The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown.
He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of.
As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.
I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.
Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.
That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer.
It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island.
“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.
Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.
“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.
One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.
Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it.
As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.
Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer
Find a niche:
“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.
Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.
A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.
“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.
Know the publication you’re pitching to:
You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.
How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content?
Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.
Write about what interests you:
Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.
Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.
“My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.
“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”
The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities.
Network. Or, go where the people are:
In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.
“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.
Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.
The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.
The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.
From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.
“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there.
I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.
A long and bumpy road:
Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time.
From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.
But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently).
Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.
And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.
You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.
Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.