In 1995, while covering an Aboriginal festival in Australia for his book “Wild Planet,” someone told writer Tom Clynes about a trucker who delivers fuel to the remote settlements in northern Australia’s Outback.
“I came back a few months later and traveled with the trucker on what became a weeklong torture trek. I did the reporting ‘on spec’ and pitched the story to National Geographic’s new magazine, Adventure. It ran in their debut issue with the title ‘The Toughest Trucker in the World.’ ”
Extreme journalism. Travel. Adventure journalism. Participatory journalism. Whatever you choose to call it, this brand of writing is largely the domain of freelance writers.
I’m not saying that staffers don’t engage in the stuff of marathon poker games or trekking across the far reaches of the Australian Outback. But being a freelancer gives you the freedom to pursue these stories not readily found among full-time staff writers.
So how do you get started? First and foremost, freelancing is an idea business.
“Push the envelope about what you can write about,” says Larry Olmsted, a freelancer who has written more than 1,000 articles in publications such as Golf magazine, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado and Inc.
Olmsted is planning a big trip to Asia in the fall. While his original assignment was for a golf destination, he’s also picked up a business story and food and wine piece for other markets.
“I still have plenty of time to pitch other stories,” he says, adding that he’ll add time and destinations to his trip based on what he can sell.
A member of the American Society of Travel Writers, Olmsted says there are three scenarios for financing such trips: the assigning publication pays you to go; the assigning publication pays a larger fee and a percentage of expenses; or the dreaded press trip.
“This is a hot debate. It’s the publication’s choice, not the writer’s choice. Some publications will say, ‘We don’t have a budget; go on this press trip.’ Conde Nast won’t allow it at all. You have to be careful because it can hurt your reputation. Besides, press trips tend not to be very focused, and this type of writing requires sharp focus,” he says.
Sara Blask, a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who is now interning with Outside magazine, says it’s a tough business, but worth the effort once you’ve managed to break in.
“In many cases, the writer on an expedition has a harder job than the expedition members themselves. Not only does the writer have to participate, but he or she also has to take notes and viscerally experience each and every detail,” she says.
And that’s a critical component to this type of writing.
“Without color, ‘extreme’ pieces often fall short. The reader needs to feel the immediacy of the experience,” she says.
Freelance writing is not for the feint of heart. And extreme journalism is doubly risky. But for many, that’s where the thrill of living is found.
“I always knew that to keep life interesting I’d have to take some risks,” says Clynes, who is now contributing editor at National Geographic Adventure. “Early in my career, when I traveled and did stories speculatively, I focused on inexpensive places, which, coincidentally, are where you find the most interesting things to write about,” he says.
“It can be tough to put a sustained effort into building this kind of career because of the opportunity costs (financial, relationships, etc.). But the travel itself needn’t be expensive if you choose destinations carefully. The average American could sell his or her car and finance a year of travel in southern Asia or Latin America,” Clynes says.
Every story is like starting from scratch. But the rewards of freedom and satisfying curiosity can offset the other trade-offs you make.
So, as Clynes suggests, make friends with vulnerability, travel light and allow yourself to be pulled into the interesting and unexpected.
Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Family Magazine and Golf Week. She serves as co-chairwoman of SPJ’s National Freelance Committee and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her online Web log, Creative Ink, can be found at creativeink.blogspot.com
Tagged under: Freelancing