Over the past ten years I have been writing monthly for the country-sports press and I have also produced eight books. The first two books were through conventional publishing (a painfully slow process, though in both cases the end product was superb). The six books since have been self-published and include my first novel. The thrill of seeing my first magazine article in print, complete with my own photographs, will stay with me forever. Not least because I got paid for it …and have been, ever since. So far, in the shooting and country-sports press I have enjoyed nearly 500,000 published words and, within those articles, some 3000 or more published photographs. My books (apart from the novel) include either my own photography or drawings derived from my images and (using photo-editing software) re-created as sketches. Writing, sub-editing, processing images, matching photographs or sketches to text, submission … all this has been done while engaged in a full time, high profile management career. I can honestly say (and my editors will read this) that I can count on one hand the amount of times, in those ten years, that I have either had an article rejected or have had to re-edit it myself. For the magazines, I have a formula I stick to depending on the subject. That may be bringing the reader along with me on an expedition or offering (as in this blog) the benefit of my experience in short, sharp advisory context. So, here are my top ten tips for grabbing and holding a readership in a specialist subject. I hope you find them useful.
Love Your Subject
If you intend to write about a sport, leisure subject or hobby you won’t succeed with your audience unless they can sense your enthusiasm. The people who buy specialist magazines do so (and they aren’t cheap) because they are passionate about their interest. That’s why hobby writing is such an interesting sector for the budding writer. Scribbling about something you love should be easy, shouldn’t it?
Know Your Subject
If you are going to offer advice, as an expert, on a particular hobby or subject … ensure that you are an expert. Kidology simply won’t work in the leisure / sport / hobby sectors as there will always be readers who a) think they know more than you and b) do know more than you! I can spot a fraud a mile away in my own specialisms and I quickly let them know that. I love competition against my writing but only if it’s genuine.
Involve Your Reader
Draw your readers into whatever you are describing. Paint pictures with your words. Mention your reader by personalising the piece. Use phrases such as “you’ve probably guessed what happened next, dear reader” or “you’re probably way ahead of me on this”. Use suggestions or tips offered by readers in your articles and credit them for it. A surge of pride at seeing their own name in print will make them a fan for life.
Many of your readership will be highly experienced at your hobby too, though perhaps looking for new techniques or ideas. It’s a big mistake to address your audience as complete novices. It’s also a big mistake to infer that where there are two ways of tackling an issue, your way is always right. I often use phrases such as “I know there is another school of thought on this” or “my preference is …” If you want to build a ‘fan’ base (I hate that word!) you need to take a balanced approach between debate and concession.
Quality, Not Quantity
As well as writing on my speciality, I read a lot about it too. And, boy … do I read some drivel! Most magazine editors will ask for a word-count based project. Typically, 800 to 1000 words will fill a page with a couple of photos. 1500 words with five or six good pics will make a two or three page spread, depending on the publication (magazine or broadsheet). Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of trying to stretch a short subject to fill the word-count. You will bore your readers to death. Better to fit two or three subjects into a long article and give value for money to your editor and readers.
Leave Them Wanting
When you plan any magazine article, try to plan an ending that will leave not just the reader but also the editor wanting more. Throw a teaser in either during the text or right at the end, something along the lines of “I’ve seen rabbits behave in many strange ways, but that’s a whole article of it’s own”. Or perhaps, “Oh? That farmer? A story for another day, I think”. It was actually writing advisory articles which didn’t allow me to expand as far as I wanted to that drew me into writing specialist books.
Engage With Your Audience
This is a bit deeper than above (Involve Your Reader). By this I mean step off your ivory tower and actually communicate with your readers. There has never been an easier time to touch base with your readers. The use of social media allows a fairly easy and safe means of chatting with readers. I love getting written letters and writing back … the old fashioned but much more personal way of communicating. There are rules to observe here, though. Never give your address to someone unless you are confident you can trust them. And watch out for ‘trolling’ on social media.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in the ten years I been writing I’ve been flattered to death! Rather than let it bother me, I’ve accepted that I’ve educated another generation of writers in my particular field. My response is to keep innovating and exploring different methods and techniques. My own readers will appreciate what I mean but for you, the budding leisure or hobby scribe, that will mean searching your mind for angles that have never been covered in your hobby before. Even if they are controversial.
Be Different And Be Controversial
Don’t accept the ‘conventional’ as always being the right way to do things. I have to do a lot of photography with my articles. Without them, the words would mean little. For some country-sports editors that means sending a protog (professional photographer) along on a hunting sortie. No way, said I. To me, two is company, three is a crowd. The two are my lurcher and I. You can’t stalk and hunt with a noisy protog following you around. So how do I get my photo’s? I wrote in one of my books that I had trained my dog to take them. Some people believed it. Honestly.
Re-Visit Successful Subjects
There are some writers in my field who regurgitate the same formulaic, seasonal articles year after year. That is lazy writing and regular readers will spot it immediately (I’ve read this before?). That is not to say, though, that you can’t keep coming back to the same subjects. For instance, if you write about carp fishing you will have limited subject matter. Each article will have to have a USP (Unique Selling Point). The challenge, the water state, the environment, the weather, the company, the misses, the catches. I don’t fish. I shoot. But in one of the publications I write for regularly, the angling articles (when written this way) could tempt me to pick up a rod! I repeat popular articles, for sure. But you would never recognise one from another. Same subject, same formula, different venue … genuinely.
Work With Your Editors / Readers
The key to unlocking a regular spot in a hobby writing sector is to engage with editors who are experts in those sectors. Producing a magazine or broadsheet month on month, or week on week, is a pressurised job. They need reliable and organised writers. When they find someone who delivers unique copy, good photography, on time or (in emergencies) under pressure … a partnership is formed. I owe my own photography ‘skills’ to one particular editor and his advice. Yet I’m sure that even he would admit that I took that advice a step further. Your readers, too, will subtly tell you what you should be writing about. If you are mentioned in the ‘Letters’ page of any periodical, you’ve cracked it. Even if the letter is negative. Because you have the opportunity to respond.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
Ian Barnett is author of “Hobby Writing: Make Your Play, Pay”
Available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IBL5QOK