Elwayville: The Writing School of Rock

Ready to write something for publication? That’s awesome. You should! Because the outdoor industry needs to hear from more fresh, exciting voices ready and willing to share their passion for the natural world and all the ways they celebrate it.

But before you start, allow me one simple plea, both as a prospective reader and even potential editor of your upcoming manuscript. Please don’t be boring. Please don’t be afraid to take risks. Please don’t be willing to water your work down to make it more marketable, or to avoid revealing something a little too personal and naked about yourself. And most of all, please don’t worry about pissing me off.

I’d rather be pissed off. I’d rather be amazed, or moved to tears. I’d rather read something personal, passionate, and so filled with unfettered hyperbole that I feel lucky to have lived long enough to have read it. The opposite of passion is indifference, and frankly, right now there’s just way too much copy that tastes like homogenized milk out there.

How much sour milk, you ask? Here are three quick cases in point:

• I recently received an angry e-mail from a fellow editor who was furious I had posted a column about a specific kind of vacation spot. He wasn’t mad about differing politics, ruining the environment, equal rights or diminishing wildlife habitat. It was my “competing coverage” of commercial real estate that ticked him off.

• Revealing “native” escapes for lazy travelers has got to be the worst cliché in outdoor writing, and the signature of a lazy journalist. The next writer who refers in print (or online) to any spot where they ski, climb, fish, hike, drink beer, find a view, surf, eat tacos, pick up trash, panhandle or sell newspapers as “the local’s secret,” should have their Wi-Fi blocked for a month.

• I guarantee that every week I can find at least one online column purporting to offer a humorous look at backcountry skiing, climbing, yoga, hiking or running workouts. I cannot guarantee any of them will make you laugh.

The problem, at least in my eyes, is that media is focused more on selling us stuff, rather than enlightening us. Top ten lists (which I often post here, though my imagination typically stops at “top fives”), gear guides, vacation planners and movie, book and concert reviews (i.e., media about media), are usually written to entice you to buy things, which helps the magazine sell advertising. Which is good. Unless that’s the only content that makes it to print.

For writers, focusing on that kind of copy, and on getting published, can crimp your capacity to write more meaningful—and more lasting—stuff. Believe me, I understand that age-old writer’s dream of “writing stuff that lets me eventually write only the stuff I want.” My point is you should always write the stuff you want. If you’re writing just to get paid, neither of us are going to enjoy your work.

If you need a little more personal connection to help understand why I’m so hopeful your writing will help put the “ASS” back in “pASSion,” then let me offer a quick course in freelance writing economics. Bottom line: don’t do it for the money. Magazines like this, and even many of the glossy publications, work very hard to turn a profit. That means they can’t pay very much for your work.

For example, the first sentence of this article, depending on the magazine paying me to write it, was worth either:

• Nothing “but we appreciate your support.”

• 10 cents per word (or a couple half off House of Wonton’s happy hour super buffet gift certificates).

• 50 cents per word—thus, three bucks.

• $2 per word, or 12 bucks (just to be clear, unless your name is Hunter S. Thompson or Edward Abbey, and you are freelancing from the afterlife, this rate does not exist).

• “What size do you wear in a t-shirt?”

The secret is that people like Thompson and Abbey became legends because first they had talent, but secondly because they didn’t dance around the subject. They said exactly what they thought. I imagine if you sat down right now and wrote about an outdoor-related subject that you know well—say, industrial weed farming, bootleg ski or snowboard sales, tourist herding, or active alpine alcohol administration—using all the profane candor you can to describe your personal experience, I bet you’d have a pretty good story to share. I’d sure like to read it.

Number one, because it would be the truth. Number two, because you would have finally told it. And number three, because if you take a little time to make it sing, I bet you’d be really proud of it.

To put it even more simply, write a story that you would really like to read. Then see if someone will publish it. That would really rock.

–Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray pisses us off every month in this column. He is the author of The God of Skiing. More than 10 years in the making, the book has been called “The greatest ski novel ever written.”

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