There you are, in your favourite chair reading your favourite magazine (BC Outdoors right?) and you are thinking, “I could do that, couldn’t I? I spend a lot of time outdoors. I have some interesting stories, maybe even a trick or two up my sleeve that I could share. Maybe I should write something up and send it in?” The short answer to those questions is yes and no. Yes you can and should do it, no don’t send your story in….just yet. Read this first.

It wasn’t that long ago I was asking myself those same questions. Luckily for me, it was around that time that I saw an ad for a writer’s conference in Fernie, BC for an outdoor writing course being offered by fishing legend and writer extraordinaire, Phil Rowley. I signed up right away and headed out to the wild East Kootenays to get the skinny on what this magazine writing thing was all about (and maybe to catch a fish or two, it was after all right on the banks of the Elk River).

Once I got there I found that there was only one other student besides myself so it wasn’t hard to convince Phil that he could talk just as well on the river with a fly rod in his hand as he could in a classroom; and, talk he did! I learned more than I ever hoped to during that weekend. Here is just a little of what he taught me, as well as a few tips of my own.

Don’t send in a completed story. Send a query letter instead.

Editors, as a breed, are very busy people. They simply don’t have time to sit and read your article just to find out what it’s about; plus, there are also potential copyright issues should they reject your article and then publish one very similar. (It happens, believe me!) Instead, what you want to do is to write a query letter. It’s your sales pitch, resume and writing sample all in one. The best way to learn how to write one is to just Google “magazine query” and follow instructions from one of the many websites devoted to that purpose but I’ll touch on the main points here.

First off, try and find out the name of the editor you want to pitch your story to, it isn’t mandatory but it’s a nice touch and you know the right person will see it. You can usually get that information on the masthead of the magazine, somewhere around page two or three. Now, I’m about to make your life real easy here and give you some info that lets you skip that step; for BC Outdoors magazine, send your queries to bcoedit@outdoorgroupmedia.com – Camilla’s the one who filters and presents the queries to the editor, Mike Mitchell (as far as the magazine goes, if you want to get to him, you pretty generally need to go through her).

Second, catch their attention quickly. Don’t start your first paragraph with a detailed explanation of what led you to this idea or how much you always wanted to be a writer, instead tell them something interesting right off the bat. Make them curious, get them hooked and then go into the back-story, how much detail you have to impart, how many pictures you have and what they depict.

Lastly, tell them (very briefly!) a little about yourself, what qualifies you to write on this subject, your writing experience, etc. This section is your resume. If it’s too long it won’t get read (remember I said they are very busy). The way they see it, if you can’t catch their attention in a moment, you also wont catch the attention of their readers – so they just won’t read it. This is your chance to lure the (in the case of BC Outdoors) quirky yet-loveable (assistant) editor into your camp and possibly make them think of you for other articles, even if they don’t like this one.

Remember this letter is also a sample of your writing. They haven’t seen your A-stuff yet, so this is where you show them that you can string three words together, that you have some idea what a paragraph might be and that your writing isn’t going to require the editor’s full attention for an unreasonable amount of time fixing simple mistakes that should be fixed before you send it out.

Show me the money

Don’t ask about money! The magazine pays what it pays and if you are in it for the money, you might want to consider some of the other fine careers out there such as dog walker or ant therapist. Don’t get me wrong, they do pay decently but remember the size of the market and the number of competitors fighting for editorial space. It would be very tough to make a living exclusively by writing for magazines. I can think of two people that have pulled it off and they are in a different market entirely.

Don’t fall in love with your own words

That was one of the best pieces of advice Phil passed to me. You aren’t Ernest Hemmingway. School children are not going to be writing reports about your latest “Marshmallows for Carp” article. It will be on the shelves for three months or so, live on the bathroom shelf for a few months after that and then if you are lucky, spend the next 22 years in the waiting room of a doctor or dentists office.

Write the best piece you can but recognize two things: one, the magazine belongs to them, they are going to trim, alter and otherwise edit your story as they see fit in order to meet the needs of their publication. Don’t let that bother you, it’s nothing personal; and two, don’t be afraid to self edit. Writers can be a wordy bunch, they wouldn’t be writing otherwise. Writing for a magazine is a different skill than writing fiction or poetic love letters. It’s much cleaner, to the point and definitely less flowery than you might be tempted to go with when describing your favourite stream or mountain lake. In Phil’s words, “Don’t say ‘the sky was a beautiful shade of blue that was sharp as a broken vase with wispy clouds strung across the horizon like cotton candy floating on the ocean’, just say ‘the sky was blue.’” It sounds boring and that is an extreme example but you get the picture.

I usually like to write my article about 1/3 to ½ longer than it needs to be and then just start to slash and burn until it’s the size they want. Don’t let this process freak you out, even if you think it was perfect when you started, it will be much better when you are done, trust me. You might have to go over it a dozen or more times to clear out all the deadwood but in the end your writing will be clean and uncluttered and much more readable. Sometimes I find I have written two or three unnecessary sentences just to shoehorn in a joke that really wasn’t that clever to begin with. Trash it; nobody will miss it.

When they say 2500 words, it means 2500 words

It doesn’t mean “around 2500 words” it means as close to 2500 as you can get. You might think you are doing your editor a favour by giving her a little extra content because hey, who wouldn’t want more of your sparkling prose if they could get it? It doesn’t work that way. Editors are planners; that’s what they do. You might think they are just there to fix your punctuation and capitalization but, the truth is, most of their job is making everything fit. If you give them an extra half page or so, that means they now have to fill four pages because of the way magazines are constructed. And those four pages aren’t free, try phoning up the sales department and telling them you need a half dozen more ads and you need them by the end of the week. The sales department, as a bunch, are even crustier than editors, you really don’t want to poke a stick into that badger hole! Nope, give them what they ask for and if you really need to, phone them up and ask if the article can be a little longer. Be prepared for them to say no.

Get it in on time

Deadlines are deadlines, if they say they need it on the first, get it to them by the first. Publishing a magazine is a balancing act and it all has to mesh together. Don’t make them try and do catch-up after you send your stuff in late. (My former editor Kim just fell off her chair in stunned disbelief as I suggested I might know the function {or even the existence} of a deadline) (**Editor’s note #1: Trevor – you just made me literally laugh out loud!) You usually have months of notice to write an article, it’s not that hard to deliver it on time (or so I hear). (Editor’s note #2: Trevor – your mentor Phil ALWAYS has his material in on time.)

Writing is like getting homework again

It’s hard work, it really is. Some articles just flow onto your keyboard like water but some involve a lot of dry research and just plain work. Don’t try and edit while you write, spill it all onto the page and clean it up later. Too much thinking will just screw you up. Don’t worry about the finished project yet; remember that just like homework your Mom is going to proudly stick it up on the fridge regardless of how much your friends have to lie when you ask them if they liked it.

Well that’s enough to get you started. Don’t be intimidated, BC Outdoors is one of the few magazines actively looking for new-local talent. It would be silly not to take advantage of that opportunity while you have the chance. Write up a query, hell-write up a dozen of them. They are fast, cheap and you just never know where they will take you!