Communicating the wonders of the natural world with Stephen Moss
“My passion is to communicate the wonders of the natural world to the widest possible audience”, said Stephen Moss, one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and TV producers. He shares my passion of communicating the wonders of the natural world to people of any age wherever they might be. I talked to Stephen and asked him where it all began. We talked about his love of birds and nature, how he got into broadcasting and writing books, and what advice he could offer people wishing to follow in his footsteps.
What did you want to be when you were at school?
I remember aged about 10 wanting to be a writer but I went to Grammar School after that and didn’t really do much for a few years. By age 16 I realised that I wanted to be a serious writer, maybe in journalism?
At 6th form I got my first taste of journalism by editing the school magazine. After that I decided to study English at Cambridge University, though I had once toyed with the idea of doing Biology because of my love for birds. In the end I kept birds as my hobby and went on to study English. Whilst at Cambridge I edited the Student Newspaper, but I didn’t really get into writing books until my 30’s.
Where did your love of birds & nature come from? When did it start and was there someone that inspired you when you were younger?
It all started at age 3 when I was taken by my Mum to feed the ducks by the River Thames. We saw some funny black ducks, Mum said we can check in the book at home. (Observers Book of Birds) When we got home I went straight to the book because I was excited to find out what the bird was. It turned out to be a Coot. I read & memorised the book from cover to cover.
There were two people who inspired me when I was younger. My Mum was one of them, she was a single parent and I was an only child. My Nan bought me up while my Mum went to work. My Mum gave up her time to take me to places such as London Zoo & the Natural History Museum which was a very inspiring place. From the age of 10 we went on holidays to places such as the New Forest to see birds and when I was a bit older up to age 14 we planned everything around birds, going to places such as Minsmere RSPB reserve and the Isles of Scilly.
When I was 11, at school I sat next to a boy called Daniel Osorio (now a Biology Professor); we started chatting and quickly realised we both had a love of birds, we spent a lot of time together birding, on days out and holidays to places such as Norfolk, Scotland and Dorset with Daniel’s family. Without my Mum and Daniel, I would have given up on birds. It is very important to have role models in your life when your young that’s why I always try to help young people.
How did you get into broadcasting? And what’s the best and worst thing about it?
After Uni I started applying for jobs in TV and got onto a training scheme called Television Production Trainee at the BBC, I didn’t even know at that time what a TV producer was. You basically find a lot of talented people and manage them and the project until something comes together. I got a job in TV production by accident as I really wanted to be a news journalist as I’m not naturally a visual person, I prefer words.
I met Bill Oddie when I was 23 and talked about doing a series. 13 years later we did it and that was Birding with Bill Oddie. Soon afterwards I got a letter asking if I wanted to do my next series with the BBC Natural History Unit and it went on from there. I later went on to produce Springwatch which has been a huge success. TV production is one of the few manufacturing industries left in Britain as you are physically making something. I also really wanted to be a writer and then I managed to do both. Eventually in my late thirties I was able to turn my hobby – my lifelong love of birds – into my job.
Easily the best thing about working in broadcasting is the people. It’s a bit like working in conservation, most people are very nice, committed and they care a lot, they are clever, interesting and funny too. I’ve worked with some great teams of people and Big Cat Diary and the first Springwatch were wonderful.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to follow in your Broadcasting footsteps?
- Make sure you like working in a team as there are always a lot of people involved in TV production.
- Don’t go into it if you like doing the same thing every day as TV is always different from day to day.
- If you like keeping to deadlines, then this is the job for you.
- Find someone who’s about two or three years ahead of you in the profession, (usually a researcher), talk to them, find out more information, gain more contacts.
- Always be friendly, positive and helpful.
- Use social media, exploit someone you know to get the information you need to further your career.
Travel plays a big part of your career, what’s the best place & the worst you have been to?
I’ve been lucky to travel all over the world in my career visiting some fantastic places. The worst place I have been to is Kaktovik in Alaska, a 5-hr flight from Anchorage on the border with Canada by the Arctic Ocean. When I was there it was September and it was cold and miserable. The best place is probably the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Okavango Delta in Botswana, or maybe Tanzania, which I visited last year for my new book on bird names. Africa really is my favourite place. If I had to pick a continent, then Africa would be the one. Antarctica & Australia were both amazing too. Antarctica was like being on another planet: I have never felt so far from home. Wetlands are my favourite habitat. While South America’s rainforests contains a lot of birds it can be difficult to see them in the trees and I get a feeling of claustrophobia.
Where should someone start if they wish to travel in your writing footsteps, reporting on wildlife around the world?
- Going to University might help but having a degree in English doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good writer.
- If you like writing send it to people, magazines, newspapers etc. It can be very hard to get paid very much, get published and make a living from it but if you really want to and your dedicated and passionate about the subject then keep going and it can happen.
- You must be tough and thick-skinned to make a living from writing with rejections and knockbacks along the away but writing about something you know about – and care about – will set you on a good path.
How did you get the idea for your first book and how did you go about getting it published?
I wrote my first book in the early 90’s. At the time I was working for BBC Education and I was commissioned along with Paul Simons to write a book about the weather. My second book – the first on my own – was about Birds & Weather which then led to me writing a column in the Guardian about the weather and subsequently a column on birds.
When it comes to publishing I’ve only written books if I’ve been commissioned to write – I’ve never written one on spec. I (or usually my agent) go to publishers with ideas and a couple of draft chapters for them to look at. I would advise people to use an agent: they are good at talking to the right kind of publisher who might want to turn your idea into a book.
Choosing the subject for a book can vary, sometimes people can come to me with an idea but usually it’s about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time, such as Bird Names which is the subject of my next book. Also, ideas can just bubble up in your mind, if that happens write them down.
What advice can you give to someone wanting to write their first book?
- Start small, get some articles published first, such as local or national magazines, newspapers.
- Writing is hard to get and can be difficult, you can learn to improve.
- Writing is like being a footballer, you wouldn’t play a match unless you’ve trained. Think of the book as the match. Make sure you keep practising.
Your career has now taken you back to university being a lecturer in Travel & Nature Writing, what do you get out of your new role?
The job happened by accident and I had a very short period to decide, that was over two years ago. I have liked it even more than I thought I would, in fact I love it. It’s about the personal contact and personal satisfaction. I’ve made TV programmes watched by millions of people but it’s not mine, because it’s done by a team. Teaching is on a much more personal level. I work with students aged 21-88, they write pieces, I comment, and we go on residential courses to work together, so it is really satisfying. Being a lecturer is more personal, with small groups of students and more one to one. If you’re going to follow this career path you must like people and it gives you plenty of variety.
Do you think it is essential that someone goes to university to achieve the best in their career?
Not necessarily, not at all. I agree with a widely-held view that Britain doesn’t value technical skills or craft skills as much as we should. Once people reach their 30’s & 40’s they either have the experience to do the job or they don’t. People should go to university to enjoy studying what they want to study and the freedoms it gives such as trying new things like student journalism. Universities are sometimes seen as job factories and that’s terrible.
Throughout your entire career, what are you most proud of?
The thing I am most proud of is Springwatch and being part of a movement that made watching wildlife TV something people could admit to, that would be my legacy.
1 last piece of advice from Stephen Moss
Never under-estimate the accidents, twists of fate and just plain good luck that can help you on your chosen career path.
And from the author
Never give up on your dreams because one day they might just come true.
Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists