How to be a wildlife journalist
Have you ever wondered if you could be a wildlife journalist but not known where to begin? Conservation Careers Blogger, Charlotte Rixon, shares the wisdom of six successful but very different nature writers.
Just like a perfectly captured wildlife photograph, a beautifully crafted piece of nature writing can be thrilling to create or behold. But more than that, nature journalism is a vital means of communicating important environmental issues and making the natural world more accessible to the public.
It can take many forms, including penning press releases for NGOs, composing features for magazines, keeping a blog about your personal wildlife encounters or even authoring books and writing for TV and radio.
But just like any other conservation-related role, wildlife journalism is highly competitive. Few manage to make a living entirely from its profits, although it can be an extremely fulfilling sideline to another career.
What sort of background do I need?
There are various routes into wildlife journalism but a grounding in environmental science is an advantage because it will lend your words authority and reassure editors that you know what you are talking about, while a journalism or science communications qualification is a great bonus.
Nick Atkinson’s zoology background helped him get started as a freelance wildlife journalist because it meant that he was able to “understand the peer review process and not just blindly accept the findings” when reporting on research news, while BirdLife International communications officer, Martin Fowlie, believes that his ecology roots ensure that he can “communicate complex science and convey key messages”.
That said, being an expert naturalist isn’t necessary if you can prove, like wildlife writer, environmental historian and creative director of A Focus on Nature, Lucy McRobert, that you have “skills in research, analysis and the written word”.
Liam Creedon also managed to break into wildlife writing without a science degree. His ten years’ experience as a news reporter helped secure him the role of wildlife columnist for The Press Association, which in turn led to his appointment as head of press for Butterfly Conservation.
Above all, a deep-seated passion for the wild is a must, as freelance writer Beth Pipe demonstrates. With neither a conservation nor journalistic background, Beth began writing for the sheer love of the great outdoors and even managed to turn her lack of expertise to her advantage by writing a column charting her attempts at birding, despite the fact that, she says, “I could barely tell a pigeon from a penguin when I started”.
How can I gain experience?
The only way to become a writer is to write and the more you write the better you will become. But it’s no good just scribbling away in your bedroom, you’ll want to get your writing noticed and get feedback from others. If you’re not sure where to start, Martin recommends blogging as “a great way to hone your craft and find your voice.”
Lucy began her blog, Talk on the Wild Side, to record her memories of a trip to the Cairngorms and explore her love of nature writing. Then, when she promoted it on social media and received encouragement from other nature writers, she decided to keep going, writing about everything “from the controversial to the lyrical”, including an attack on Owen Paterson over the badger cull and an “experience piece” about common dolphins in Scilly.
One way to get your writing noticed more quickly is to write for another organisation’s blog. For example, you could take a leaf out of Lucy’s book and offer to contribute to your local Wildlife Trust’s blog, which in her case led to publication in Bird Watching and Birdwatch, or you could even try your hand at blogging for Conservation Careers.
Volunteering to write for a not-for-profit organisation is another great way to “develop your skills, build contacts and get a body of work on your CV”, suggests Kay Haw, who began her writing career by authoring charity newsletters during an internship with the National Trust, contributing to her university’s magazine and volunteering as a reporter at the Cheltenham Science Festival. She followed this up with a piece for British Wildlife and blogs for The Guardian and Autumnwatch.
Entering writing competitions can also help you to get a foot in the door, as Beth discovered when she won a caption contest, while Lucy’s writing career received a huge boost when she came runner-up in BBC Wildlife’s annual nature writer of the year contest.
How should I approach editors?
Getting established as a writer is tough, because editors can be reluctant to take a gamble on new writers. This is why it’s important to persevere but also to ensure that you approach editors in the right way.
Firstly, decide where you would like to get published and make a list of titles to target. You could use a market guide such as the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find the names and contact details for hundreds of relevant publications.
The next step is to approach commissioning editors with brief emails, outlining or ‘pitching’ the features you propose to write. Nick recommends doing your homework by reading back issues first to “get to know what different editors want,” while Liam stresses the need to “make sure your idea is new, newsworthy and relevant to the publication’s readership.”
You can usually find out a lot about the kind of articles different publications prefer by reading their style guidelines, and if you can write your pitch in the style of the magazine, you could be onto a winner.
Martin advises against “aiming too high straight away,” for example trying to get your first ever article into The National Geographic, and stresses the need to be persistent, because “editors are very busy and won’t always have time to get back to you.”
If you get the green light, make sure, says Lucy, that you “research the topic thoroughly” and “quote your sources accurately”, and be prepared, adds Kay “to take constructive criticism well”.
Where can I find ideas for articles?
Good journalists are constantly on the lookout for feature ideas, so it’s advisable to take a notebook, pen, dictaphone and camera with you wherever you go. If you work in conservation or know people who do, then projects you’re involved with or conversations with friends will doubtlessly spark ideas, while conferences, press releases and social media could provide endless sources of inspiration.
Liam’s best tip is to get yourself on the mailing lists of wildlife NGOs, and “build relationships with the press officers and the experts mentioned in press releases, as they will eventually come to you with stories”. (You can research UK based wildlife NGOs via AskCharity.)
Brilliant ideas crop up in unlikely places so don’t restrict your reading to wildlife writing. Reading widely and voraciously across genres, including travel writing and poetry, will also help you develop a critical eye for what works and why.
But reading and research will only get you so far. If you haven’t trudged through mud and nettles in the pouring rain to get up close to a family of otters or been spellbound by the sight of starlings in murmuration, then your writing will lack authenticity and won’t resonate with readers.
Even if you have been commissioned to write up a technical or political news story, Liam advises that “watching wildlife as often as possible and adding little snippets of your experience can bring alive an otherwise dry piece of copy”.
How should I market myself?
It’s an old adage that if you want to succeed in journalism, it is all about who you know. There is still a lot of truth in this; however, thanks to the social media revolution, you don’t have to build up contacts the old fashioned way anymore -you can market yourself to editors and build an online presence fairly quickly via the realms of Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.
Ideally, you should have your own website or blog to showcase your work, while you can use social media to promote it. For example, when Beth discovered via Twitter that a new magazine called Lancashire Walks & Wildlife was launching, she was able to secure a commission by connecting with the editor and luring him back to her hugely popular blog, Cumbrian Rambler.
Luckily, there’s no need to be a technical whiz these days. Thanks to platforms like WordPress, it’s easy to set up a blog (the hard part, according to Beth is “keeping one going”) while Clippings.me allows you to create an online portfolio of your published work for free.
Of course, there will still be times when you’ll need to network in person, so follow Lucy’s advice and keep a stack of business cards at the ready.
Do I need a niche?
Some writers find that having a point of difference or niche helps them to stand out from the crowd. For instance, Beth believes she owes her success to the fact that, unlike the hundreds of other Lake District bloggers out there, she writes about “the whole of Cumbria and its hidden corners”, as well as “slowing down” so she can identify and enjoy the wildlife around her, “such as a golden eagle perched up high on a fell.”
For Nick, his selling point was having “a flair for making complex stories come across simply”. His big break came when he presented a paper on bridging the gap between scientists and the public via journalism at the Society of Conservation Biology conference in the US, following which the editor of Conservation Magazine asked him to set up a blog on the topic.
However, Liam cautions that while “having a niche is always nice, it’s unrealistic to expect to corner the market,” stressing that it’s “more important to make sure your content is engaging and relevant”, while Lucy agrees that if you want to keep writing for a long time, “you’ll need to prove that you’re passionate about a whole range of subjects and capable of writing in many different ways”.
Do you have any tips to share or questions to ask about getting started as a wildlife journalist?