by Michelle Sutton, NYSUFC Blog & E-news Editor
My colleague Jeff Shimonski was the director of horticulture for Jungle Island in Miami, Florida for 39 years. He retired from that position in 2014 and now works as an urban forestry consultant. He also continues to write about horticulture for a variety of publications, including the Biscayne Times, for which he’s written 72 columns.
“Ever since I started working professionally in horticulture I always wanted to write articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals,” he says. “It was a big thrill for me to get published for the first time in an international journal.”
I remember that thrill, too. I’ve been freelance writing since 1998 and freelance editing since 2005. I can relate to both sides of the editor’s desk. I’ve been the writer whose submissions are rejected, and I’ve been the editor who had to do some polite rejecting. I have some thoughts to share based on my familiarity with both sides of the exchange.
Why write about urban forestry? First of all, our field needs more advocacy and visibility, in the form of online or print features, columns, and letters to the editor. The more publications we have a presence in—from small-town papers to national magazines and blogs—the more the field of urban forestry is elevated. You may also be motivated to write for the sheer pleasure and gratification of it, for a little extra money, to develop your writing ability, or to help promote your business. Sharing your expertise in a lively way is an effective form of marketing yourself, your company, or the nonprofit you’re involved with, while getting urban forestry out in the public eye.
Getting Your Boot in the Door
If you lack a body of work, how do you get started? Find a colleague who is already publishing and ask him or her to co-author a piece on a topic you know a good deal about. Tell them the writer’s fee (if any) will be all theirs. Then do the majority of the work yourself, accommodate your more experienced co-author in the extreme, and when your work gets published, buy them lunch or send them a little gift.
Another way to get started is to volunteer to write for any regional urban forestry publication (like our Council’s blog). Or consider starting your own public blog, which will foster in you a discipline of regular writing and is something concrete you can refer editors to. Be sure to have beautiful photos in your blog. Good photos are really, really important in our visual culture.
Some years ago, I did a series of unpaid posts for an online magazine produced in WordPress. For a volunteer gig, it seemed like a lot to figure out at first. But learning how to navigate WordPress paid off later when I was asked to submit a proposal to the NYSUFC about creating a blog for them. I felt confident that WordPress would be the right tool for the Council, and I knew how to use it to make an attractive blog.
In Shimonski’s case with the Biscayne Times, getting in the door came about ten years ago when he was asked to write an article on hurricane preparedness for what was then a very small local monthly newspaper. He says, “I jumped at the opportunity and have been writing a monthly garden column for them ever since. It has been a great ongoing relationship.” Now the newspaper is one of the most popular in Miami, with more than 75,000 readers.
When you query editors, summarize your topic in one sentence, be brief and specify what makes you qualified to write the piece. Refer to the high-quality photos you presumably have to go with the story. Be brief. A lengthy query is less likely to be considered than one that is one tight paragraph. When you query concisely, you demonstrate your ability to write concisely. Also, ask for and read their Writers’ Guidelines before you query the editor. Study their publication to make sure you are offering something that fits their style and content and that hasn’t been written about recently.
Be like a woodpecker in your persistence, but also be prepared for your fair share of rejection. Sometimes your article really is a gem, but it just hasn’t yet found its right home. Keep shopping it around. Stay open and don’t get discouraged—opportunities will present themselves in unexpected ways. Be open to even the most modest outlets when you are getting started.
Happy Editor, Happy Writer, Happy Reader
Shimonski says, “The main truism I soon found out was that the editor for the magazine or newspaper that I was attempting to write for was in absolute charge. I had to be open to their revisions or being asked to revise.”
Indeed, editors like to work with writers who are flexible and not overly attached to minutiae. Busy editors also enjoy the ease and efficiency of ongoing relationships with writers, especially those who write well or are at least open to improvement. Good writers are relatively rare (however, I’ve found that our Council members are consistently above average in their writing skills!). If you don’t feel confident about your writing, consider taking composition courses. It’s never too late! Also, have a friend who has copy editing skills look over your piece before you send it in.
About the writing process and subject matter: SavATree Consulting Group Director Mike Galvin, makes a helpful analogy. He says, “If you want to build a house, you don’t start at one corner and construct everything as you move from one end to the other; you build the structure first and then add items that can be supported from coarser to finer until you’re done. It’s better to pick a few main points to communicate and tie together logically than to start with a thought and follow the thread wherever it leads you.” When you get more experienced at crafting pieces, the outline of a story may take shape in your head or emerge as you write. But for now, lean hard on that structure.
Get practiced at coming up with clever titles, but don’t get too attached to them. Not infrequently, one of my editors changes my titles. I learned to let it go. Besides, sometimes their new title is much better than mine. For instance, I had written a “Manure Primer,” with that rather bland title. The editor changed it to “The Call of Doody: A Manure Primer.” Much better.
Jeff Shimonski says that for the first couple of years of writing his Biscayne Times story, he was very concerned about running out of subjects to write about and making that monthly deadline. “There are only so many times you can write about coconut palms and mango trees,” he says, “but then I learned to look at my column from a broader point of view. I have grown hundreds of species of plants and I can write about my experiences with them but I also write articles about trees and zoning issues, edible plants and recipes, how to deal with landscape contractors, and many other subjects.”
Personally, the more I write, the more story ideas I have. One of life’s greatest pleasures is hearing and telling stories … we all have them in abundance! We can share them creatively in service to our business and to our industry.
Lastly, an important note about collaboration. If you are writing about urban forestry issues or events specific to your town, be sure to involve your city municipal forester (or your tree commission, if you are the city forester). Ideally, the city forester would coauthor the article with you. You at least want to give them the chance the review the piece, comment, and correct any potential inaccuracies. Likewise, if you’re involved with a nonprofit, be sure to bring in the agency’s director or the PR person to review your piece. In general, especially in the beginning, it’s good to have as many different stakeholders as possible look over your writing before it gets published.
The Chicago Manual of Style
On Writing Well by William Zinzer
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Elephants of Style and Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh