Country diarist Paul Evans reveals what makes good nature writing stand out and offers some expert advice on how to get started.
You’re up to your knees in mud and weeds, getting bitten by things you can’t identify, in a place that seems to grow more hostile by the minute, searching for a something-or-other that probably skedaddled hours ago and couldn’t care less about communing with you anyway. And as you open your notebook, so do the heavens.
Welcome to the world of nature writing.
Of course, you could just stay in the warm and dry, get all your information from Wiki-wotsit and plagiarise Richard Mabey, but that’s not really the point, is it? So what is the point of nature writing – and how do you do it?
A well-turned phrase describing a particular landscape or living thing is a joy to behold, but the challenge is greater than that. For me, writing inspired by Nature is akin to nature conservation, of which my favourite definition is: “the transfer of significance from the past to the future”.
If writing can articulate what is significant about an experience of Nature, and if it can reveal an ecology of relationships that sustain life, then I think it’s one of the most vital kinds of writing there is.
Wildlife encounter, landscape description, poetry, popular science, wilderness exploration and environmental thinking – all contribute to the nature-writing canon. Is it necessary to be an expert naturalist as well? I don’t think so, though finding out what things are makes writing about them far more relevant.
However, I admit to being a bit conflicted about our obsession with naming species. Knowing the names of things is essential to an ecological literacy, but I also think names are there to control and oppress things.
It worries me that specialist knowledge (with its own vocabulary that few of us understand) becomes exclusive. I want nature writing to be inclusive because, like conservation, I want it to be a cultural project involving everyone.
If nature writing is the new rock ’n’ roll, as some media commentators are suggesting, it’s because it has the same sort of excitement and sexy edginess as the old rock ’n’ roll. It comes from real life. It comes from being stuck up to your knees in mud and weeds.
The key to successful nature writing is engaged observation, being there and acting as a link between the experience and the reader.
Keep it real
Be as authentic as you can: express your heartfelt emotions. Readers may forgive ‘purple’ prose if they believe your passion is sincere.
Know your place
A deep appreciation and understanding of your patch will help you to write about other places.
Read like musicians listen to music – don’t just restrict your reading to other nature writers. Fiction, poetry and science writing are all life-enriching genres.
Write as much as possible, take notes even if you don’t use them and be critical about what you describe.
Making it up, embellishment for effect and pretending to love your chosen subject don’t work.
Ignore the little things
Often it’s the small, usually overlooked details that bring writing to life.
The voice of the narrator in narrative non-fiction is essential to its success. Don’t pretend you’re not there.
Call me an old romantic, but I think nature writers should stand up for nature.
It’s difficult not to project ourselves onto nature, but we do wild animals a terrible disservice trying to make them honorary humans.
Worry what others think
You’ll find your own voice through experience.
TOP TIPS FROM PROFESSIONAL NATURE WRITERS
- Read everything from nature-based fiction like that of Wallace Stegner to arcane scientific papers. Nature writing is a baton that has been passed on for 1,000 years.
- Read your own work, too – to yourself, out loud. Extravagant metaphors and structural clumsiness become embarrassingly obvious when they enter your own ears.
- Nature writing is a dialogue between you and the rest of the living world. Be fair to both parties – to your own feelings and to the creativity of nature. Remember Annie Dillard’s mantra: writing happens when “imagination [meets] memory in the dark”.
- Eradicate piety, blitheness, effusion and cliché. Writing about nature tends to attract all four. There have already been more than enough shimmering sunsets, sublime mountains, exquisite flowers and dumbstruck pilgrims.
- Become a monomaniac. Study one thing – one species, one acre of ground, one river, one tree – until it has become either a foreign country to you (fabulously strange) or one of the things you understand best in the whole world (fabulously familiar).
- Finally: revise, revise and revise again. As Dr Johnson said: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
- Writing well is the result of your individual, fresh and precise response to the world, cross-fertilised with your own response to language and reading. Your writing will convince if it is your own voice; but noticing how other nature writers inspire you will give you ideas.
- I love Jean-Henri Fabre’s lines in The Life of the Fly: “The meat, which was thoroughly drained by the blotting paper, has become so moist that the young vermin leave a wet mark behind them as they crawl over the glass… the flesh flows in every direction like an icicle placed before the fire.” He mixes observation and original imagery beautifully.
- Look and learn: pay close attention to what is in front of you, scribble notes on the spot, take your pulse as you watch and then abandon everything you have ever read by anyone else and write it new.
- Nature makes its own writing – we can make only versions, but the best words can restore us to the primacy of first sightings.
Find out more
To learn more about nature writing and read some examples, click here
Now you do it