When Hilary Nangle, the Maine Travel Maven, dropped out of grad school to become a ski-and-whitewater bum—working at a ski resort in winter, for a kayaking and whitewater rafting company in summer and supplementing her wages year-round by bartending and waitressing—her parents wondered when she was going to get a “real job.” Those questions led to a series of reporting, writing and editing positions. But ultimately, Hilary became a freelance writer and editor and she’s had a prolific career. She joins us this week to talk about her career and to offer some excellent advice.
Start us off with your story. How did you become a writer? What was your motivation?
Honestly, I fell into it. Throughout my school years, especially in high school and college, I knew that if the testing included essays, I could ace the course. No one ever encouraged me as a writer, though. I fell into it after dropping out of the MA program at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. In college, I’d majored in political science, focusing on the relationship between religion and politics. Silly girl thought she’d solve the Middle East crisis. Instead, I became a ski and whitewater bum.
I worked for ski area and canoe/kayak/rafting outfitters, in an era when women in these fields were rare. It didn’t take long for the boys to unload what they perceived as women’s work to the “office girl” (one of the more polite names), which is how I ended up writing marketing materials for various companies.
A couple of years later, when I got tired of hearing my parents say:—When are you going to get a real job—I joined the U.S. Men’s Professional Ski Tour as a communications director, responsible for an annual magazine, weekly newspaper in season, and an insert into Skiing magazine. During the summer, I headed to the river. I survived two seasons.
While scanning the Help Wanted section, I saw an advertisement for an editorial position. The editor of a specialty food trade pub with a national circulation took a chance and hired me as associate editor. She was a wonderful mentor, and I rose to managing editor before joining a daily newspaper as a features editor, responsible for travel and arts.
During my years at both the trade pub and newspaper, I started freelancing, mostly ski articles as well as Maine chapters for a guidebook company. When working conditions at the paper changed, I looked at my freelance income, estimated growth, and went full-time freelance. I’ve never looked back.
Were there any skills you acquired that helped you succeed?
To survive and prosper as a freelance writer, one has to treat it as a business. I was fortunate to have early training in handling money.
My dad was a banker, and during my junior year in high school, he had me figure out a monthly budget covering my financial needs—social, birthdays, fun purchases, etc. He doubled it (wise man) and made it my allowance, gave me a checkbook, and told me that he’d help with major necessities, but I had to make the numbers work. I learned how to balance an account and to live within a budget. Later, during my ski/whitewater years, I was put in charge of accounts payable, handled daily cash-outs, and had to balance a company’s checkbook.
In addition to learning how to manage money, I also learned that time is money. The time and expenses required to research a story—drive time to/from the airport, mileage, parking fees, food purchases, etc.—need to be accounted for when determining the breakeven point for a story. Only when that’s reached, do you begin to make a profit.
You’ve authored several guidebooks for Moon. What are the pros and cons of taking on a huge project like that?
Long live guidebooks!
Pros: My three Maine Moon-series titles: Maine, Coastal Maine, and Acadia National Park, along with and my MaineTravelMaven.com site, have established me as an expert on Maine. Editors, with whom I’ve had no previous content, often reach out to me for Maine-related content. That’s a huge plus. I work on an advance-against-royalty contract, and my books sell well—another plus. I update one title each year, and because I’m on the ground researching new info, I come across other story ideas. That helps feed the beast.
Cons: Guidebooks require painstaking and detailed research. You can’t call it in. You have to visit accommodations, dine at restaurants, and experience attractions—it can be expensive. It’s also time-consuming, which may mean turning down lucrative or bucket-list assignments: Better to say no than to disappoint an editor.
At what point in your writing career did you launch your blog, Maine Travel Maven? Do you feel it has impacted your career? Why or why not?
I launched Maine Travel Maven as a way to keep readers of my Moon-series guidebooks up to date. Over the years, it’s become much more than that. While it focuses primarily on Maine, I now post stories of travels well beyond the state’s borders. As mentioned above, editors have found me through my site, resulting in assignments that have grown into ongoing relationships.
If someone close to you wanted to go into travel writing in today’s market, what advice would you offer?
Decide whether you want to be a travel writer because you want to travel or because you love to write and want to share your travel discoveries and passion. If the former, there are easier ways to travel on someone else’s budget.
The Internet has changed travel writing for the better and for the worse. The wall between editorial and advertising is, with a few exceptions, gone; many print publications have shrunk or folded; and unfortunately, copy editors are a dying breed. (A good one will drive you crazy with persnickety questions, but may save your butt). On the other hand, the Internet has provided new opportunities and a lower entry threshold.
While the Internet has made it much easier to be a travel writer, making a living at it, especially in print, while still possible, takes hard work, constant networking, developing good relationships with editors, and a dose of serendipity.
The easiest and least expensive way is to become the local expert. Pitch the stories that those who parachute in for a few days or a week don’t find. Doing so lets you develop markets and hone skills without incurring major expenses. Don’t overlook regional magazines; some pay extremely well.
Believe in yourself and your abilities. Realize that it takes just as much effort to get turned down by a low-paying market as it does from a top-paying one. Always aim high. If you write for a market that doesn’t pay, have a compelling reason to do so—a cause, a nonprofit, a friend; don’t fall for writing for exposure.
Do your homework: Research the markets, read past issues or posts, and know where your story fits.
Be professional. Always turn in your best writing, on time, and to word count. Double check facts and quotes before submitting. Realize that editors are there to help you and to make sure your work matches the publication’s style. A good editor will make you a better writer.
Never sign a contract without understanding exactly what it says, especially with rights and liabilities.
Learn to take good photos. Great images can help sell a story and are another source of income. Unless you’re a pro photographer, don’t expect glossies to use your images.
Expect rejection. Rework your query for a different market.
You’ve had a prolific career as a writer, what tips can you offer for keeping plenty of work in the pipeline?
Invest in your career: Go to conferences for writing overall and ones that focus on your specialty. Honestly, I get as much out of chatting with other writers as I do from meeting with editors.
If you’re too spread out, don’t accept another assignment unless you can make the deadline work. If you’re dealing with health issues, a death or serious illness in the family, etc. let your editors know. Being honest with yourself and with your editors keeps the transom (now there’s a dated reference) open.
Keep sending queries. You’re only as good as your next idea.
Hilary and her husband, Tom, split their year between the Maine coast and the western mountains, with frequent forays elsewhere in the state and beyond it. In her blog, Maine Travel Maven she shares her finds and thoughts, not only about Maine, but also about wherever else assignments take her. Follow Hilary on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.