Landscapers at the Keyboard: Advice for Writing about Horticulture
By Michelle Sutton
Jeff Shimonski was the director of horticulture for Jungle Island in Miami, Fla. for 39 years. He retired from that position in 2014 and now works as a consultant in tropical arboriculture and horticulture, sustainable site development and management, IPM, and urban forestry. He also continues to write about horticulture for a variety of publications, including the Biscayne Times, for which he’s written 72 columns.
“Ever since I started working professionally in horticulture, I always wanted to write articles for newspapers, magazines and journals,” said Shimonski. “It was a big thrill for me to get published for the first time in an international journal.”
I remember that thrill, too. I’ve been freelance writing since 1998 and freelance editing since 2005. I can relate to both sides of the editor’s desk. I’ve been the writer whose submissions are rejected, and I’ve been the editor who had to do some polite rejecting. I have some thoughts to share based on my familiarity with both sides of the exchange.
But first, why consider this? You may be motivated to write for the sheer pleasure and gratification of it, for a little extra money, to develop your writing ability, or to help promote your business. Sharing your expertise in a lively way is an effective form of marketing yourself and/or your company.
Work may not rush in as an immediate response to your column or features — but the benefits do come over time, and sometimes obliquely. For example, you may be talking with a potential client, and mention that you write for a newspaper or magazine, and offer to send them a link to your stories. This adds to their perception of you as a true professional, and can help sway them to hire you.
Getting your boot in the door
If you lack a body of work, how do you get started? Find a colleague who is already publishing, and ask him or her to co-author a piece on a topic you know a good deal about. Tell them the writer’s fee (if any) will be all theirs. Then do the majority of the work yourself, accommodate your more experienced co-author in the extreme, and when your work gets published, buy them a bottle of wine.
If co-authorship isn’t for you, perhaps the easiest way to get started is to volunteer to write for your regional professional newsletters. Or consider starting a public blog, which will foster in you a discipline of regular writing, and is something concrete to which you can refer editors. Be sure to have beautiful photos in your blog. Good photos are really, really important in our visual culture.
I did a series of unpaid posts for an online magazine produced in WordPress. For a volunteer gig, it seemed like a lot to figure out at first. But learning how to navigate WordPress paid off later when I was asked to submit a proposal to an urban forestry council to create a blog for them. I felt confident when I said, “This is the blogging tool you want, and I know how to use it.”
In Shimonski’s case with the Biscayne Times, getting in the door came about eight years ago when he was asked to write an article on hurricane preparedness for what was then a very small local monthly newspaper. “I jumped at the opportunity, and have been writing a monthly garden column for them ever since,” he said. “It has been a great ongoing relationship.” Now the newspaper is one of the most popular in Miami, with more than 75,000 readers.
When you query editors, summarize your topic in one sentence, be brief and specify what makes you qualified to write the piece. Be brief and refer to the high-quality photos you presumably have to go with the story. Did I mention be brief? A lengthy query is less likely to be considered than one that is one tight paragraph. When you query concisely, you demonstrate your ability to write concisely. Also, ask for, and read, their Writers’ Guidelines before you query the editor. Study their publication to make sure you are offering something that fits their style and content and that hasn’t been written about recently.
Be like a woodpecker in your persistence, but also be prepared for your fair share of rejection. Sometimes your article really is a gem, but it just hasn’t yet found its right home. Keep shopping it around. Stay open and don’t get discouraged — opportunities will present themselves in unexpected ways. Be open to even the most modest outlets when you are getting started.
Happy editor, happy writer, happy reader
“The main truism I soon found out was that the editor for the magazine or newspaper that I was attempting to write for was in absolute charge,” said Shimonski. “I had to be open to their revisions or being asked to revise.”
Indeed, editors like to work with writers who are flexible and not overly attached to minutiae.
Busy editors also enjoy the ease and efficiency of ongoing relationships with writers — especially those who write well or are at least open to improvement. Good writers are relatively rare; if you don’t feel confident about your writing, consider taking composition courses. It’s never too late! Don’t expect editors to turn bad writing into gold. They will probably ignore or reject your submission if it’s not in good clean condition. Have a friend who has copy editing skills look over your piece before you send it in.
About the writing process and subject matter, SavATree Consulting Group Director Mike Galvin, said, “If you want to build a house, you don’t start at one corner and construct everything as you move from one end to the other; you build the structure first and then add items that can be supported from coarser to finer until you’re done. It’s better to pick a few main points to communicate and tie together logically than to start with a thought and follow the thread wherever it leads you.” When you get more experienced at crafting pieces, the outline of a story may take shape in your head or emerge as you write. But, for now, lean hard on that structure.
Get practiced at coming up with clever titles, but don’t get too attached to them. Not infrequently, one of my editors changes my titles. I learned to let it go. Besides, sometimes their new title is much better than mine. For instance, I had written a “Manure Primer,” with that rather bland title. The editor changed it to “The Call of Doody: A Manure Primer.” Much better.
Jeff Shimonski said that for the first couple of years of writing his Biscayne Times story, he was very concerned about running out of subjects to write about and making that monthly deadline. “There are only so many times you can write about coconut palms and mango trees,” he said. “But then I learned to look at my column from a broader point of view. I have grown hundreds of species of plants, and I can write about my experiences with them; but I also write articles about trees and zoning issues, edible plants and recipes, how to deal with landscape contractors, and many other subjects.”
Personally, the more I write, the more story ideas I have. One of life’s greatest pleasures is hearing and telling stories — we all have them in abundance. We can share them creatively in service to our business and to our industry.
Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.
Photo: High-quality photos will help you sell your story idea. Flame tree (Delonix regia) by Jeff Shimonski
My Favorite Writing Resources
The Chicago Manual of Style
On Writing Well by William Zinzer
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Elephants of Style and Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh