Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"So, you want to write about horses?"

Ah yes, the glamorous life: This is me at 6:30 a.m., fresh out of bed, trying hard to finish writing an article ahead of deadline.

Over the years I've gotten plenty of emails and letters from readers who are aspiring equestrian journalists. I can understand why my job seems to appeal to a lot of horse lovers. I have the liberty to make my own work schedule and I'm getting paid to write about horses and to interview famous horse people! What could be greater than that?

But let me assure you, there are some less than glamorous aspects to my job. Before you decide you want to pursue becoming an equestrian journalist, consider the following:

First of all, you will never get rich. Horse publications are lumped together with other hobby and special interest magazines. They never pay as much as mainstream publications. However, writing about horses is a good supplemental income-- if you write consistently-- and it's the perfect job to support a horse. Just don't expect to support yourself. Or a family.

Second, you will have to accept that, ultimately, your editor determines what you're going to write about. For example, you might want to share your theory of horsemanship with the world, but unless you're a household name along the lines of George Morris or Pat Parelli, chances are you won't find an editor who's interested in your thesis. The exception? If you have a proven, successful history in an equestrian sport or performance event, you're awarded an element of "street cred." Then you can indeed write from your own area of expertise, although once again it'll be limited. Unless you're Olympic medallist Debbie McDonald writing about how to execute a perfect dressage freestyle performance, you'll still be confined to writing insightful tips for amateur and novice riders... not that there's anything wrong with that!

But most of the time you'll be assigned to write what sells magazines, and that includes mundane topics like how to properly hitch up a horse trailer, the latest fly care and de-wormer products, and tips on grooming a horse for competition. And then, one day, you might get to interview George Morris or Pat Parelli!

Third, it takes a long time to establish yourself and get steady, regular work. I think the first article I ever sold was for the old Pacific Quarter Horse Journal. That was a couple of decades ago and I was paid a whopping $25. But it got my foot in the door and I could officially claim that I was published. Over time, I proved to various editors that I could take any assigned topic, hunt down whatever sources were necessary to gain expert insight on the topic, and turn it into a readable, informative, yet entertaining article. And even more important? I never missed a deadline! By building a good reputation, I found myself in the enviable position of never having to seek work: it came to me.

So. How might you get started as an equestrian journalist?

1. Get an education. While a degree in English, communications or journalism might not be required, the ability to competently compose a standard 5-paragraph expository essay is.

2. Branch out. Though your background might only be in gymkhana games or dressage or working cow horse events, you'll have to develop an appreciation and understanding of all types of riding disciplines and breeds. Otherwise, you'll be truly limited in what you can passionately write about.

3. Practice your interviewing skills. Learn how to handle a small tape recorder or take detailed notes in your own shorthand. Get used to approaching professional people by being professional in your own demeanor. For example, when I've interviewed celebrities about their love for horses and riding, I force myself to focus on that specific topic. I refrain from gushing about their latest movie or how awesome they look. That tends to make them think I'm a crazed fan. Or a stalker.

4. Come up with fresh ideas to impress an editor. Editors plan their magazine's content almost a year in advance, with little room for last minute additional articles. If you're the new writer in town, you have to offer something snazzy to get room on an already crowded page.

Still interested?

If so, the surest way to connect with an editor is to solicit a copy of the publication's Writer's Guidelines. That will include precise information on how to submit articles for consideration. At the same time, do a little research on the magazine itself. What are its demographics? What type of articles are regularly found on its pages? Is the tone typically light and entertaining, or strictly informative? Look through the last 3 or 4 issues to see which topics have recently been covered. There's no sense in promoting the article you've written about the plight of the American Mustang if the magazine just ran a three-part series on the exact same topic.

Finally, allow yourself to be humble. Accept the smallest of assignments just so you have the opportunity to prove yourself. Eventually, you'll find your own voice and develop your own style, just as I have. That could lead to book deals (I just finished my fourth!) and other fun jobs like writing ad copy for horse care product manufacturers (now that pays well!). You might even expand your horizon beyond horses. Besides Horse Illustrated and Horse Channel, I also write for a variety of other publications that are not horse-related. People are often surprised to hear that, but conducting research, interviewing a source and composing an article is the same regardless of the subject matter. Recently I wrote an article profiling an environmental activist and another one on how to select the perfect pair of gym shoes.

Your life could also have such variety. It just takes some determination to convince an editor that you're serious about writing, and time to build your reputation. Then you can be like me, sitting here in my pajamas, typing away on a computer!

Click on "comments" below or email me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com to share your thoughts.


Nancy said...

I didnt know you had written some books! So i did a search on Barnes and Noble, and found what i'm sure are your books - "A Passion for Horses", the soon to be published "Horse Book of Lists", "Riding for the Blue" and "Horse Sense and Nonsense".

But, I'm dying to know - are you also the same Cindy Hale who wrote "Earthworms of the Great Lakes"?

Cindy Hale said...

No, I am not the Cindy Hale who writes about earthworms and other invertebrates, LOL! I know, it's kind of funny, because if you Google my name I seem like such an incredibly educated, well-rounded person. Why, I'm an "authority" on horses... and WORMS!

I did just finish the Horse Book of Lists. That's another blog topic I'll have to address sometime soon. It was an interesting assignment from my publisher and turned out to be a fun book to research and write.