Nature Photography Writing - Tips and Techniques
Nature photographers excel at communicating with pictures but may not excel at communicating with words. Many excellent nature photographers find it difficult to write an article to accompany their pictures. Here are some specific suggestions to help you create articles that will match the quality of your photos.
1. Acknowledge to yourself that it’s not easy to write a good article
The goal of every nature photography article is to describe an extraordinary, nonverbal experience verbally. The nonverbal experience had to be extraordinary or you wouldn’t have bothered to make the photos that illustrate the story. Communicating this experience in words requires you to become a translator. This is not easy to do.
Consciously accept the fact that it will be challenging, if not downright frustrating. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect the article to just flow out of you, especially when you’re getting started. This conscious acceptance of the difficulty will reduce your frustration level and make it easier for you to do the translation.
2. Communicate huge ideas with small, specific descriptions
Nature photographers have a vast visual perspective of the world. You are always aware of the light, including its slightest changes, along with color, texture, shadows and all the other elements that enable you to create great photos. These elements are visual, so they’re much easier to communicate with a photo than with just words. No verbal translation is needed.
So, how do you translate your vast visual perspective into words? Write about “small,” specific items. For example, if you want to write about light, write about light relative to one bird, or one mountain, or one sunrise, with specific details. The details give your words depth, just like the sweet morning light gives your photos depth. When Shakespeare wrote about love, he wrote about it in the context of one man and one woman.
Using a smaller, very specific frame of reference gives you a tangible framework for translating big, nonverbal concepts into words. Start small, go deep, and it will work.
3. You don’t have to start at the beginning
It’s not unusual for any writer to have trouble getting started. Beginnings can be tough. So, take the path of lesser resistance – start somewhere in the middle. Start with a paragraph that flows out of you in a reasonably easy manner. Now you’ve broken the barrier! The article has been started. The page is no longer blank. You can build the introductory paragraph later.
Starting on the middle can have interesting consequences. It can let the article take on a life of its own, which is excellent, and may cause you to rethink your initial approach to the first paragraph. I’ve seen this phenomena happen many times. You think you knew the story you were trying to write, but you didn’t. The article will tell you the story, if you let it, by just getting it started.
4. Plan on several iterations, crossing several days
I haven’t met anyone, ever, who wrote a decent article in one sitting. This includes ten years of experience teaching high school and college English plus twenty-six years of writing hundreds of different types of documents in the corporate world. (I could throw in five more years of pumping gas in the south Bronx, but we didn’t write no stinkin’ articles in the Bronx.)
Expect to go through multiple iterations. Each iteration enables you to improve the article by adding content while you polish your style. You may have to reword something several times until you’re satisfied with it. This is a good thing – you’re finding your own voice.
Whenever possible, prune. Fewer words are always better than more words.
Take long breaks. It’s amazing how productive it is to just walk away, do other things, go to sleep, and then look at the article again the next morning. You’ll see new possibilities, new connections, new solutions that you just couldn’t see yesterday. Why? I have no idea, but that’s the way it works.
5. Grammar counts, but don’t worry about it
Your article must be grammatically correct. If it’s not, the quality of the entire article will be diminished in the eyes of most readers. But grammar is mechanical. If you stink at grammar, get someone else to fix it for you. There are plenty of word nerds out there. We’ll help you. We actually like doing it. Just find us – a friend, a spouse, a forum moderator.
If you want to take it to the next level, ask us to explain the rules of grammar to you. They’re predictable and repeatable, just like the rules for properly exposing a photo. Word nerds will be happy to teach you, and it will be low key and non-threatening, not like it was for some of us in school.
When I edit an article, I don’t care how much time I spend on fixing the grammar. It’s annoying, it’s required, but it’s also the small stuff. We don’t want the small stuff to create clutter that prevents the reader from effectively receiving your verbal translation of the extraordinary, nonverbal experience.
Good luck, gang. Now get out there…oops, I mean sit down… and start writing!
Lance Warley received his Masters’ degree in English Literature from Bowling Green State University, majoring in Shakespeare. Lance is BirdPhotographers.net Executive Editor and “Framing Your Images With Words” forum moderator. Lance’s articles can be found at the Everglades Photographic Society’s web page: http://www.evergladesphotosociety.org/
Last edited by Lance Warley; 08-23-2009 at 02:56 PM.
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Wonderful advice. English - not my first language is very challenging as well as rewarding when being written. Hence simplicity of expression, avoidance of redundancies, slang and barbarisms goes a long way to communicate clearly and powerfully. Lois DeBakey, sister of the famous vascular surgeon in Houston, has published many papers on how to write a good scientific paper and I keep reading her papers to stay focused on simplicity of expression. While teaching medical students during my academic career I noted that students with the best communication skills were those that completed a liberal arts degree before entering the scientific field.