Saturday, February 14, 2009

Helping Beginning Outdoor Writers

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Forty-two years of outdoor writing has taught me several things. One is to help beginning writers learn how to produce something that people will want to read.

Most beginners come searching for the magic key that will unlock the many secrets of outdoor writing. They want to know how to write well, get paid well, and learn how to succeed in only a month or two. Dream on!

Honestly, it’s hardly possible these days to make a living in the outdoor magazine market. A friend who has been at this business for 20 years told me yesterday that he’d starve to death on what he can make writing for today’s crop of outdoor magazines.

Many magazines, like many daily and weekly newspapers, have gone downhill and then out of business. Nearby Antrim County has lost three newspapers in the past month or so. That’s a tragedy.

The national economy has gone into the toilet, people who once had good jobs, are now out of work. Look at house foreclosures and the closings of many businesses, and you’ll start to get the picture. Auto companies get bailouts but what about those who are struggling to stay afloat and solvent? What about the money most of us lost as corporations get huge bailouts only to pay out millions in bonuses to the idiots at the top that managed to get them into financial trouble.

It hasn’t always been this way. I’ve voted in every election since I turned 21, the legal voting age back then. It was then that I began to see politicians for what some of them are – crooks. Most seem to have some common decency but others are there to make big money. Back in the old days, an outdoor writer was envied, looked up to by his readers but we were paid about the same rates as they pay now.

I began writing in 1967, and here it is 2009, and almost in the blink of an eye, 42 years have passed. I made some very dumb mistakes when first starting out, and soon learned from those mistakes.

An editor’s best friend, and his greatest tool, is a red pencil. It can cut a wide swath through a manuscript while making red editing marks everywhere. Sentences, and occasionally whole paragraphs, are deleted or undergo radical changes. Editing one’s own copy requires years of training, and it doesn’t come without some pain.

I’ve mentored beginning writers for more than 30 years. Some are now household names to Michigan sportsmen, but I’ve mentored other budding writers from other states as well. I’m currently working with several writers, including two from Michigan. I look for people who want to learn, and who are long on grit and determination.

The little tricks they want to learn are the simplest of all. A young friend from Wisconsin, who I met at an outdoor writers conference, sent me a manuscript some time ago that I haven’t read. He made two simple mistakes that I caught before reading his manuscript. A short note pointed out what should have made those two errors very obvious but he had missed them. I helped him and he won’t forget.

When I began writing in 1967, all of these errors and many others were made by me, but no one mentored and taught me anything. Learning from errors may be the best learning tool of all, but it’s hard watching other writers make the same dumb mistakes. If young (or old) writer put some trust in me, it behooves me to inform them of their mistakes and teach them the right and proper way to do it.

Many writers never learn how to self-edit. They figure it’s an editors job, but if a writer can save an editor time and work by doing it right, the guy who buys articles may look more kindly on his work.

I’ve been into this mentoring game for many years, and every beginner makes the same mistakes. My red pen marks up their pages, and it looks like a flock of chickens walked in red paint before scratching across each page of their marvelous manuscript.

Budding writers are warned this will happen, and if they don’t have thick skin or acquire one quickly, they will soon be angry and fuming. Anger and frustration from someone I’m trying to help doesn’t set well with me, so I offer them a fair warning it is coming. We part company if their anger becomes too steamy or strident.

Most people handle constructive criticism well. One Michigan gent didn’t, and called me some very nasty names and we soon parted company. He floundered on his own for a year or so and soon disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Others who absorbed some of their rather painful lessons have gone on to become full-time outdoor writers who are making their living at it. Most eventually come to realize that all the red marks were there for a reason: to show them how to better construct sentences.

Most beginners are too wordy. I give an assignment of 500 words. The topic isn’t important, but should relate to fishing or hunting but I don’t want 400 or 600 words. I want 500 words.

A 15-year-old high school boy contacted me once, and wanted help. I’ve heard from him twice, sent him a six-page letter, and he was given an assignment. He sent in a story, and it was on steelhead fishing, a topic I’m very familiar with. His story used a phrase I’d never heard of in more than 50 years of steelhead fishing.

He didn’t want to change the phrase, and seemed unable to see my reasoning. The story could have been salvaged but only with my recommended changes. He chose to do it his way, and I wish him luck but I’ve never seen his story in print. A sad mistake on his part.

Writing, my students are told, is easy. Good writing is difficult, and the longer one writes, the harder it becomes. Someone once said writing is easy: all you have to do is stare at a blank computer screen until drops of blood form on your forehead, and perhaps then words will start flowing from the brain to the fingertips.

I consider writing fairly easy but 42 years of doing something every day helps a person become better at it. I’m there for my students because once I’m dead and gone, it’s my hope that those I’ve helped will have become good enough and motivated enough to help others learn how to write outdoor copy.

What goes around, comes around. If you give of yourself, you are usually repaid, and it makes me feel good to work with beginning writers, regardless of age.

However, in today’s horrible economy, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to make a fair living. There isn’t anyone I know, out of more than 1,000 outdoor writers that I do know, who can make a fulltime living writing just magazine copy. The writers of today must be competent in other related fields: books, newspaper, public speaking, radio, television and other venues. Magazines are dying, and some may not make it to when the economy starts to turn around.

The simple truth is that good outdoor writing really isn’t very easy for most people and marketing stories is another facet that students must learn. Marketing a magazine story now has never been more difficult. Only those with some great talent, a knack for stringing sentences together, knowing how to shoot quality photos, and being able to meet deadlines, will have any chance of making it.

Anyone who considers a job change to outdoor writing should hold on to their day job and stop dreaming the almost impossible dream. Those of my generation held that dream, kept it intact, and now are trying to keep our outdoor writing heritage intact. It may no longer be possible as it was 30-40 years ago, and that is a shame.

Posted by Dave Richey on 02/14 at 08:17 PM
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