Dominic Couzens talks to me about becoming a freelance writer, finding something new to say and the importance of reading
When and how did you make the decision to become a freelance writer?
I was working in a very menial job. Then for a twenty-first birthday present I got to travel around the world and while wandering around the rainforest I was thinking, “This is the life!” When I returned to my job I thought, “Hang on a second, it doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve got to do something. My life is going to be a waste if I stay here.” So I left my job on the first of July 1988. I didn’t have a planned career path but as a first step I did decide I would offer to teach some adult education classes in bird watching. The writing came later.
So you were already a keen birdwatcher at the time?
Yes I was. I saw what looked like a gap in the market so I wrote to twenty-five different adult education centres and three responded and each gave me a class to do. Then I also started working for what was then called the British Library of Wildlife Sounds – it’s now part of the National Sound Archive. A year later I started working for the RSPB film unit. I was very open to doing different things as long as it was to do with birds really. Writing came quite a bit later, and that came about completely by accident. A friend of mine was doing a column in Bird Watching and one month in 1992 he couldn’t do it and the editor asked if I could fill in for him. I ended up writing a column which launched my writing career. That was about 1992.
I went to a lecture back then about the birds of Richmond Park. The speaker talked about wildlife for about five seconds and then moved on to the history of the park. So I thought if someone is paying to hear this perhaps I should try something like this myself.
Thinking someone else hasn’t done a great job can be a powerful motivational tool. As a new freelance writer you need to find some kind of encouragement everywhere you look. There will be times when you wonder what you are doing this for, when nothing is happening and you feel like people are ignoring you. You need to collect every bit of positivity you possibly can and store it away.
So you started the Bird Watching column around 1992/1993. When did you publish your first book and how did it arise?
I published my first book in 1996. One of my subsequent books, The Secret Lives of Garden Birds, published in 2003 was far and away my most successful one. It was the number one wildlife book on Amazon for a few weeks and that’s a nice thing to happen in your career. I think I took it for granted at the time which was a mistake as since then nothing’s been quite as successful as that one! One of the things I would say to any writer at all is if you want to do writing for life then don’t put everything into your first book. The second book, like a second album will be the hardest one to do. I think if you want to be a writer in the long term then you need to start slowly and build up a voice.
And we need writers who will say something different. For example at the moment everyone’s saying that nature makes them feel better, they go into the woods, they spend time with nature and they feel good. That’s wonderful and I’m delighted to hear that but we need to move on and come up with something new to say. The writing profession is changing all the time and you need to flex with it.
You will need to follow Twitter. I’m a dreadful introvert – most writers are – and so I use Twitter as my extrovert side. On Twitter and elsewhere I think you should always treat people really well and that includes the most junior person at a magazine. You may not like how they’ve edited your article, but they might be the editor one day.
One of the things which new writers do is to treat their own writing as if it was somehow sacred and one lesson I learnt early is that you shouldn’t squeak if you are edited. Unless it has completely ruined your article that is. I’ve only once complained about being edited in my whole career. It’s the editor’s job to edit you. You should try to treat your writing as the industrial product it actually is.
Very early on I do remember a letter from an agent saying what you need to do is read, read, read – and I still do that including a lot of journalistic reading of all stripes to get a balance and different ideas. I really recommend Rob Cowen – he’s a fantastic writer and he’s got a new book just about to come out.