Ryan Wichelns on Becoming a Freelance Outdoor Writer

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. 

Ryan in his element. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


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.

Ryan at Pico de Orizaba. Photo credit: Lauren Danilek


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.

Relationships matter:

“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.

Pitching:

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.

Ryan and pals on their Mt. Brooks expedition in Alaska. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


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.

7 Surprising Lessons from My First Climbing Trip “on Assignment”

The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.

“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole. 

Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place. 

“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.


… 

I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, in real dollarspotentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet. 

In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”



Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.

On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.

Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.


Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works

No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.

Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal! 

Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!


Lesson 2: Get off the Ground

The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.

The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.


Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture

The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot. 

Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.

At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion. 

I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.


Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them

Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).

So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.


Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking

This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.


Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference

Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting! 

The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.

On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image. 


Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home

The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.

It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.

In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.


Photos by the author

Travel Writing Scholarship, Climbing Grants, Epic Road Trips. Oh My.

And tips on pitching.

This week features a bunch of opportunities to fuel your next adventure (which make great stories, of course). There’s a fantastic feature on Bernd Heinrich, a leading naturalist, data about the economic might of climbers, and a charming little cartoon. Enjoy!



Opportunities

World Nomad’s 2019 Travel Writing Scholarship

aka a 14-day travel writing trip for “3 aspiring travel writers to go on assignment in Portugal and be mentored by professional travel writer and contributor to The New York Times, Tim Neville.” This looks like an incredible opportunity.

Also, be sure to read “The Art of Travel Writing”, a free travel writing how to by Tim, which I’ve found to be immensely useful.

Photo source: American Alpine Club


AAC’s Live Your Dream Grant

You don’t have to be a professional climber or pursuing a FA to win this climbing grant. All you need is a clear goal and the aim to level up your skills. Grants are awarded from $200-$1,000.

The purpose of this grant is to support and promote unforgettable experiences for climbers—to dream big, to grow, and to inspire others.


The Epic Road

Stay Wild magazine is offering to fund your next road trip. They are offering funds and goods to make your auto-powered jaunt a reality.




What I’m Reading

nature

A return to nature, your nature

Bernd Heinrich is a leading naturalist and one of history’s fastest ultramarathoners. Now 77, he’s settled in the backwoods of Maine with a wood stove and in his natural habitat.

The author writes, “We live in an age that affords little time and space for communing with nature. We’re busy. Our days are fragmented. But Bernd has dug in his heels against this collective drift. He has recognized where he wants to be in old age and settled in, with purpose. “ (emphasis added by newsletter curator)

“A naturalist,” he e-mailed me, “is one who still has the habit of trying to see the connections of how the world works. She does not go by say-so, by faith, or by theory. So we don’t get lost in harebrained dreams or computer programs taken for reality. We all want to be associated with something greater and more beautiful than ourselves, and nature is the ultimate.


Real artists have day jobs.

Because it’s hard to pay your way solely from your art. That’s the game we play. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t an artist, or that you can’t make art because you damn well want to. And who knows, maybe some day you will be able to live solely off your art.

“Real artists have day jobs, and night jobs, and afternoon jobs. Real artists make things other than art, and then they make time to make art because art is screaming to get out from inside them. Screaming, or begging, or gently whispering.”


Climbers are a major economic force

We know the outdoor industry is a contributing economic force to be reckoned. In 2016, the outdoor recreation economy contributed 2 percent ($373.7 billion!) of the entire U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

Climbers are making their impact in hyper-local areas around popular crags that normally wouldn’t get much traffic, like Chattanooga or the Red.

The economic-impact study found that visiting climbers (not including residents, whose spending is considered part of the regular economy) spent $6.96 million in Hamilton County during the 2015/16 fall and winter season…

These numbers put dollars made from climbers on par with revenue from major special events held in Chattanooga, another boon for area tourism. Held in late summer every year, Ironman Chattanooga brings in $10 million, with the race occurring in one weekend and many of the participants staying up to 10 days.




On Pitching Stories




For the Feel Goods




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Out There / In Here, vol. 2

Feature photo source: Outside Magazine