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
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
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
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
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
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.