8/10/2017 9:47:00 AM OUT IN THE OPEN- How to be an outdoor writer
Your Humble Servant constantly gets emails asking, "How do you become an outdoor writer?" The correct answer is "Have compromising pictures of the newspaper's editor," but as most would-be outdoor journalists aren't practiced in the art of blackmail or photo manipulation, I am usually forced to give some harebrained, totally off-the-wall suggestion such as "learn to write."
To help those who were too afraid or illiterate to send their own emails, I will publicly offer a few suggestions for the budding outdoor writer. If you fit into this category, I invite you to study these ideas religiously and then apply yourself with vigor. However, don't apply these skills to this newspaper or extremely incriminating photos of you are only a few mouse clicks away from being mailed to a major television network and/or religious denomination.
To write successfully about the outdoors, you must have a basic familiarity with the world beyond pavement. If you believe that a dangling participle is a type of tree-dwelling snake, you might consider another line of work. The same goes for angling: if the word "icky" appears whenever you discuss the landing of a fish, you might not be ready for prime time. Overt fears of the dark or aversion to arterial bleeding are also disqualifications.
On the other hand, being too competent means that you should be on the professional after-dinner speaker's circuit or you are already an accomplished liar. In this case you are eminently qualified to write; skip straight to the major outdoor magazines.
The basic goal of outdoor writing is to let the reader experience a little bit of what you have experienced, seen, heard, felt, tasted and smelled. If you have friends like mine, consider leaving out the smell part because some readers don't have strong stomachs.
You need to make the words leap from the page, grabbing the reader by the throat and compelling them to follow along further. A good piece of writing transports the reader alongside the writer to truly experience every leech bite and major propeller injury. Really excellent writing can even cause intestinal distress without actually ingesting any lake water.
A writer probably needs some expertise in the use of words. For instance, I know that a noun is a word that appears in most sentences and is often endlessly preached upon by high school English teachers. Spelling is another useful skill. Here's a professional spelling tip: tap the "Shift" and "F7" key simultaneously. If done properly, magical computer fairies will clean up the most egregious manuscript errors though they still won't crank out 20 column inches by Thursday deadline. Don't worry about other parts of grammar such as split infinitives - these are an urban legend invented by the Trilateral Commission.
The most important concept in writing is Topic. Without a topic, you end up casting around like a young bird dog, full of enthusiasm but not having the first idea why you are there. Topics are often difficult to locate, tougher than making a double on quail or catching a trophy brown trout on a fly. In fact, I would rather bet my financial future on catching a 10-pound brown in a chalk stream than try to pluck a theme from thin air after sitting down at the keyboard with a headache at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.
If you can handle all this word-related stuff, there are many benefits to being an outdoor writer. First is the paycheck: you actually get paid for going outdoors and then "spilling ink" about the adventure! Sometimes you can even pay the for the gasoline used during the trip, after receiving that paycheck arrives twelve months later and provided you were fishing within 10 miles of home. Some outdoor writers have even been known to become wealthy, defined as "not having bill collectors calling after 11 p.m." This, however, is the exception rather than the rule.
More importantly, you receive the accolades and respect of fellow outdoors enthusiasts. They look up to the writer with awe and respect, though it is often concealed beneath a veneer of indifference or outright hostility. It is comical to see a reader trying so hard not to make a maudlin public display of respect and veneration when meeting an outdoor scribe. Sometimes they even will threaten physical harm with a canoe paddle in an effort to conceal their esteem.
It is not easy to become an outdoor writer and even tougher to land a weekly column. It takes years of practice, study, field work and dues-paying before that big break comes via phone call, letter or email. But when it does, the rewards cannot be measured in mere dollars.
Oh yes, you should also master irony. For instance, it is ironic that synonyms for the word Mere include meager, measly, scanty, insufficient and paltry.
Brent T. Wheat
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.