Welcome to a new series on Travelling Lines, where we chat to people already making a living related to outdoors and adventure. We’ll be shedding light on what it’s really like, plus help you see a pathway you can follow – if you want to.
This week we’re talking to Alex Roddie about all things freelance writing and editorial. Header image © James Roddie Photography
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a writer and editor who mostly works on outdoor adventure writing. My work’s pretty varied – on Monday I might be helping an author client put together a submission proposal, on Tuesday I could be editing a feature on rock climbing for an outdoor magazine, Wednesday might see me composing a piece of my own for a different publication, and on Thursdays I often finish my day putting together the e-newsletter for The Great Outdoors. Some of my other valued clients include Sidetracked magazine and authors John Burns, Keith Foskett and Mark Horrell.
Most of my income comes from editing in all its varied forms: copy-editing, proofreading, developmental editing, and structural critique. Writing (both adventure features and and copywriting) also occupies an important place in my overall strategy.
Work sometimes includes photography too, but my images are almost always secondary to the words. Books are my first love. Don’t believe the naysayers – print is very much alive.
On the adventure side of things, I’m primarily a long-distance backpacker who loves nothing better than spending a week or more in a remote mountain wilderness.
How did you end up here?
Like many a good tale, this one began in the Boots Bar at the Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe, where I worked as live-in bar staff from 2008 until 2011. My time in the Coe involved a lot of climbing, more ascents of Bidean nam Bian and Ben Nevis than I can count, and more pints of Nessie’s Monster Mash that I care to admit – not to mention a novel manuscript, long in development, all about the 19th-century history of mountaineering. I finished the book in late 2011 after moving back down south. I’d met Hannah, later to become my wife, who was the perceptive critic I needed to help turn my occasionally fanciful prose into something a little more grounded.
I self-published two novels, several short stories and two major sci-fi anthologies between 2012 and 2015. My day job for most of this period was selling mobile phones at Carphone Warehouse, but I knew something had to change. I set up Pinnacle Editorial in 2014, working almost exclusively on fiction at first, but it wasn’t long until I was able to change direction and take on more outdoor writing.
At roughly the same time, my career as an outdoor writer began to take shape. I’d been writing on and off for UKClimbing and UKHillwalking for years – my earliest gear and book reviews there date from 2008 – but I soon found that freelancing gave me the versatility to spend more time in the mountains, and that let to more writing opportunities. My first big break was a feature on hiking the Cape Wrath Trail for TGO in late 2015, and I’ve been a regular contributor ever since. I’ve also continued to write regularly for UKH along with occasional pieces for other magazines, including Trail.
Sidetracked magazine has played a key role in my editorial work. I was offered the job of sub-editor in early 2015 and, to date, I’ve edited ten print issues plus countless web features. Sidetracked is some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done – the quality of the writing and photography is exceptional, the stories are important (conservation and environment as well as adventure), and the magazine is almost unmatched in its dedication to publishing the work of female adventurers at the cutting edge of what they do.
Emily: Almost 😉
The final piece of the puzzle is my role as Online Editor at TGO, which I took on in July 2017. By that point I knew the magazine well – I’d even put an issue together while Editor Emily Rodway was away – but would I have time to add an extra ten hours a week to my schedule? I accepted and, even though finding time for everything I do has sometimes proven challenging since, it’s been an amazing experience. I consider it a privilege to help new writers get that crucial first publication credit with an online piece for TGO.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that I haven’t always been focused on outdoor editing and writing. For many years, all I wanted to do was be a novelist. However, life changes as we grow, and I came to realise that the missing piece of the puzzle for me was to blend my passion for the outdoors with my lifelong vocation of writing. It isn’t easy, but it certainly beats trying to sell smartphones to people who don’t want them at Carphone Warehouse…
What advice do you have for someone trying to mix adventure with a career?
Be sure you really want to do it. For many of us, the outdoors is our escape from everyday life. We head for the hills to clear our heads when emails or deadlines get us down, but our relationship with the outdoors changes in a fundamental way when it becomes part of our work. You might find that time spent participating in your adventurous activity of choice no longer provides the escape it used to, so be prepared to fill that void with something else. On the other hand, some people thrive on making a living from their adventures. The best mountain guides I know are the ones who spend their spare time in the mountains too.
Make sure you know what you want to achieve and have both a plan and the skills to get you there. Today, anyone considering a career with an adventure element needs multiple skills. Photographers should look at branching into video to increase their value to potential clients.
Writers increasingly need to be accomplished photographers too, and of course we all need the ability to market and sell ourselves, not to mention the admin and organisation of running a small business. Other options exist, of course – there are many opportunities. But make sure you know where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and be prepared to keep improving what you can offer. The learning process never ends. This is a good thing!
How do you pay for your adventures?
Since 2015, I’ve paid for most of my trips directly through outdoor writing. Although it’s rare for magazines to pay full expenses these days, I live frugally on the trail, and one or two feature commissions are usually enough to make a trip break even. Beyond that I’m in profit, and I’m very fortunate to be on TGO’s gear-testing team, which means I rarely have to pay for gear.
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to land an all-expenses-paid press trip. For example, in August 2018 Visit Tirol paid for me to hike the Karwendel Höhenweg in the Austrian Alps. In exchange, I wrote an online trail guide for TGO and have print features on the trip in the pipeline too. While it’s unusual for a press trip to come along that aligns so well with my own outdoor interests, the reality is that I’m content for my editing to be the most profitable side of my work. Outdoor writing has always been a labour of love.
In the future, I plan to do more public speaking about my adventures. This is something I’ve begun to explore this year thanks to a couple of recent bookings as guest speaker at regional BMC meets. There will also be more books in my future – and this time they won’t be fiction.
How should readers interested in freelance writing or editing get started?
An obvious starting point some seem to overlook is that you need to be a voracious reader, ideally in your genre of choice, but also widely. In my experience, aspiring writers who never read (or who claim to never have time to read) are often infatuated with the idea of writing, and their ambition might not survive the collision with reality.
Writing and editing go hand in hand; many editors also write widely, and most writers will have some experience of editing, even if it’s only a bit of informal proofreading for friends or family. Each complements the other.
Keeping a blog is one of the best things you can do if you want to get into freelance writing. It will help you develop your voice while growing an audience, and when you start looking for commissions you can link to it as an example of your writing. ‘Write what you know’ remains good advice, and a personal introduction with an editor, combined with an effective pitch for the right story at the right time, could be all you need to land that first commission.
Getting into freelance editing can be more tricky. Trust is critical; authors place a huge amount of trust in the person they choose to edit their manuscript, which means you’ll need a proven track record of working on books before you’ll be considered. The barriers to entry are a little lower when it comes to copy-editing and proofreading for magazines, but experience is still critical. I highly recommend the introductory courses offered by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Consider offering a couple of free edits to gain those first few testimonials.
Finally, don’t rush things. This is a long game, and writing ability can be slow to mature – I consider my ‘apprenticeship’ to have lasted from about 2000 to 2015, and I’m still very much a learner to this day. The reality is that your first 100-200,000 words will probably be crap. No amount of self-promotion on social media will compensate for a basic lack of writing ability. But keep writing, don’t be afraid to fail early and often, and seek critical feedback before you seek publication.
Visit my website at www.alexroddie.com where you’ll find details of my work and a library of free resources on mountaineering, hiking, and the outdoors.
I’m active (more or less) on social media, although I often take breaks as I find it distracting. You can follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/alex_roddie and Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/alex_roddie/.
Sign up to my Pinnacle Newsletter for witty weekly emails on the outdoors, writing, and outdoor writing: https://tinyletter.com/alex_roddie