How to become a natural history writer

Dr Amy-Jane Beer describes the skills you need to write about wildlife for a living. 

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Amy-Jane Beer explores a river by boat.
Amy-Jane Beer explores a river by boat. If you want to really get to know the species that live near you, you can’t stay on the bank. © Dave Willis

 

What inspired you to become a natural history writer?

Gosh, I don’t think there’s a single answer to that, the inspiration is different every day. My parents would say it was Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, which first aired when I was eight. It certainly fired my love of wildlife. But a year or two later I read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, and remember crying tears of laughter on one page and despair the next. I think I realised then that there was more to wildlife writing than transmitting the facts.

How did you become a natural history writer?

I’ve been involved with wildlife since I was a child, and by the age of about 13 I’d attended so many minibeasting and mammal trapping courses at my local country park I started helping to run them. I studied biology and went on to complete a PhD, but found focusing on just one area really tough. I took a short break to complete an internship at the BBC World Service Science Unit, which was a fantastic lesson in recognising a story, distilling information and writing to short deadlines. I was offered a job as assistant editor on a new wildlife partwork magazine, and over the next three years learned first-hand what editors want from writers. Then I took a very deep breath… and went freelance.

What is a typical working day for a natural history writer?

I don’t think there is one – though I spend a lot more time at a desk than people imagine. Most of my research is now online. It’s not just researching and the writing that takes time at the keyboard – there are also the mundane tasks of running a business, drumming up more work, doing accounts and so on. But I do try and get outside most days, even if only for a few minutes – invariably that’s the best thinking time of the day. When I’m not in the office I might be visiting publishers, attending wildlife events, or driving around the country researching the bigger stories.

What skills are needed to be a natural history writer?

A degree is one way of gaining experience, but even a higher degree isn’t enough on its own. You have to live and breathe this stuff. Your written English must be pretty much faultless, or no editor will take you seriously. It also helps to cultivate a variety of different ‘voices’ for different audiences. Genuine knowledge of your subject is also essential. You can’t know it all, but nor can you borrow it – you’ll soon come unstuck if you rely solely on standard references. You’ll also need an ability to take criticism, tenacity and a fairly thick skin.

It also helps to have a good memory and a solid biological knowledge, but it’s equally important to not make assumptions, refer to the experts and keep asking questions. I’m naturally shy, so I’ve had to work at that. Learn to use a camera too – I’d never claim to be a wildlife photographer, but I know what makes a good picture and can produce a good still life or scene-setting shot. And these days I’m also being asked to provide video clips to accompany online content.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you would you give to an aspiring natural history writer?

Understand that you always have something to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask silly questions – you probably won’t be the only one wondering. And be nice… it’s a small world.

Where would you go to for more advice?

  • If you’re a student, approach academics in your department and explain your special interest in their work – you may never be in a better place for networking.
  • Try the Wildlife Trusts or conservation charities for volunteering opportunities – these are a great way to begin establishing a network of useful contacts and potential mentors and often they will be happy to publish new writers in their magazines.
  • I’m a bit of dictionary geek, and I occasionally use guides to correct English such as Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading anything purporting to teach you how to ‘be a writer.’ If you train yourself to write like someone else, why would an editor use you and not the original?

Find out more about Dr Amy-Jane Beer. 

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