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Nick Sisley on Writing

Editor’s Note: Nick Sisley of Apollo, Pennsylvania, has been a mentor of mine for more than 30 years. He is one of the nation’s premier gun writers and one of the most-prolific writers and successful writers that I ever have known.

“I wrote my first story in 1964 and couldn’t sell it,” Sisley explained to me. “I wrote another story in 1965 and failed to sell it. In 1996 I finally sold the story I’d written in 1965. I went to a couple of writers’ conventions and started writing more and more because I would get fired-up at those conventions. In 1969, I gave up a good-paying job as a supervisor for U.S. Steel where I had been for about 10 years. I had a great benefit package and retirement program. At the time I gave up my job at U.S. Steel, I was 32-years old. Although U.S. Steel had treated me very, very well, I guess I just decided that what I really wanted to do with my life was be an outdoor writer.”

Question: What did you like about the outdoor-writing profession, Nick?
Sisley: I could see that if I became an outdoor writer I could spend a lot of time hunting and fishing in my home state, and I hoped that I could make a living at this writing, hunting and fishing business. But ultimately I learned that being able to become an outdoor writer and photographer meant I was able to hunt and fish all over the world and live a great life.

Question: What was your big break in writing?
Sisley: I never had one.

Question: How do you continue to come-up with story ideas after so-many years?
Sisley: Story ideas are occasionally a problem. But they are not the biggest problem in this business. The biggest problem is trying to find the markets to which to sell your article ideas. The article ideas are always available, if you don’t just rely on your own knowledge and experience to produce ideas. I depend on many other people to help me come-up with story ideas. The same way you are interviewing me for this story, I interview hunters and fishermen to learn how to do what they do, why they do what they do, why they choose the places to hunt and fish they pick, and how they learn to get as good as they are at what they do. As long as you are meeting new people and going to new places, you can come up with new article ideas.

Question: Nick, what advice would you give someone who says, “I want to become a full-time professional writer?”
Sisley: There is only one word that you really need to know and understand to become a full-time moneymaking professional writer – write, write, write. Nothing gets done, and no money is generated, until you hit the first letter on your computer keyboard. I believe that people who aren’t writers have the misconception that someone who writes just sits around and waits until they get divine inspiration before they write. But this is not true. One of my favorite writers is Charlie Waterman. I always thought Charlie had great opening leads to his stories. So I corresponded with him to ask him how he got those great opening leads. He told me, “Sometimes an opening lead for a story is really hard to come-up with, but don’t worry. Just start writing something, and eventually a lead will come to you. Or, if it doesn’t, whatever paragraph you used when you started writing that story may eventually become the lead. Even though you didn’t intend that opening paragraph to be a lead, you will often find that what you started writing about was the most important part of the story. But don’t sit staring at a piece of paper or a computer screen without writing because you don’t have a lead.”
And this advice goes back to my original premise, if you are going to be a writer, sit down, and start writing. Don’t worry about the lead; don’t worry about the information you need to get to make the story what you want it to be; and most importantly, don’t give yourself any excuse not to write. A writer can’t wait for anything; he or she has to sit down and start writing every day. The more you write, the better writer you will become, the easier writing will be for you, the more productive you will be, and the more money you will make.

Question: Nick, one of the biggest problems for most freelance writers is cash flow. The bills always seem to come in before the checks do. How do you manage cash flow so that you don’t go broke before you become a writer?
Sisley: This problem is easy to solve. A writer knows before he sits down to write whether that article is assigned or on speculation, and how much he’ll get paid for producing that article. So let’s say to meet all your bills and have a little bit of spending money, you need to write $1,000 a month (more than likely you will need more than $1,000 a month but this figure is easy to use). You sit down and write a story, and you know you are going to make $25 for that story. Now you know you need to write $975 worth of articles by the end of the month to get the $1,000 to pay your bills. So you write another story, and you know you’ll get $300 for that one. So, you continue to write all month long until you have written $1,000 worth of stories and sent them in to publishers.

Question: When does that $1,000 paycheck come in because you write an article and send it in. You may not get paid for that article for 3 months or a year, right? How do you keep an even cash flow?
Sisley: You just continue to write $1,000 worth of articles a month, and within 6 months or a year, you will start receiving that $1,000 a month every month on a regular basis. If you don’t decide how much you want to make each month, and you don’t generate that amount of articles every month, then the writing profession becomes a roller-coaster ride of hills and valleys financially. But if you consistently produce the amount of money you want to receive each month, within a year you can be on a fairly-even cash flow. Now your income will never be as dependable as someone who gets paid the same amount every 2 weeks. But it will be much more dependable than if you don’t set financial goals for yourself every month.

Question: Nick, what do you say to the writers who say, “I just want to write for the big magazines that pay $1,000 to $5,000 for an article?”
Sisley: I tell them they will never survive as a writer.

Question: Why, Nick?
Sisley: Because there is too much competition for those big markets, and a person has to learn too much, before they consistently can earn a living from those big markets. To have a steady income, a full-time freelance writer has to write for a wide variety of pay scales in small, medium and large markets. There may be only one writer out of 1000 writers who can earn a full-time living writing only for big markets. But more than likely, that writer has been spent many years writing for small markets and learning his craft before he or she consistently hits the big markets. One of the aspects of writing that most young writers never see is that to be a great writer you have to consistently learn more about writing all of your life. You don’t become a writer and then stop learning how to write. Great writers learn more and more about their craft every year they live. Most great writers I know never feel like they’ve learned all they can to be good writers.

Question: Nick, what size markets do you write for?
Sisley: I write for little markets, medium-size markets and big markets. I try and write for all of them.

Question: How critical is photography, Nick, to getting published? Does a writer really have to become a photographer also?
Sisley: I think that being a photographer is critical to being a magazine writer. But the photography side of writing has changed since I first began to write for magazines and books. In the 1960s and 1970s, editors only had a couple of nationally-recognized outdoor photographers that the editors could bank on to augment photography, if a writer didn’t supply the type of photography that an editor thought an article needed. But that is not true today. If you submit a really-good story and have some relatively-good photography to support that story, today’s editors can buy unbelievably great photography from a large number of people who specialize in, say, outdoor photography. You still have to be a photographer as well as a writer, if you want to consistently sell to the magazine and the book market. But the photography is not nearly as critical today as it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Question: Is there any other advice that you’ll give to a beginning writer or someone who thinks he or she wants to become a writer?
Sisley: I think you have to write, even if you don’t think you’re going to sell the article you’re writing. You have to write as often as you can, and you have to be an avid reader. If there is a particular magazine you want to write for, then start reading and studying that magazine. Read the way the writers who write for that magazine craft and develop their stories. Because the way they are writing their stories is the way that magazine wants the stories they publish to be written. Study the kind of leads that the writers in that magazine use to start their stories. Study the amount of research that the writers are using and learn how the writers in that magazine end their stories. See if the articles have any sidebars, graphs or charts, and look at the type of photography that that magazine uses to illustrate stories. Regardless of what you think of the writer, the way he or she writes and the type of photography that is used to illustrate the story, if you want to write for that magazine, you’ll have to write the way that the writers who are getting published in that magazine are writing. Look at the types of subjects that that magazine is covering, and make your story idea fit into those types of subjects.

Question: What do you say to the writers who say, “I am not going to work a week or two to only make $250 for a story?”
Sisley: These writers will never become writers because the first articles you write will take you longer to research and interview, and you must spend more time crafting them than any other stories you write. But the more you write, the faster and better you will be able to write. That same article that has taken you a week or two to write for $250, then or 5 or 20 years later, you will be able to write before lunch in one morning. The more you write, the better you will write, and the faster you will write. All writers begin as slow writers. As you begin to learn the craft of writing, you will get faster and better at it.

Question: Would you recommend that anyone interested in the craft of writing become a freelance writer?
Sisley: Absolutely. Freelance writing is a great way to make a living. However, the biggest problem with being a freelance writer is that most people don’t want to be their own bosses. I think many people philosophically feel better, if they have other people telling them what to do and when to do it. But to be a freelancer, you have to be a self-starter and make yourself do the things that a boss requires of you. A freelance writer has to be working all the time. You can’t be waiting on anything. You have to be willing to, and more importantly, wanting to work 7 days a week. To be successful, you have got to be willing to work 24/7. To work that much and want to work that much, you have to love the craft of writing. If you don’t love to write, if you don’t want to write, and/or if you are not passionate about your writing, then you won’t be able to earn a living as a freelancer. Who, in his right mind, will work that much if he doesn’t enjoy what he does? If you really love and have a passion for writing, and if you are a self-starter and you enjoy seeing your words in print, then I don’t think there is a better profession in the world than being a freelance writer.