Abigail Wise is the online managing editor for Outside magazine. She has worked as an editor at Outside, REI, Real Simple and The Huffington Post. She has also freelanced for publications like Condé Nast Traveler, Romper, Travel + Leisure, Reader's Digest, Time, and PopSci. She has a unique perspective, having extensive experience on both the pitching and the commissioning end of the outdoor freelance writing game.
I talked to her about what it takes to break in as an outdoor freelance writer. [This interview was done in late 2017, when Abby was still a senior editor at REI's Adventure Projects.]
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
To what extent do you work with freelancers?
For REI, we use almost all freelancers and it's all paid. The rates we pay vary dramatically based on previous experience, the length of the piece, whether you providing photos, all of those factors play a role in a rate.
For the REI online presence, we are creating content about cool people doing cool things outdoors. Where to go to recreate, conservation efforts, some news, gear, it’s really cross spectrum. Some of the stuff we do write ourselves, but I spend 90% of my days editing and assigning.
Outside also work with freelancers. There is a mix there, and more stuff writing, photography and video work there, then at REI, but they still very much rely on freelancers.
Four tips to catch an editor's attention
Looking at it from the editor's side, what do you see as the most common mistake that freelancers make when they trying to pitch you on REI or Outside?
1. BRING AN IDEA, NOT A QUESTION
What comes to mind immediately - I get so many emails that say “Hey, are you guys accepting content, and what are you looking for?”. To me that's the freelancers' job. It’s their job to get to really know the publication, read it, know what we are looking for, and then bring an idea to me. A fresh idea.
2. TELL ME WHY *YOU* SHOULD WRITE THIS
Include in that email why *you* should be writing it. Tell me why I should work with *you* rather than with the freelancer that I already know? Maybe you know this topic really well, or you have awesome background in mountain biking, or you know this doctor that you gonna interview.
3. SELL YOUR IDEA TO ME
Another common mistake is sending short or two sentence pitches. About 20% of pitches I get are like that. “Oh, I want to write about my cool bike hiking trip”. Sell this to me! Why? Why would I want to pay you for this?
Once you’ve accepted a pitch from a freelancer, what are the mistakes that make it unusable for publication?
4. MORE REPORTING! SPEAK TO EXPERTS
The most likely to go wrong is underreporting. Even if you know the answer to an important question, get an expert to say the answer. So I can believe it as a reader. If it’s a first person thing, then you qualify as an expert. But if it's not, then, report, report, report!
One source is not enough. Give me more, give me variety. Even if it's a quick roundup you feel you can knock-out in an hour, do don't it like that! Make some phone calls, talk to some people and bring me the exports. Bring me a properly reported piece.
Four ways to stand out from the pack
What can a freelancer do to stand out from the pack, and to make themselves more useful to you?
1. A GREAT PITCH EMAIL
Send a really thoughtful pitch email. That’s awesome, that’s everything.
2. SHOW ME YOU READ OUR PUBLICATION
To me a thoughtful pitch starts with reading our publication. May be we covered this ultra runner last month and you know that because you read that, you researched, you did a research on our site. But your story idea is deeper because of xyz. Or, “Hey! I see that you guys this month have been focusing on road trip stories, and I have an idea for another one”. Stuff like that to really show that you understand what I'm looking for. That’s super helpful.
3. EXPLAIN YOUR STORY FORMAT
Explaining not only the idea of the story but also the format is also super helpful.
Is this going to appear as profile or q&a?
How long will it be?
Can you provide photographs?
Is it gonna be roundups with subheads?
You don't have to break down every single thing, but just give me a rough idea of what will it look like. Those things stand out to me.
4. PROVIDE PHOTOGRAPHS
I understand that it's hard and not everyone is a photographer. I'm a very poor photographer myself. But, unfortunately, we live and work in a time when the media industry is not necessary striving, financially speaking, so most places have really small budgets.
I much less likely to be able to afford a writer and a photographer for a piece then I am to just hire a one person. And I will definitely pay a little bit more for these photos.
I don't need the writer to take the photos. If they can gather them for me, that’s great. It saves me 10 emails trying to contact these photographers and get the photos. If someone emails me saying “I'm a really poor photographer, I'm not gonna take this pictures, but i'll source them for you” that's also very helpful.
How realistic is it to make a living as a freelance outdoor writer now?
There is money out there! If you hustle hard and you are good at what you do, if you can throw a pitch and network well, I think it's very possible to make a living. Networking matters! It really is about who you know in this industry.
There is a glamorous idea of the freelance life: the ability to travel, living the #vanlife. That is a perk, it’s awesome. But at the end of the day you still need to make money. You will spend a lot of your time at coffee shops pitching editors and getting rejected. You will worry about making rent. So, there are downsides but as long as you realistic about those challenges it's totally possible.
Three Ways to Build Your Network
For somebody who starting out, who does not know anybody very much, what are the ways to get to know people?
Twitter is great. I've met so many people! You and I tweeted each other. My friend Cathy - we met on Twitter and now she is one of my best friends in the world. And she writes for me. We met because we followed each other on Twitter and tweeted about articles we were pushing out.
Twitter is a great place to start. I also get a lot of freelancers there.
2. NETWORKING EVENTS
I hate networking events, to be totally frank. But any kind of networking event that you can go to will be beneficial. The more someone sees your face and recognizes your name, the more likely it is that when you email lands in their inbox, they will open it. They will remember you and even if your pitch is not perfect, it's more likely that they will email you back and start a conversation about your idea.
3. REACH OUT TO EDITORS / WRITERS YOU ADMIRE
A professor said years and years ago that you should always be kind to everyone around you who is younger, because eventually they may be your boss! That stayed with me.
I get a lot of emails from young people starting out, asking if we can have a phone call or grab coffee. I'm really busy and sometimes it is hard to make time for that but I am really do try to do it. I had some great people who mentored me in this industry, so I'm trying to be that person to anyone who reaches out.
So reach out the editor or the writer who you read a lot, who you admire. Send them a note! Say what you like about their latest article and ask them questions, if they are open to it.
Insights into current outdoor journalism
How much brand collaboration or PR support will you accept?
That is a very tricky question to answer. I think it varies so much, publication to publication. The travel industry and the outdoor adventure industry are notorious for blurring that line, more than a lot of other industries. It's expensive to go to these places, I get that. And if you not already going, you not going to justify spending $2000 on a trip so you can make few hundred bucks on a story. It doesn’t make sense.
As long as things are still well reported, I'm usually okay with it. But it has to be well reported. It can't just be someone going on a press trip speaking so highly about a hotel that they stayed in. That won't fly with me.
How many freelancer pitches are you getting daily?
At REI, I would say a handful a day. But we are a small team, we don't publish a handful a day. I definitely can't accept them all. Outside receives far, far more, just because it's been around for 40 years.
Almost everything that is printed makes it online, but definitely not the other way around. What is so great about online content is that it can move faster. You not thinking months and months in advance. That allows you the freedom to move quickly, publish quickly, and therefore publish more. Also, you've got to pay those bills, right? You've got to get those views.
What kind of articles get views in a modern outdoor adventure space?
The type varies but what they all have in common is an enticing headline and deck. I worked at a Huffington Post for a little while and learned so much about content that goes viral and what makes it viral. It's sort of an art and a science.
The articles that click well have some kind of a newsy hook, they are timely, whether that's seasonal or a news event. They have some element of shock, maybe crazy accomplishment achievement, maybe something controversial. They induce some type of emotion.
If you want people to click on it, there has to be a reason. There needs to be some kind of cliff hanger. For instance, I’ve noticed that when people publish on Facebook, they give everything away in the status. And why would I click if I saw everything?
So, if you have a round-up, you give a sneak peek. You’ll see a lot of “myth number three” or whatever, but it really works, people end up sharing it.
For those attention grabbing headlines, does it help if a freelancer has an idea for you?
I love it when freelancers suggest them. I don't necessarily roll with everything every time, but there is no harm in giving me some ideas and options.
You studied journalism, you started out as a writer, and you've effectively transitioned in being an editor. Why did you move from the one space to another?
People ask me that all the time and I still don't have a good answer for it. I think that I have transitioned from writing to editing in an effort to learn more about the industry. I love the media. I am such a geek! I read everything that I can put my hands on. I nerd out with my old friends from j-school about how we gonna make money from this industry because there isn’t any.
This is my life. I want to know it inside and out, I want to know it really well. Eventually I would actually like to teach journalism, I'd like to be a professor one day.
I think that having as much experience in as many areas of the business as possible is really beneficial. You always learning and it's interesting. Plus my writing has gotten so much better now when I'm on another side because I can put myself in my own shoes. I can ask myself whether I would accept this pitch or would I ask for a better lead. It allowed me to see from the editor's perspective.
I have this friend who always says “You either a writer or an editor, you can't be both”, and I don't agree with him. I think that you can be both. Being a writer has made me a better editor and now being an editor has made me a better writer. I really like the blend.
You've been active in a journalism space for about 10 years. What changes have you seen in the market in that time?
Oh God! I got into the industry at the start of the boom of digital. People have been saying for ages that journalism is dead. It's not dead. It's changing, it's evolving, we all know that. Could it use more money? Sure. But it's not going anywhere.
One big change is that as technology has evolved we've started to see interesting multi-media packages. Like that New York Times article - Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. It was beautifully put together.
Also the podcast boom has happened in the last five years and now everyone is wanting to make a podcast. It's fun, reviving the radio days and that's very cool.
Unfortunately we've seen a lot of traditional print magazines fold. Now it’s not as frequent that the company as a whole folds, but we are print publications close and move everything online. Which to me emphasises that this is shifting and evolving, not dying.
Any predictions about the next 10 years?
This might be inaccurate but I think that we will continue to see more of the tech and development side of things blend with editorials. Ten years ago I was not talking to the dev team, the coders behind everything. Now I run with a dev dude the designer dude from Outside all the time.
I feel like it's more and more common to see those guys talking with editors and writers because suddenly editors are not like “Oh it would be cool if we add this cool effects to the story”. It's more like “What is possible, what have you as a developer team seen that is cool? How can we use that to tell whatever stories we have?”.
I see this continued mix of audio and video, photo and cool special effects with words. Which is cool, I think. Bigger team!
Final words of advice?
Engage with outdoor writers, editors and photographers as much as possible. Athletes even, if you can.
Breaking in is about trying to meet the people who run this industry, who participate in this industry. We come back to Twitter networking and sending emails to writers and editors... I think it's the best way to break in.
Check out our other interview with Abby, about her email newsletter.
She's the founder of Sticks & Stones, a newsletter about the outdoors, women's issues, and badass women doing outdoorsy things.
Abigail Wise on the web: