than self begins, of course, in the field. Try training yourself to take more notes about the scenes and actions than about your own reactions to them. That way, you’ll have more to write about than just memories of your personal experiences.
Just as it’s important to put down the gear to take photos, it’s important to put it down to take accurate notes at the time the images and experiences are fresh in your mind and your mind’s eye. ◊
Tom Carney, of Alpena, Mich., is a full-time freelance writer and photographer, editor of the Upland Almanac, columnist for the Alpena News, managing editor of The Bird Hunting Report and field editor of the Great Lakes Angler.
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