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Wade Bourne of Clarksville, TN is a full-time outdoor writer/broadcaster/photographer.

Developing a Professional Mindset
Wade Bourne

Being on a soapbox can offer the advantage of high ground in any conflict of ideas. At the same time, the soapbox can be a slippery perch and a quick slide back down. Nevertheless, indulge me as I climb onto the soapbox to discuss one of my favorite topics – and pet peeves: professionalism in outdoor communications.
In thirty years in this business, I’ve seen the extremes, from writers trading their integrity for a few free lures to those who were professional in every detail. The former, I’m sure, have impeded the latter in gaining respect in the outdoor industry, especially among those who hire writers and determine editorial budgets. Why pay more when less is expected and frequently provided?
This is why outdoor writers (and broadcasters, photographers, etc.) should strive to raise their level of professionalism. We are treated as we are perceived. We are as skilled in our craft as attorneys, CPA’s, health care providers and other pros are in theirs. Then why not project this image in our business? Business? That’s exactly what it is, and whether part-timer or full-timer, functioning as a pro can raise the levels of respect and income for anybody in this atypical career field.
So how does one become more professional? First, the standards. When you make a promise to a client (editor, publisher), don’t fail to deliver. Produce the exact assignment you agreed to do. Don’t miss deadlines. Edit your copy to a fine edge. Be careful to eliminate misspelled words and bad grammar.
Editors have a problem. They continually face blank pages that they must fill. Professional writers are those who help editors solve this problem by providing dependably good copy on time. Those writers who do so will be called upon issue after issue. But writers who contribute to an editor’s problem, who miss deadlines or send articles that must be heavily rewritten, will quickly get the boot off the contributor’s page.
Professionals keep up with new technologies and utilize them to function more efficiently. They have graphically pleasing business stationery and cards. They know how to deal with contracts and invoices. They don’t record cutesy messages from their children on their answering machines! (Can you imagine a lawyer’s office doing that?)
Further still, being a professional is a mindset. We are communicators, not anglers or hunters who just happen to write and take photos. Set a payment standard based on your prior experience, and don’t work for less. Plumbers and electricians do this. Why not writers?
(Set this standard by how much you’ll make by the hour, not by the job. Many times a short article will pay more by the hour than a larger, more prestigious feature. Thus, it’s frequently more efficient to write the smaller pieces. A 400-word article that pays $250 might require one phone call and two hours to write. That divides out to $125 per hour with almost no out-of-pocket expense. Hmmm, lawyer’s rates…?)
As your experience grows, your payment standard should increase. Target bigger, better-paying markets. Don’t get stuck in the low-pay, slow-pay traffic jam. Be forthright in moving your career forward.
Be prepared to turn down as assignment in the payment rate doesn’t meet your standard. Some publishers will take advantage of talented writers who will work for peanuts. If payment is too low, ask for more. (Professionals in other jobs ask for raises!) You won’t make an editor mad by asking for a pay increase. Sometimes, especially if you have a proven track record with him, he will say yes. If he says no, you must be prepared to say no in return and look to other markets.
I hate to hear outdoor writers say, “I don’t make much money in this business, but I sure have a good time.” Well who’s to say we can’t have a good time and make a good living? I know a few outdoor writers who consistently earn in the six figures, and it looks to me like they have as much fun as their poor-mouth counterparts.
But the difference is, they have good business sense; they are ambitious; they are energetic; they are dependable; they are futuristic; they are integral; they set goals; they negotiate for their services. Wrap all these qualities into one adjective, and you have PROFESSIONAL. These pro’s didn’t “bubba their way to the top. They worked hard and planned and invested and managed. They combined their talent with a determination to be better than most, and they rose above most.
Certainly, developing a professional mindset is a hollow tree if you don’t also have talent and perseverance. You need all three to succeed in outdoor writing. But if you have the latter two, then developing a professional attitude will move you from the middle rungs to the top of the ladder where the air is thinner, checks are larger and personal satisfaction is greater.