Tom Huggler on success as an outdoor writer
BY JAKE McGINNIS
According to Michigan author and freelance writer Tom Huggler, there are no secrets in outdoor writing. He doesn’t have a little tip for selling articles. Success in outdoor writing, he insists, is all about careful planning and hard work.
“It’s always been a buyer’s market,” said Huggler. “So it’s a challenge of getting the pieces of the puzzle together. You need to find the pieces, get the editor’s attention, study the market, and then craft the piece. Then you can turn in an article that they simply can’t turn down.”
Huggler’s observation comes after a noteworthy career as an outdoor writer. He published his first story, a piece on muskrat trapping, when he was 12 years old. He was 17 when he placed an article in the January 1963 issue of Outdoor Life, a piece that fetched him a $350 paycheck. That article, a hunting story titled “Crows a la carte,” was by no means a shortcut into the industry, though.
“It took me 15 years to sell the next,” he said, chuckling.
After college, Huggler pursued a career in education. He taught high school English, served as an administrator and pursued writing on the side, particularly during summers. By 1974 he was writing enough to qualify for membership in OWAA, but his writing remained a weekend profession.
It wasn’t until 1982, with a year’s leave of absence and a carefully calculated savings account, that Huggler stepped tentatively into the outdoor communications industry. He knew precisely how much money he would have to make as a writer, and he was prepared to return to the classroom in the event he didn’t meet that goal.
Today, he tells the story with ease. He marks 1982 as the start of his full-time writing career, and that savings account, tucked away in case he couldn’t make ends meet, ended up financing a family vacation in Europe. For Huggler, outdoor communications ended up paying off.
Ralph Stuart, the editor of Shooting Sportsman magazine, has worked with Huggler for some 25 years. For him, the reason for Huggler’s success is simple.
“Tom is the epitome of what I would like to be if I was a writer rather than an editor,” he said. “He’s always working — always photographing, always taking notes, always observing details — and it shows in his writing.”
Jake Smith, editor at The Pointing Dog Journal, has also seen the results of Huggler’s dedication to the craft. He describes Huggler’s regular column, Eastern Encounters, as a joy to read. “It’s one of the few manuscripts I receive each issue which I find myself reading with a cup of coffee instead of a red pen,” he said.
Huggler’s work doesn’t always end when an article is submitted, though. He still works closely with editors, who he describes as a gateway to readers. Red marks are an important part of the writing process.
“He’s always been a great person to work with because there isn’t much of an ego there,” Stuart said. “He’s proud of what he turns in, but he’s not afraid to change it.”
Huggler put it another way. “Not every piece is a home run,” he said, “but if you’re going to write for someone is has to be a best effort.” And that includes whatever it takes to make that story perfect.
These days, Huggler publishes about 25 articles a year, including regular columns for three magazines. During the peak of his career, though, he was selling 150 to 175. He served as the camping editor of Outdoor Life and has worked in film, television and public relations. Over the course of two decades he penned 20 books, including the Fish Michigan series, “The L.L. Bean Guide to Upland Bird Hunting,” “Quail of North America,” “The Camper’s and Backpacker’s Bible” and “Fall of Woodcock,” among others.
Forty years in the outdoor communications industry has established a fine reputation for Huggler and his work.
Stuart sums it up nicely. “To me, Tom is a consummate professional. That’s the reason why he has been as successful as he has.”
A reputation like that can only be the result of true dedication to craft. Huggler admits, though, that a few good friends make things a lot easier.
“If it wasn’t for OWAA I wouldn’t have been as successful as I have,” he said. “The membership of OWAA is a cherished group of people.”
Still, Huggler’s achievements are strictly his own, and after forty years as an outdoor writer his advice ought to be taken seriously. No matter the story, the pay or the point in one’s career, only a best effort will do. That, he says, is the only secret. ◊
Jake McGinnis is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in writing at Northland College, where he serves as an editor of an independent student newspaper and a writing tutor. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, he enjoys canoeing, fly-fishing and Nordic skiing. McGinnis was OWAA’s summer journalism intern.