Writers Talk About Writing
Writing, Traveling, Writing Some More
Dan Koeppel travels the world to write stories for National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Popular Science and other major magazines. He's visited more than 40 countries, biked along the Silk Road in far-western China, birdwatched deep in the Amazon jungle and explored Paris to find the best croissants -- on rollerblades. But Dan says, "travel is just part of the stuff I'm doing."
The stuff he's doing is telling stories about nature and adventure and the outdoors. His latest book is called To See Every Bird on Earth, a memoir about his father -- a "Big Lister," in birder lingo, a person who's spotted more than 7,000 of the world's 9,500 species of birds. Dan's father is only one of nine birders in the world to earn this appellation.
Dan spoke with us about freelance magazine writing and what it takes to visit far-away places to bring home the story.
VT: What's the difference between writing for magazines and writing a book?
Dan: In magazine writing you have to remember it's not your audience, it's the magazine's audience. You have to know the needs of the magazine, what it has done in the past. You have to know the desires and idiosyncrasies of your particular editor. And you have to have a thick skin to get through an often brutal re-write phase.
Writing a book is really different. It's me sitting by myself crafting something that I hope will appeal to people. It's a much more writer-driven process than an editor-driven one.
VT: What do you say to people who want to write a story on their next exotic vacation?
Dan: I hear this from people who don't know a lot about magazine writing, people who say, I'm going on vacation and I'd love to fund it by selling a story. It doesn't work that way. First, it's not a vacation, and second, it's not about you getting money to pay for it. It's about you delivering an article to a magazine that's already sold or already understood. I never ever go someplace without knowing why I'm going there and what the assignment is. Unless I'm going on vacation, which I actually prefer to do at home.
VT: How do you get ready for a story abroad?
Dan: I do as much preparation as possible -- except a day-to-day schedule, which I never do. You don't want to be that rigid; you want to follow a story wherever it goes. You have to know who to talk to and who to meet. If you can make good contacts in advance and ask them to help you find other people, then you have a geometric progression of introductions. And that's how you find out what other writers going to the same places don't find out. I think many travel writers are focused on scenery, sensation -- their feelings -- and telling you what places to visit. I never focus on these things -- it all comes out in a piece organically. I prefer to concentrate on the people I meet and their stories.
VT: You've been freelance writing for 15 years. What's the secret to winning assignments?
Dan: The key to magazine writing is not just being a great writer. It's knowing how to sell your stories. The traditional advice is to know your editor and know your market. But you also have to do the same thing with your editors that you do with your sources on your stories: Geometric progression. After you've published a good story, ask your editors if they know people at other magazines who you might meet. You can build a strong client list very quickly this way.
Dan's book, To See Every Bird on Earth, published by Penguin, is out this month in paperback.