“Dude, you have an awesome job!” Whenever people find out where my writing has taken me, what I’ve done to get a story, and some of the products I’ve had the chance to test, I get that response frequently. Truth be told, I do have an awesome side gig as a writer for some of the biggest names in the bushcraft, survival, firearms-lifestyle, and cutlery business. I am extremely fortunate but please don’t call me lucky. Luck has nothing to do with where I am today. Becoming a writer isn’t something you just fall into. As someone who feels they have a firm grasp on the industry and with over 100 titles in print over 15 different magazine titles, I’m always willing to help the new guy get started. Over the past couple years, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the up and coming names in the business and I’m humbled when they give credit to me for getting them started. Just like the survival skills I teach when I’m not writing, or maybe I am writing, or maybe I’m writing and taking photos, I love sharing my passions with those who want to learn to do what I do. In response to some recent questions on “how do I become a writer?” here are some hints you might find helpful.
What is the purpose for entering the writing world? There are so many possible answers to this question. Some seek fame, some want free gear, some truly want to share, others want to vent or seek an outlet for thoughts stirring in their heads, what is your purpose in writing? Don’t begin writing or accepting any work until you find your purpose and with your purpose, your mission will follow. Eventually, you’ll grow comfortable writing your voice and tone will naturally follow. If you are seeking fame and decide writing isn’t for you, there are plenty of survival-reality shows looking for contestants and you can gamble with your credibility and respect.
Every good writer has a writer who inspired them. For me, when I was a child, I enjoyed reading the works of Arthur Roth and all his scholastic short survival stories for pre-teens. Later in life, I found the descriptive work of Hemingway and Thoreau in my high school and college years. However, some of the most influential writers were those who I read in the magazines I later wrote for myself. I noticed the way they took photos, the wording they used, how they broke ideas into chunks of information easily processed and I tracked the pattern. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation and without plagiarizing, I can say I have revisited some topics I once read about to put my spin on the information and delivery. I have also introduced new techniques or topics not mentioned in the original article. To be a good writer, be a good reader.
Right now, my combined number for readers is well over 1,000,000. One publisher will have 150,000 subscribers, another will have 300,000 and another almost a million combined in print and online. I’m in a good place and the companies I work for appreciate my reach. It wasn’t always this way. I spent plenty of time writing on discussion boards where photos of dogs in the outdoors and questions about everyone’s favorite knives far surpassed my humble skills-based review in terms of clicks and views. You have to start somewhere and writing for Bladeforums and Knifeforums was my early beginning. I was later asked to write for smaller magazines like Wilderness Way and Self-Reliance Illustrated and with each magazine came a larger audience. This pattern continued until I wrote for magazines the likes of RECOIL with the largest subscription base out there.
My advice, start small as editors want to know what they’re agreeing to. This may mean writing for free for your local newspaper or a website. Keep copies of your work to send to editors down the line. Keep writing and build up a regular spot or role for a publication. Show consistency in what you do.
Writing won’t make you rich but it is rewarding. As you write for larger and larger magazines, you’ll notice your pay will increase or it should. You will start to figure out for 1800 words and a paycheck of “X” dollars, that is “Y” cents per word. If you are just starting, don’t expect to get paid but realize payment need not be in dollars if you are getting exposure you couldn’t get otherwise on your own. That’s a fair trade.
Writers are easy to find, good writers not so much. Consider the work you do and how it impacts your reputation. Do the grunt work of buyer’s guides and do them well. Get your work in on time and make every word count. Ask your editors questions only if you absolutely need to and don’t burn those phone calls or Emails as some get annoyed by them. You want magazines you don’t write for to know your name when you reach out to them. Trust me, it is a hell of a feeling when they say, “it’s about time you work for us.” You want them to know your name in a good way, only.
You will save magazines money if you offer to submit your own photos. Get a good camera and learn to take good photos. Learn what makes for a quality photo by looking at those accepted for publication in magazines already. This process takes time and when you first learn how to do studio white-background shots, you’ll probably want to rip out your hair. Once you learn how to take them, you set yourself apart from the guy who has his toes poking through on the bottom frame of the shot.
There are plenty of hacks out there. Don’t be one of them. Be professional and don’t promise your editor what you can’t deliver. Make sure you proofread and if you aren’t confident, find a good reader who will read your copy before you submit it. The less work you make the editor do. Make sure you speak clearly with them and express exactly what you plan to do. As already stated, stick to your deadlines and if you need an extension, if you ABSOLUTELY need an extension, be polite when you ask them. Just don’t make it a habit because professionals are on time.
Another detail, be professional with the feedback you leave in written form. There is a professional courtesy expected with companies. Sometimes the company will loan you an item, sometimes they’ll sell you an item at a media rate, and other times they’ll gift it to you. Don’t let that temper your article’s tone. It’s always a good gesture to ask a company if they need the product back at the end of the testing period. Don’t assume what you’re working with is a form of compensation for your work.
If you find something wrong with a product, generally speak to that company in private about it. Offer them a chance to correct the mistake or make it right otherwise. As a writer/tester, you are part of a machine with many moving parts. Don’t monkey with a good thing by hurting a company’s reputation. Then again, there will be times when you will have no choice but to make public the entire story for full transparency. When that time comes, you’ll know by the way the company treats you.
“The worst someone can say is ‘no’.” Remember that. As a new writer, get your name out there and make connections. Don’t offer the world but stick your neck out there and see if someone will take you up on an offer to write. Be willing to accept criticism. Plenty of times I’ve had companies question my intentions with their products and were finally put at ease when they looked at my previous work. The worst a magazine you want to write for or a company you want to feature can say is “no” but what happens when they say “yes?” You’ll be amazed how many times you’ll get surprised and how many times you will not believe the work you are involved in. Again, luck has nothing to do with ambition and hard work.
Learn from your writing mistakes and listen to your editors. Some magazines will want an almost stuffy tone to the writing full of technical jargon where others will want more casual tone with humor. Don’t be offended when your editors criticize your writing, that is their job. Remember too, you must conform to the magazine and the magazine does not need to conform to you. Check your entitlement at the door.
“Want to write a piece about moving dead bodies after a mass casualty event?” One of my good friends and editors asked me this once for a magazine I don’t write for anymore for obvious reasons. Don’t be afraid to say “no” and stand up for yourself. If you are writing, you are likely a subject matter expert or trusted voice. Could I have written about that topic? Probably but it would have been phony and as a writer, you need to have integrity. Your readers will see right through it if you don’t. Stick to your strengths and what you write about will be well-received. By the way, I still want to research that topic out of sheer morbid fascination.
Keep moving forward as a writer and never settle. Remember your goals from suggestion #1 and push yourself to improvement with each article. Set up a realistic improvement plan and constantly evaluate what you do. Don’t get caught up in the frustration of an article not getting approved or finding out a magazine has no space for you this time around. Keep driving forward as a writer and the job is never done. You’ll find writing opportunities will fall in your lap when you least expect them. As long as you’ve been following along, you’ll be ready to accept these challenges and level up each time you submit a new story.
Writing has helped define me over the years and I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share my view of the world, skillset, and experiences with all of you. I’m thankful for my friends at Fiddleback Forge for giving me this platform and I trust you’ll help me share these tips with an aspiring writer you may know. Please don’t ever hesitate to reach out to me if there is something I can help you with as my virtual door is always open even when it is closed. Good luck with your writing endeavors and may you find as much satisfaction, adventure, and pleasure out of it as I have.
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Kevin Estela is a Survival Instructor at Estela Wilderness Education. Kevin is a frequent contributing writer for publications such as RECOIL, Athlon Outdoors, and Beckett Media. He is a Sayoc Kali Associate Instructor Level 5, as well as a BJJ Purple Belt.