Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Conservation doesn’t have to be just about science… Derek Niemann shows how he has used his creative flair, passion, writing skills and wildlife knowledge to inject some imagination and originality into the world of science and editing, bringing wildlife and conservation into the hearts of adults and children.

Credit: Andy Hay / RSPB

Credit: Andy Hay / RSPB

What is your current job title?

Youth Magazine Editor

How did you get into the career you currently find yourself?

I left University after gaining a degree in English and decided what I really wanted to do was to write! So when I saw a conservation task advertised that I thought looked fun, I borrowed my girlfriend’s camera and got stuck in. After taking part, I wrote about it and decided that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; write about wildlife and conservation.

Like many people I dossed around at university and didn’t do a lot of writing (not in regards to what I was truly passionate about anyway). So many people leave university thinking that because they’ve got a degree they will get a job easily, but you don’t realise that’s just not the case. I spent two years on the dole after university, during which I was writing anything and everything about conservation. Consequently I gained a job at a Wildlife Trust which was, at first, working on development and publicity. I was no good at the development part but very good at publicity and eventually got a job at the RSPB as a press officer. A few years later, I joined the editorial team. After a while they thought I’d be good at writing things for children which I thoroughly enjoyed. I dropped very happily into the role of magazines editor.

What freelance projects are you currently working on?

I do a tiny fortnightly column for The Guardian called Country Diary. I also do a lot for BBC Wildlife magazine. Recently I worked on a six page feature on red kites.

I write books too! I am currently finishing a book about my grandfather and his Nazi past which comes out in March and is called A Nazi in the Family. The book I wrote previously was Birds in a Cage. This was about prisoners of war watching birds. I didn’t realise at the time but there were connections between that book and the book I’m currently working on now. One of the prisoner of war birdwatchers had been in a prison of war camp that my grandfather ended up in too. There is no wildlife connection to my current book but the sooner I get back to writing about wildlife the better.

I have also written some books for children that were on sale in America: I wrote a few chapters for one of them, although to this day I have never seen them! I also wrote 2 or 3 books which were part of a boxed set of 10.

In the UK, I did four little books for the RSPB teaching young children about wildlife: RSPB First Book of Birds, RSPB First Book of Minibeasts, RSPB First Book of Trees and RSPB First Book of the Seashore. You can now buy these in the RSPB shop.

When and how did you gain an interest in wildlife and writing?

As a child I was always absorbed by wildlife and taught myself about it with help from other people. When I started writing, it became a life mission to write about wildlife.

I started writing when I could first hold a pen. I wrote all the time. Once I started writing little animal stories. My dad took my books to work and his friend said it was like Animal Farm! I got compared to George Orwell which I was really cheesed off about as someone had thought of my idea already! I was only 10 and I’d never heard of Orwell.

What is your favourite part about writing?

It’s when I have that eureka “ah that’s how I’m going to do it moment! When trying to start to write it’s like trying to cycle, only your chain is not on, you’re just going round and round and then when you have the eureka moment it all comes together.

When you start to write a book do you make notes?

I was reading an interview with novelist Ali Smith and she said she spends a huge amount of time on the research part and the writing actually takes hardly any time at all – that’s the same with me. I spend loads of time reading around the topic and then when I start, it all comes out very fast.

What is the worst part of writing/editing?

The worst part is the tedious part of making corrections. If I have a whole book to go through and have to read it a number of times or, for example, if I’ve written something for Bird Life magazine, it has to go around a number of teams for checking and then I have to incorporate all the amends. That’s the dull bit.

What is the best part of your job at RSPB?

Probably seeing the stuff that children produce, that’s just fantastic, especially if they are set a task; for example you ask them to write about a subject and they come back with something wonderful and really enjoyed doing it, that’s just lovely.

Sadly you are leaving the RSPB after 25 years. When you leave what shall you be working on?

I shall be concentrating on editing and writing. I shall be editing, giving talks, doing interpretation work, writing books and maybe doing some teaching if I’m lucky – I’m really looking forward to it.

What achievement are you most proud of so far?

Definitely the book Birds in a Cage as that got some really positive reviews. A few people from the prisoner of war camps or people who knew them said I’d captured it very well. It was lovely to do that for the families of the prisoners of war. Especially for people like Peter Conder who was in charge of the RSPB and did so much for the RSPB but who today is virtually unknown.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Although everyone says it all the time, the way to get better at writing is to write constantly. It’s like building muscles, you need to keep practising and the more you write the better you get. If you’re looking to get into editing then try and get yourself published in as many places as possible. People have got the advantage now of writing blogs so you can write blogs and find other blogs and ask to be a guest blogger. They could even write for the RSPB, or for a reserve if based at a reserve, or for their local Wildlife Trust. There are lots and lots of opportunities but you need to show you can do it rather than just saying you can. At the end of the day they need to see your CV and your CV is what you’ve written.

About the author

Sarashka King in Romania, credit Philip King

This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Sarashka King. Sarashka is passionate about nature and conservation. She currently works for the RSPB in the Supporter Marketing department and is planning to start her Postgraduate Diploma in Ecology at the University of East Anglia to go along side her degree in Marketing and Advertising. She hopes to then take this forward to do a Masters in an area of interest and progress her career within the conservation sector.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Communicator