I love getting emails from our readers. It’s one of the best things about my job. My favorite emails are those that pose a question, and one that has been popping up more and more is: How do I get to write for a magazine?
This particular question hits close to home for me. Why? Because 12 years ago I was the one asking it. I wanted to be an outdoor writer more than anything – to be able to crack open a table of contents and see my name. The problem: I had no clue where to start, so rather than asking questions and trying to get some help, I went straight to the top. I’d long been a fan of Field & Stream and decided I’d send a story to its editor. I wrote, if you could call it writing, a full feature on turkey hunting and mailed it in. Twelve years later, I’m still waiting to hear back about that feature. All kidding aside, it was probably opened and discarded. Why? I had no plan. I had no resume. My writing was subpar. I had zero photo support. Do I really need to continue?
About a month after submitting that piece, I was blessed to meet a fulltime freelance writer. He had no clue about the outdoor industry, but made some serious coin writing for automobile and motorcycle magazines. I picked his brain for hours. He was awesome. I remember him telling me, “I can tell you want this bad. I can feel the energy coming from you. I will be glad to help.” His first bit of advice to me, “Aim low.”
Rather than targeting big-name magazines, he suggested I go after a small local or state publication. He recommended a trip to Barnes & Noble and an investment in a book called The Writer’s Market. This particular book, one I would recommend to any aspiring outdoor writer, lists most every outdoor magazine in the world. In addition, it provides editor contact information, how a particular editor wants to be approached (email or snail mail), what the magazine is looking for in terms of content, how much the magazine pays for articles and if they prefer manuscripts or queries (more about queries later).
I purchased the book and immediately found Colorado Fishing & Hunting News – a state pub that was printed twice a month. They paid very little, but because they pumped out so many issues, they needed a lot of content. I noticed the editor, the late Dusty Routh, preferred a query over a full manuscript. For those that don’t know, a query is a general article pitch and generally should be a paragraph or two describing the article. If you can’t tell an editor what your piece is about in two paragraphs, you don’t have a story. I put together a query and hit the send button on my email.
Days passed. Nothing. I was watching my Hotmail account like a hawk but quickly grew very disappointed. Then, like magic, it happened. Dusty responded. He liked my query and assigned me my very first feature article, a 2,500 word how-to bowhunt turkey story complete with photos. My payment: $25. I was elated.
Dusty, a great editor in my opinion, took me under his wing as I penned that first feature. He sent me a list of writer’s guidelines (if you want to be successful, request these and follow them to the letter!) and helped me get started. I would send him about 800 words at a time. He would edit those words and send them back to me. At first, I got the serious red-pen treatment. (You should plan to get the same). In addition, Dusty would call me and walk me through things. The key: I listened! I didn’t get frustrated. I didn’t think I knew more than he did. I welcomed constructive criticism and took his advice very, very seriously. For my efforts and willingness to provide content the way he wanted it, I was rewarded heavily. I started getting a feature per issue, and my pay increased.
One day Dusty called and told me it was time for me to up my game. He let me know my writing was getting a lot better, but my photography was very below average. That was putting it nicely. My photography was terrible. Dusty suggested that if I was serious about continuing my writing career, I needed to enroll in a professional photography course. I live in the middle of nowhere, and our local community college offers no such course. So I did the next best thing. I called a professional photographer I knew and told him I would pay for photography lessons. That was the best $100 I ever spent in my life. I learned about angles, lighting, etc. And, more importantly, I learned what type of images work for outdoor magazines. As my photography teacher told me, “Photos help your story tell a better story. They give the reader a visual reference and need to be geared specifically to how your story flows and the content it provides.”
In general, if you’re writing a story about hunting whitetail in thick bedding cover, don’t provide 10 images of you or a model (more on using models later) glassing atop a ridge looking over open country. Don’t write a kill-a-turkey-from-a-ground-blind piece and send images of someone spot-and-stalking. Your images need to be clean, crisp and unique to the specific article you’re writing. I once had an editor tell me, “I can fix subpar writing. I can’t fix subpar photos. A guy can be a decent writer and make a living as a freelancer if his photography work is excellent.”
Sound like a lot of work? A lot of dedication? It is. But those who want it bad enough – who will do whatever it takes – can succeed.
No, we aren’t done. Be sure to look for Part II and III of “How Do I Get To Write For A Magazine” in the coming weeks.