12 Tips for Aspiring Outdoor Writers

By Keith “Catfish” Sutton

Award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer, book author and lecturer Keith Sutton joined SEOPA in 1990. He has served as president and chairman of the board and was honored with the Tom Rollins award in 2002. He was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2012 and was awarded the Legends of the Outdoors Wade Bourne Award in 2019. Sutton knows there is more to good writing than stringing words together. Here, he explains some ways an aspiring writer can form a solid foundation for a successful career.

1. Find a niche and become the expert in your chosen field. You certainly can—and should and must—write about additional things as well. But by establishing a niche and learning all you can about the subjects within that niche, you can establish yourself as the go-to person when an editor or publisher wants an article or book about that subject. That leads to more business, more public appearances, more dollars in your pocket. Choose your niche carefully, however. You will be molded within its framework; be sure you’re comfortable being shaped that way.

2. Establish a persona—an intellectual, a humorist, an outdoorsman, a nincompoop. You can choose whatever you want, but choose carefully, for effect, and then milk it for all it’s worth. Recognition is everything in this business—recognition by publishers and editors, recognition by your readers, and recognition by the public. The more other people know you, the more likely someone will want to buy your services.

3. Read, read, read. First, read the work of good writers. By studying how others craft good works, you’ll learn to be a better writer, too. You also must read in order to know what’s out there. You’ll sell more stories/books if you: a) know what topics are hot right now, and b) can offer fresh ideas that haven’t been seen elsewhere.

4. Become the best writer you can be. Learn how to write catchy leads, interesting body copy and dramatic endings. Write in such a way the reader can’t put your story down. (This subject deserves an entire book and I apologize for the brevity here.)

5. Treat editors like customers, and remember, the customer is almost always right. You’ll sell much more work if you make the editor’s job easier. Write copy he or she knows they won’t have to edit. Be sure everything is grammatically correct, written in the editor’s style and properly punctuated. Always beat your deadlines. Always hit your word count. And always write with a slant you and the editor have agreed upon.

If an editor is critical of your work, don’t argue or fuss. That will get you nowhere. Instead, look at critique as a way of improving your services. Nothing will get you blacklisted quicker than getting your hackles up about critique or becoming bothersome about simple matters that should have been dealt with quickly.

6. Write queries every day. Establish good relationships with your editors and publishers and keep fresh ideas in front of them as often as possible. Sales depend on it. Ask the person what form of queries they prefer (single ideas, shopping lists, email, snail mail, etc.) then stick to that format and provide good, thought-provoking, hard-hitting ideas the editor/publisher will read and think, “I must have that story.”

7. Learn to juggle. You should write daily, but you also must handle all the other day-to-day business that is part of being a writer. You’ll have to keep track of assignments and queries, keep track of payments made and payments due, write and answer email and letters, deal with contracts and invoices, and handle a variety of other chores you probably haven’t even thought about. As one writer put it, “I love being a writer; it’s the paperwork I hate.”

8. Diversify. Unless you’re talented enough to become the next John Grisham or Stephen King, you’ll probably find it difficult to make a living by writing alone. In the outdoor field, it’s important you be a good photographer as well. Almost all publications require you provide not only text, but good photos/art for illustration as well. (If another writer is providing good photos and you don’t, who do you think will get the most assignments?) You’ll probably also need to look at additional ways to supplement your income such as speaking engagements, editing or perhaps television appearances. Becoming an expert in additional fields such as these enhances your reputation as a desirable talent people will want to hire.

9. Develop trust and friendship with your readers. I’m often told by people who read my work that they enjoy my writing because I can be trusted to tell it like it is without unnecessary embellishment. I’ve been there, done that, and write only about those things I totally understand. If I say a reader should consider going to this resort or that lake, it’s because I’ve been there and can recommend it from the standpoint I present in my article. I also answer every letter, email and phone call I get from readers. In this way, I develop a relationship that creates a loyal following of people who want to read everything I write.

10. No matter what you write, sleep on it a while before you submit it. Take a walk over it; scrutinize it in a morning; review it in the afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a while. Then go back to it and do everything you can to make it better. And then do some more. The gauge of a good piece of writing is how many people will want to read it 100 years from now. Strive for that kind of work and you’ll be able to take pride in everything you do.

11. Find yourself a good mentor. This might be a teacher, a friend, an editor, a co-worker. But it should be someone you respect and trust, and someone who knows enough about the craft of writing to teach you things you aspire to learn. Ask this person to critique your work and offer suggestions for improvement, and then incorporate the things they tell you into your writing. If you have chosen your mentor carefully, this person will become one of the most important and influential people ever to enter your life.

12. Finally, take joy in your work and willingly share with others the things you learn along the way. Give back what you have taken and then some. And realize every day how fortunate you are to be working at a job others envy. At times, when you’re strapped to your computer and sweating blood trying to craft a line of copy that is meaningful and unforgettable, you might wish you had some other job. But the feeling will soon pass. Being a writer is one of the most fulfilling of all professions. When someone you don’t know walks up to you someday and says, “Miss Smith, I loved the article you wrote about such and such,” you will find all the long hours, the hard work, the poor pay, all worthwhile. And you will be glad you are a writer.