Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 50 countries in search of adventure. Focusing on outdoor, adventure, and travel, her work has been published by National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Travel, Outside, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, RootsRated, Bicycle Times, and more. Here she talks about how she got started, what it takes to succeed in this career, and some of her memorable adventures.
You started on the PR and marketing side, then did communications for the Outdoor Industry Association. How did you transition from that to writing for National Geographic Traveler, Outside, and others?
My career spans an interesting arc that includes 25 years of professional writing in many different capacities. Along the way I didn’t know that I would become an outdoor, adventure, and travel writer, but now as I look back on my experience, it all makes sense, with each job contributing something unique to my skill set. My diverse writing experience has been invaluable in the transition to becoming a journalist.
Right out of school I landed a job at an environmental exhibit company in Boulder, where I spent nine years making educational signs and exhibits for parks, zoos, wildlife areas, etc. This is where I started my writing career. And it was great training. I learned to write concise, engaging exhibit copy in order to captivate readers and make them want to keep reading. And I got to geek out on nature every day.
I left that job to travel around the world with my husband for a year, which was amazing—obviously. When I got back I went into the bicycle industry. I worked for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, spent four years as marketing and communications director for a national bicycle advocacy organization called Bikes Belong (now PeopleForBikes), and I helped start a company that runs demo events for the bicycle industry. I also worked as a copywriter at an ad agency. And just before I decided to become a journalist, I was director of communications for Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
Suffice to say I gained a lot of experience in the outdoor world, how people experience it, and the policy issues that affect it. While I was working at OIA I created a relationship with National Geographic Adventure where I was contributing a weekly blog post on behalf of the outdoor industry. After a while I realized that this was my favorite part of my job and that perhaps I should become a journalist. I have a friend who is an outdoor adventure writer so I picked her brain about how things work with magazines, pitches, editors, etc. And then I took a giant leap off the ledge and decided to give it a go.
What have you learned from breaking into these major publications and getting rehired that you could share with others aspiring to get to that level?
There are several nuggets of wisdom I can share with those who think they might want to pursue this as a career. The first is that you really have to be self-motivated. No one is behind you cracking a whip and nobody is going to come ask you to write a story—at least not at first.
The second thing is that you have to grow really thick skin. This job entails a lot of rejection. You can write an excellent pitch and an editor will turn it down simply because it’s not the perfect thing at the perfect time. And if you’re cold-pitching an editor, a lot of times you won’t hear anything at all. The key is persistence. You have to stay at it and keep your chin up no matter how discouraged you might feel at times.
Getting an assignment requires crafting a pitch that matches the publication’s voice and audience, submitting it to the correct editor, and pinpointing how the story fits into the publication’s editorial calendar. You have to make the editor’s life easy. If she has to figure out where your story idea might fit, she’ll probably pass over it.
Breaking into new publications can be hard, particularly in print. The best approach is to pitch the front of the book, which includes shorter, more service-oriented pieces that appear in the front pages of the magazine.
In terms of getting repeat work from an editor, the key is to make it really easy for her to work with you. Meet your deadlines; turn in well-written, accurate work with no typos; respond quickly to requests for edits; and submit pitches that are tailored to the publication’s audience.
You’ve written about some hard-core adventures over the years. Are there any that stand out for making you feel like you were in real trouble, that this adventure might not end well?
I can’t think of any times when I thought things would end badly. But maybe I’m just blocking them out. I have had plenty of days that stretched longer than expected, leaving me a withered mess by the time I finish. But that’s part of the fun.
The time that I was the most scared I’ve ever been was on a climb called Notchtop in Rocky Mountain National Park. My husband and I were training to climb the Grand Teton, so we hired a guide for this climb to mimic the exposure of the Grand. Notchtop is usually a rock route, but because it was May and still snowy in places we had to wear crampons the whole time. I had never climbed rock in crampons so it was difficult for me. After falling six times on the crux, I really didn’t think I was going to make it. My mind and body were overcome with fear. And the tricky thing was that the descent was almost more difficult than the climb because we had to downclimb along exposed ledges. Even though we were roped in and perfectly safe, I was terrified and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
That was a great lesson for me in managing fear, which is inevitable when you tackle things outside of your comfort zone. I wrote an essay about Notchtop for Women’s Adventure. Fear makes for great stories.
You don’t physically come across as a hard-core adventure type who is going to bash through Class 5 rapids and go ice climbing for an eight-hour stretch. Does that cause problems with guides who want to temper your experience or “keep you safe?”
Well, I don’t actually bash through class V rapids and I’ve never ice climbed for eight hours in one stretch. I don’t consider myself a hard-core type, although I do some outdoor adventures that are beyond what some people would want to do. But I would like to think that I look the part. While I am a lanky 40-something-year-old female, I’m pretty athletic.
Guides are pretty good at assessing what you can and cannot do. They’re constantly evaluating—the questions you ask, the way you talk about your experience, the outdoor clothing you wear, how you handle your gear. When I went heli-skiing, the guides matched me in a perfect ski group before they ever saw any of us skiing.
My experience has been that guides usually end up taking me farther than they expected because I move quickly and don’t need a lot of rest. And guides have encouraged me to tackle routes and adventures that I thought were beyond my ability. It’s great to have a mentor to push your edge a little. That’s how you grow.
I extend this philosophy to my writing. I like to say that I write about adventures that are aspirational but attainable. I want to make experiences accessible for people who might write them off as too hard, either from a skill perspective or a planning perspective. For example, last summer I went on my first self-supported river trip, in a canoe, on the Lower Gunnison River in Colorado. I did a lot of brain-damage getting ready for that trip and wished that there was one source to answer all of the questions. So after I got back I wrote a story to help people plan a river trip on the Lower Gunnison.
In a few weeks I’m heading out to canoe a section of the Green River in Utah, so stay tuned for part II.
How do you make this travel writing gig work for you financially? Do you live off what you earn from travel and adventure articles for consumer publications or do you have some kind of side hustle or other gig to keep the cash flowing?
Honestly it’s really difficult. People generally don’t get into this career to make a ton of money. It’s more about the lifestyle. I have a very flexible schedule, get to go on a lot of free trips, and I get paid for stories I write. But it’s not a lot. And I’m still establishing myself. I’m three years into this and they say it takes five years before you’re really making a good living.
And yes, I have a side gig. I’m a landlord. I built a small apartment over a garage in my backyard. I rent my house and live in that smaller space out back. It’s the perfect crash pad for between adventures.
If an editor handed you an unlimited expense account to go pursue a story you were passionate about, where would you go and why?
That’s a really hard question to answer because there are so many places I want to go and things I want to do. If I could choose anything, I’d probably go back to my environmental roots. I studied environmental conservation in college and did a semester abroad that focused on wildlife ecology in Tanzania.
I love primates. In Tanzania I traipsed through the jungle for three weeks observing black-and-white colobus monkeys for an independent study project. Now I would love to go see the great apes: orangutans in Borneo, gorillas in Rwanda, chimpanzees in Tanzania, and bonobos in the Congo. I’d write a story about how habitat loss is threatening the apes, and how tourism provides a valuable incentive for communities to protect wildlife as a sustainable resource.
After many years working 9:00 to 5:00 office jobs, Avery Stonich embarked on a life of adventure and became a freelance journalist. When not playing with prose, she likes to ski, hike, kiteboard, bike, camp, standup paddleboard, travel, SCUBA dive, and climb mountains. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @averystonich.
Interview conducted by Tim Leffel, posted by Terri Marshall.