How To Be a Successful Climbing Writer
Here’s an early X-mas present for anyone out there in internetland trying to figure out how to “make it” as a climbing writer. As if I know…
I’m not bragging, but let me give you a quick resume. I’ve been published in every major American climbing magazine there is; I’ve written for Climb, in the UK; I’ve contributed regularly to the American Alpine Journal. I’m interning at Alpinist Magazine. My writing has been featured on Black Diamond, and Outdoor Research’s company blogs; my own blog (what you’re reading) has been quoted in the New York Times; I’ve written blog posts that have received thousands of views on their first day of publication, and were shared widely around the outdoor industry. Also, I’m a pretty okay to middling climber. I’ve onsighted 12c sport, climbed 12c trad, bouldered V8, and I have about 15 grade III and IV FAs to my name nationally and abroad.
I’m no slouch, right? You would think that’s a decent resume.
But the truth is, it doesn’t mean, or amount to, diddly. Not when you’re pitching a story, and often not when you’re applying for a job. I recently wasn’t even interviewed for a position in the industry which I thought I was so well-qualified for, I expected to be a top candidate.
What I have learned the long and hard way is that it’s not about how good a writer, and certainly not about how good a climber, you are. It took me years to realize that, and I wish somebody had mentioned it from the outset. So I’m doing just that – for you. Not because I’ve made it and can afford to share my secrets to success, but because these aren’t really secrets: they’re just common sense.
1. Be easy to work with. The question is not so much whether an editor made your piece better or not. Of course, it often feels like they didn’t. That said, there’s so much going on behind the scenes of any magazine that you can’t even imagine how hard an editor’s job is. Just deal. As soon as your work is into an editor’s hands, you should be ready (and willing) to relinquish a lot of creative control. And that part of you that’s thinking ‘but my name is on it!’? That’s right. That’s called a “by-line”. All you need to say to that is thank you.
2. Give it away for free. Look, you’re not in this to get rich or famous. Otherwise, you would have chosen something else. I have an acquaintance who writes for a VERY VERY highly regarded publication. This individual spends so much time and energy on his/her work, that he/she ends up losing money on it in the long run. But that said, he/she gets his/her work read my literally millions of people. And that, my friends, is what you call “made it”. The $200 you do or don’t make on a given article is nothing. The resume builder is everything. If you’re still broke enough to care about .10/word vs. .20/word, you have not made it. Just get by-lines. Period. It doesn’t matter what you make on them.
3. Pitch ad infinitum. My batting average on pitches, some 7 years later after my first one, is around .250. And while I don’t know for sure, I bet that’s a pretty decent number. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, Wayne Gretzky says, and he was a hell of a baseball player. So pitch a lot. But when you DO pitch, do it nicely, formally, and well. Don’t send over something that you aren’t excited about, just to see what happens. Don’t write a five paragraph essay describing your article. Don’t send something you haven’t edited twice, or thrice perhaps. And the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do when pitching, is read the magazine you are pitching to, and know which department your article works for! Is it a Climbing Life? An Off Belay? A Local Hero? You could be Ernest Hemingway, but if your article doesn’t FIT, it won’t get published.
4. Be a photographer, or befriend one. Or two, or three, or twenty. If you don’t have photos to go with your story (I mean, professional-quality photos) you’re relegated to the front and back page yawners. I’ve still yet to publish a feature article, and this is why. Photo support is the FIRST thing most magazines look at, not the second, when considering features.
5. Make money doing something else. Climbing magazines are great, but unless you’re working for one, you won’t make a living writing for them. You know who has money? The North Face. Patagonia. Columbia. Lexus. Some fancy watch company. Catalog copy pays about 823765 better than climbing magazines. So does copy-editing. SEO writing: wait till you get your first gig doing that. You’ll forget all about the climbing mags altogether. But don’t do that… Otherwise, you’re just a writer. You want to be a climbing writer, remember?