A rainy Sunday afternoon finds me finalizing plans for leading a writer’s workshop next weekend at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Today’s task was to find some examples of wildlife writing that I can share with workshop participants, to start them thinking about things like using action verbs and selecting meaningful details. What a great excuse to dive into my bookshelves and reacquaint myself with some amazing writers. Mary Oliver’s poetry, Richard Nelson’s lyrical prose, Aldo Leopold’s passion, Diane Ackerman’s eye for detail, Annie Dillard’s quiet voice … it’s as if I’ve been hosting a party, and all the guests are raconteurs with fascinating stories about the topics I care about most. The time has flown by.
For workshop participants, I promised to provide “a collaborative, structured environment for learning about, and doing, wildlife writing.” There will be opportunities for participants to begin a first draft, make solid plans for finishing and revising it, and read their work to a supportive audience. We’ll hear what various writers have said about sandhill cranes. I’ll share some of the guidelines I keep in mind when doing my own writing. All of that will be offered in under an hour and a half each day.
That’s the plan, anyway!
At least 31 of the 50 states publish a magazine about wildlife and outdoor recreation, promoting appreciation for America’s natural heritage. In any given year, only one of those magazines can be named “the best state wildlife magazine in the nation.”
I’m excited to share the news that this year, that title was awarded to Arizona’s magazine, Arizona Wildlife Views.
Published by the Arizona Game and Fish Department since the 1950s, Arizona Wildlife Views doesn’t have a big advertising budget. All its resources are devoted to developing articles that educate people about wildlife conservation and help readers enjoy Arizona’s great outdoors.
Our state’s wildlife magazine earned the top honor this year in the state wildlife magazine category from the Association for Conservation Information. This nonprofit association includes information and education professionals representing state, federal and Canadian agencies, along with private conservation organizations.
Arizona Wildlife Views also earned kudos for articles written by Randall D. Babb and Johnathan O’Dell, and for design. The awards were announced at the association’s annual banquet July 17 in Flagstaff.
Winning this national award means a lot to me, personally. I’ve worked on this magazine since 2005, and as my 10th anniversary draws near, taking the top honor in a competition I highly esteem is a thrill. But there are a couple things that matter even more than winning an award like this. One is the pleasure of working with the creative team on each issue: our wise leader, editor Heidi Rayment; our talented and funny art director, Cecelia Carpenter; photographer George Andrejko, who has served on staff for the past 26 years; and Madeline Gaffney, who keeps the administrative side running smoothly.
The other is this: producing a publication that helps people appreciate Arizona’s amazing wildlife. We have such incredible diversity here—more than 800 native wildlife species, not including bugs—and every one is worth celebrating. As Heidi pointed out, “We’ll never run out of good material.” Winning awards feels good, but this is the real reason I love my job.
Many take the view that “wildlife” means every animal alive except humans and the species we have domesticated. By this definition, “wildlife” includes all residents of the taxonomic kingdom Animalia, which encompasses every animal from spiders to blue whales and hummingbirds to elephants—minus humans and “our” animals.
These people are confused by the rules of the wildlife photo contest being co-hosted by Arizona Wildlife Views magazine and Arizona Highways. If wildlife is basically everything but humans, farm animals and house pets, they ask, how come my butterfly picture was rejected? What about the wild horses I photographed roaming in a meadow beside the Salt River … why don’t they count?
I’m sympathetic toward those asking the questions. Wildlife photographers are some of my favorite people. Eyes open and hearts tuned to the natural world, they reveal nature with an artistry that sometimes still steals my breath, even after I’ve reviewed tens of thousands of wildlife photos. When these people ask why particular “wildlife” photos are being rejected from the contest, it makes me stop and think.
I appreciate the point of view that defines “wildlife” as broadly as possible. But for the purposes of this contest, we’ve adopted a narrower definition, one based in state law:
“ ‘Wildlife’ means all wild mammals, wild birds and the nests or eggs thereof, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, including their eggs or spawn.” (ARS 17-101)
We do this because this year, as in previous contest years, winning photos will be published in the annual wildlife calendar issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. The magazine is published by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The department gets its authority to manage wildlife from state statutes, including the one I quoted. So, since this wildlife photo contest began, eligible photos have been governed by the statutory definition of “wildlife.”
Photos of the animals one generally thinks of first when thinking of Arizona wildlife are eligible: deer and elk, Apache trout, mountain lions and turkeys, waterfowl, hummingbirds, Gila monsters, rattlesnakes. In fact, Arizona Game and Fish manages more than 800 native wildlife species—the most of any inland state—and we’d love to see pictures of all of them. We’ll even accept images of mussels and snails (as long as they are native species).
What we can’t accept is fairly small: Spiders; butterflies and other insects; burros and horses (which are not native species).
What do you think? What is your definition of “wildlife”?
Longtime fans of outdoor writing are not surprised to find humorous pieces in state wildlife magazines. The latest issue of Arizona Wildlife Views upholds the tradition with a funny boating story called “The Big Green Boat,” about the author’s misadventure on a spring break road trip.
Humor has a long history in outdoor publications. When you venture beyond the safety of your own front door, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up, fall flat on your tail and laugh at yourself. Writing about your own misadventures is almost as fun as reading about the mishaps of others.
When I started working for the magazine almost 10 years ago, our humor writer was the esteemed outdoor communicator Bob Hirsch. Patient with my new-editor learning curve, he taught me a lot about editing humor. It’s very hard; harder, I think, than editing technical writing. A fact is either correct or incorrect, clearly stated or muddily phrased. Fixing it is generally a matter of checking reference sources or tweaking punctuation. Humor, on the other hand, relies on the nuance and rhythm of words and paragraphs. You can easily break that rhythm if you start fiddling with it. Suddenly, the humor is gone, victim of your heavy editorial pen. Encouraging it to return is like trying to lure a shy rabbit from a hole.
This is why I approach editing our current humor content with care bordering on trepidation. I have broken a few pieces. When that happens, there’s no cure but to go back to the original and start over.
To prevent that, when editing humor or any other type of writing, I constantly ask myself: Is something really broken here, or am I just fiddling with it? Am I trying to impose my own rhythm on top of someone else’s? In other words, instead of editing, am I rewriting another writer?
An editor’s essential skill is asking the right questions, those that spark the writer’s fruitful thought and lead to productive change in the work. If I find myself moving words around or making cuts or additions instead of asking questions, I know I’m straying into dangerous waters. Editing is about teaching the writer to fish, not handing him a carp.
The creative music that plays in our minds as our fingers dance across the keyboard or slide a pen across the page is not always pitch-perfect. If it were, editors would be unnecessary. Humorous writing needs as much careful editing as any other type of writing. But the editor who tampers with a writer’s rhythms, especially those of a funny writer, does so at the peril of breaking the funny.
How to edit humorous writing? Carefully.
People who write about wildlife sometimes need to use scientific names. A species’ scientific name is the one scientists use to be sure they are talking about the same critter no matter which country they come from or which language they speak. It is the recognized Latin name given to an organism. An animal may have numerous common names depending on local preference, but every species known to science has just one scientific name.
A scientific name is comprised of the genus and species. These two words are always written in italics. The genus is capitalized. The species is not, even if it is based on a proper noun such as a place or a person’s name. An example is Merriam’s kangaroo rat, named for C. Hart Merriam: Dipodomys merriami.
The questions that most often come up when dealing with scientific names and other elements of a species’ taxonomy are when to capitalize words and when to italicize them. (See “Kings Play Chess On What?” for more on taxonomy.)
Recently, I had to look up whether to italicize the genus when it stands alone, apart from the species. I was editing an article on trout and salmon and had reviewed it several times. Up to that point, I had left the genus name Salmo in roman type. Sometimes, when you edit, you get into a “fun” mental loop. One part of your brain says, “If I left it this way before, I must have had a good reason. I must have looked it up, and I just don’t remember doing it.” The other part replies, “It doesn’t feel right. Look it up again.” The two sides may haggle, with one side arguing that looking something up twice would indicate you are growing dull-witted. Ignore that judgment and all it implies. Look it up again (and again, if you must).
I did, and I’m glad. I found this great reference page on the National Geographic website that told me everything I needed to know (and then some):
I highly recommend bookmarking National Geographic’s page, if you sometimes have to publish scientific names or other information related to taxonomy and want to get it right. And by the way: The genus should be italicized, even when it stands alone. Thanks, National Geographic!
Last week, after a late snowfall, I took my cross-country skis to Kendrick Park, north of the San Francisco Peaks. It was the first time in this dry Arizona winter that I’ve had a chance to do one of my favorite things.
There were only two other cars in the parking lot. As I donned my gear, I looked north, into the treeless park, and saw a sparkling expanse of newly fallen snow cut by a single set of cross-country ski tracks. I took a deep breath, smiled and set out, heart singing.
For the next two hours I saw no other humans … but I was not alone. Plenty of animal tracks decorated the fresh snow. As I glided along, I stopped now and then to look at tracks and think about their makers.
It can be hard to figure out tracks in snow. You’d think it would be easy, since they’re so visible: anywhere an animal walks in this soft surface, it can’t help but leave clues behind. The trouble is, the weather had warmed up quite a bit since the previous day. The tracks were already softening, which not only erases detail but widens the track.
Still, I had fun guessing about tracks and their makers. One trail I found looked like this:
I could tell from the size of the prints that it was left by a coyote. There’s an interesting sliding trail on the snow’s surface, just before each deep imprint of a paw: This coyote wasn’t lifting his feet much. Here’s a closer look:
I skied along happily, finding other tracks, and a bit later I ran across more coyote sign:
Was it the same coyote? I couldn’t be sure, but I guessed not. Look at his tracks more closely:
See how this coyote only slides one paw across the top of the snow? My sleuthing instincts told me it was a second animal with a different gait, but of course, when you’re trying to puzzle out the life of an animal you can’t see, nothing is certain.
I kept skiing, thinking about the coyote or coyotes, happy to be sharing this day with it or them. Then I came up over a slight rise and found this:
Everyone who loves wildlife is used to living with mysteries. But every now and then, it’s nice to solve one.
Here is another post about coyote tracks: https://words4wildlife.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/coyote_rail/
And a link to more photos from that day: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5Et1wL
My mother is one of the best copyeditors I know. She’s attentive, not just to spelling or punctuation, but to words at their essence. I couldn’t have a better role model for my work as an editor.
Mom recently read the latest draft of a novel I’ve been working on for fun since 2010. In her review, she didn’t pull punches — the best editors never do, even if you’ll be in charge of choosing their senior living center. She pointed out everything from typos to opportunities to further shape the characters.
One of her most significant suggestions was to change the ending. “Why don’t you bring it back to what you talked about at the beginning?” she asked.
I began to giggle. She asked why.
“I’m always telling writers that very same thing,” I explained.
It’s true. Stephen Covey’s “Begin with the end in mind” may be one of the seven habits of highly effective people, but highly effective magazine writers often turn that guideline inside out. They end with the beginning in mind.
Especially for those who don’t often write for a popular audience, ending with the beginning in mind can be a powerful technique. It doesn’t mean slavishly copying your beginning statement word for word at the end. That would be lazy, and we don’t like lazy. It just means making some reference to that beginning as you build your closing paragraphs.
The reference can be overt or subtle. Here’s an example from the January–February 2015 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views. In “Thirst,” authors Randall D. Babb and Anne Justice-Allen tackled the topic of wildlife and water. Which animals need lots of water, and which need hardly any?
In their first paragraph, the authors describe desert lands with their sudden storms and long dry spells as “places of either too much or too little” water. Five pages later, we find the next-to-last sentence of the article: “Struggling with too little or too much has and always will be a problem for creatures on this planet.” See how subtle that is? After 2,000 words, the reader may not even register it consciously.
When you end with the beginning in mind, you’re considering the emotional needs of those who read your prose. They made a commitment when they started this journey with you. You’ve tried to honor that commitment by entertaining them and giving them something to think about. Here at the end, pay attention as you wrap it up for them. Readers are human: They crave closure. Give them that satisfaction, and they will thank you.
This is not the only way to end a magazine article: What a boring world it would be for readers if that were the case. Ending with the beginning in mind is just one technique, but it’s a good one. Look for it in magazine articles you enjoy, and see how often it’s used. Lots of writers out there are taking my mother’s advice. Aren’t they smart!