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View the winners of our 20th Anniversary Award and Writer of the Year competitions, get sound advice on creating convincing dialogue in Top Tips, find out where to locate local history information in Useful Websites and learn how to profit from walking with Simon Whaley.

EXPERT ADVICE

The Great Outdoors

By Simon Whaley

I do a lot of writing with my feet. In fact, publication can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. More and more magazines are publishing walking routes – rambles that readers can follow for themselves. Depending upon the magazine’s readership, they may be short strolls around the village pond or hearty hikes to mountain summits. What you mustn’t do is to lead your readers up the garden path! However, with some common sense, a decent map and some good notes, your next published article may only be a few footsteps away.

Many publications use walking routes for readers to follow. Apart from the obvious walking magazines (Country Walking, Trail, The Great Outdoors, Walking Wales, Lakeland Walker, Walk to name a few) why not take a look at your local county magazine or newspaper? Offering readers a short walk is a great way to explore a local village or site of historic interest. I have a regular monthly column with my local magazine, Country & Border Life, which does just this. I’ve also contributed routes to BBC Countryfile, Country Walking, Walking Wales and Trail magazines . But it doesn’t stop there, I’ve seen rambles in BBC History magazine, dog magazines, disability access magazines and local newspapers. Readers love to get out and explore, and publications like a walk because it gives readers an opportunity to get involved. Don’t dismiss writing about the great outdoors just because you’ve never walked further than two miles!

I always consider who my reader is before even planning a walk. Because readers of Country Walking are interested in walking, most of the routes I’ve tackled for them have been between five and eleven miles. My Country & Border Life walking column readers are not active walkers, although they often enjoy a short Sunday afternoon stroll if the weather is nice. Most of my walks for these readers tend to be between one and three miles in length, which I’m sure most of you could easily manage!

If you have an idea, then I would suggest you approach editors by email first. Dominic Bates, editor of Walk magazine says, “Email, then post. A phone approach is often unnecessary and time-consuming without having seen any actual writing.” David Perrot, editor of Walking Wales agrees. “What I prefer is an outline of the idea along with a sample, so that I can get a feel for it. If potential contributors telephone, I will only ask them to send something anyway.”

Yet, how difficult can it be to write ‘turn left at the lane and then cross a stile’? It’s hardly creative writing is it? Wrong! Don’t for one minute fall for the trap that writing walking routes is easy - outdoor writers have to be succinct writers. “The real skill of writing for our routes section is condensing a lot of information into 500 words or so,” says Nick Hallissey at Country Walking magazine. “Some writers find it easier than others.”

When analysing a magazine to establish what sort of walkers the readers are, look to see what else they’re interested in, and therefore what sorts of walks they’ll be tempted to tackle. For my Country & Border Life column, I tend to create walks that are near other attractions, or follow an outdoor theme. I’ve just completed an article about the Blists Hill Victorian Christmas weekends for next December’s issue. Blists Hill is based in the World Heritage Site of Ironbridge Gorge, so I’ve included a two-mile walk through Ironbridge Gorge that readers can do after visiting Blists Hill. This month’s issue looks at the Crocus, one of the first flowers of spring, so I’ve written an article about the flower and then devised a one-and-a-half mile walk through a woodland where crocuses thrive.

If you’re interested in targeting a magazine that already produces walks (such as Country Walking, Trail, Lakeland Walker), the best advice is to go out and tackle one of the routes published in the magazine. How easy is it to follow? Note how the writer succinctly summarises the description. Instead of writing ‘cross the stile and the field, cross the next stile and field, then cross another stile and field to reach a lane’ they may write ‘Cross the next three stiles and fields to reach a lane’.

Always take copious notes when walking and be as observant as possible. When you reach a gate, is it a metal one or a wooden one? I refer to wooden gates as ‘gates’ but metal gates as ‘metal gates’. Why? In my experience, farmers generally replace wooden gates with metal ones, rather than the other way around! A reader might panic if I told them to expect a wooden gate and the farmer had replaced it with a metal one. They may think they’ve taken a wrong turning.

And don’t write about turning left after the third Daffodil. That won’t be much help in October! Be aware of your surroundings and how things may change on the ground. What looks like an overgrown and impassable hedge in summer, is just a row of twigs in winter. That lone tree that you tell readers to bear to the right of as they cross the field, could easily disappear during the next thunderstorm, when struck by lightening.

Take lots of pictures when out and about. Remember, pictures help to sell your route as well as provide confirmation that readers are on the right trail. If you’re writing for a non-walking magazine, take pictures on bright sunny days, to encourage readers to get out and explore. Dedicated walkers do it in all weathers!

And walking routes do not have to be countryside based. I’ve tackled a couple of town trails and written them up and sold them. My county town is Shrewsbury, birthplace of Charles Darwin and 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth. There are several buildings in the town connected with him, so I’m creating a trail around town that readers can follow to visit those buildings themselves. As long as your route descriptions are clear, readers should be able to follow them. If ever you’re unsure, then get a friend to see if they can follow your instructions.

So next time you’re looking for a new writing market, consider stepping out and getting some fresh air. Don’t describe your town’s history, create a trail around it for readers to follow instead. You never know where your journey may take you!


Simon Whaley - Biography
Simon is a tutor for the Writers Bureau and has walked over 1,500km for a variety of magazines including Country Walking, Trail, Country & Border Life, Cumbria, Walking Wales, Lakeland Walker. His book, Best Walks in the Welsh Borders, was published by Frances Lincoln in 2007. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers & Photographers Guild and in 2006 was honoured with an Award for Excellence for his monthly walking column in Country & Border Life magazine. His next book, The Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking is due for publication in Spring 2009.