Inside the outdoor industry

A Juggler of Time and Words

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For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be good at something. To be an expert. To have mastery of a given skill or topic. I guess I went some way to achieving that when I gained a PhD, but I’ve since dabbled in a wide range of health research topics from physical activity and nutrition, to ethnic minority health, cardiac disorders, and of course more recently, Covid-19.

After writing various long and boring theses for University degrees, and authoring a range of scientific publications, I (perhaps naively) thought I could turn my hand to writing about something a little closer to my heart – the outdoors, adventure and expeditions. I knew the style of writing was vastly different, but felt there was also another type of writer lurking somewhere within.

For a year or so I managed to fit in a nascent side hustle in outdoor writing around a full time job as a public health researcher, and heading off on various polar style treks. That meant evenings and weekends dedicated to sourcing the latest expedition news and gossip, and hurriedly putting together articles over breakfast, during lunch, or late at night before bed. No room for edits or second thoughts, just get the words down. It also meant having to switch from concise and detailed scientific writing, to a looser more creative style (and back again), with the click of a mouse button.

Eventually this became unsustainable and unfulfilling. Limited time, too much pressure and little room for personal development. Little room to develop any mastery (if that is ever possible as a writer). Last year I dropped down to four days a week on my University contract, to allow a single dedicated day for outdoor writing. But time is still at a premium. Once emails are checked, and pitches sent, I still have to write speedily to cram it all in. A 1000 word feature needs to be written and edited in around 5-6 hours. A shorter expedition news update in thirty minutes to an hour.

Hard at work as an outdoor writer back in March.

Hard at work as an outdoor writer back in March.

Having a dedicated writing day fuels my passion, but doesn’t make financial sense. We all know the pay for writing is poor. The best money per word/effort I’ve received so far was £185 for this very short Outside Magazine piece (I should add newspapers pay well, but the hours of input required is longer). The worst, £50 for a 1000 word blog piece. In contrast, the best money I’ve made via University work was £500 per day as a consultant (and that was as a more junior researcher), and my daily salaried pay is a round of beers short of the aforementioned Outside payment.

Despite having some protected time to write, that nagging need to develop expertise is still there. But it’s hard to get really good at anything, when only one fifth of your working week is spent on said activity. Harder still to develop associated supplementary skills like photography and image editing. And it’s very easy to compare your work to the articles, photographs, books and awards that a full time writer might be producing.

These past six months the day job had taken over, and I’ve buried myself away to write (and co-write) a string of articles and reports, including the impact of lockdown on social and psychological health, an editorial in the British Medical Journal, a review of the evidence and Covid-19 protection recommendations for ethnic minority communities, and contributions to national reports. As a result outdoor writing has taken a back seat. Right to the back of the queue.

More than ever we’re told to chase our dream by Instagram-raised life coaches, to pack it all in, to turn our passion project or side hustle into a full-time gig. Sounds idyllic, but what of paying a mortgage, adding to the pension pot, or having money for travel and expeditions? Better in my eyes to have a slice of the dream and a financial cushion, than go the full hog and be a broke but better writer.

So for now I accept being a Jack of all trades, a juggler of time and words. I’m thankful for all the writing opportunities that have come my way, and the amazing adventurers I’ve had the fortune to meet and interview. The mastery may never come, but the journey will no doubt be a good one.

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