I recently Googled the keywords “Tim Sohn” and “freelance writer” to see what search results would appear. As it turns out, there’s another Tim Sohn who is also a freelancer. His website even has the URL timsohn.com. Out of curiosity, I reached out to this other Tim Sohn and discovered that he is a travel writer who covers stories as far away as Alaska and Indonesia. He is in the process of writing a book based on a piece he wrote earlier for Outside magazine about an environmental conflict in a remote area of Alaska.
We recently discussed the differences in writing a magazine article versus a long-form book, how travel writing has changed, and the importance of keeping a generalist’s mindset.
Ebyline: When and why did you start freelancing? Who was your first client or your first assignment?
I remember writing a few freelance articles for a local newspaper when I was in middle school or maybe a freshman in high school, which helped plant the seed—that first realization that people would pay me to write things was a powerful one. The fact that the payment was a pittance—more honorarium than anything—is something I should have perhaps paid more attention to at the time. I think my first piece was about the local Boy Scout troop, of which I was a member. I believe I disclosed the conflict of interest, but I didn’t know much about journalistic ethics then.
The freelance gig that set me on my current path was the summer after my junior year in college when I went to Central America to write the El Salvador and Honduras chapters of the “Let’s Go: Central America” travel guidebook. The Let’s Go books are all published by Harvard Student Agencies and researched, written and edited by undergraduates. It was a fantastic opportunity, and one I enjoyed so much that the next year I went to Australia to work on the Victoria and South Australia chapters of that book. And while the vast majority of students who work on Let’s Go move on to other careers, it’s been a great starting point for many future journalists—it’s very much a “sink or swim” kind of thing, being in a strange place, alone and on a shoestring budget, and you figure out pretty quickly whether you’re suited to that kind of work.
For me, it was a crash course in developing reporting skills in difficult environments, in learning how to manage difficult and even antagonistic situations, and in learning the value of leaving no stone unturned. I loved it, I was good at it, and I decided to try to make a career out of going to strange places and writing about the experiences. While I was in Australia for my second Let’s Go stint, I applied for an internship at Outside, and moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where they’re based, shortly after I got back.
It says on your website that you are a correspondent for Outside magazine and you have traveled as far as Alaska and Indonesia. What assignment have you enjoyed the most and why?
I’ve been lucky to have had a long association with Outside, starting with that internship in 2003, and I’ve been a correspondent for them for the past four years. It’s useful to have a publication like Outside as a home base, but it’s still all freelance, and I have to hustle and scrap to get assignments from them, just as I have to with all the other publications I write for.
With magazine budgets dwindling across the board, it’s gotten harder to sell editors on the more far-flung (and, thus, more expensive) stories, so when you do land one of those, it’s always exciting, whether it’s Alaska or Papua or even something a little more pedestrian like a ski trip in Utah. Which is all to say that I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but if I had to pick one that showcases the mix of pleasure and pain that goes into adventure stories, as well as the way in which everything going wrong can be good for the story, I’d probably choose “Paddling in Circles,” a piece I wrote about a four-day raft race I competed in on the Amazon River in Peru. It was teams of four—I found my teammates at a local bar the night before the start of the race—and we had to build our own rafts. My team was spectacularly inept, and while we were never serious competitors in the race, we did manage to finish it, which was something of a triumph considering our, uh, limitations.
What assignment from any of your clients has been the most challenging for you?
These days, I tend to generate most of my own story ideas rather than having them assigned to me by editors, which means I think I know what I’m getting into at the start, but inevitably things don’t go exactly to plan. It also means that if I end up hating a story, I really have only myself to blame.
Right now, I’m in the midst of a fantastically challenging assignment of my own devising: I’m writing a book about an environmental conflict in a remote part of Alaska that I first wrote about in a piece for Outside, and I’m finding that it’s a very different beast than magazine writing, but a gratifying one, as well.
After years of writing magazine pieces, it’s been a challenge to think about this much longer story and about what’s necessary to sustain a reader’s interest through an entire book. It’s also been challenging to marshal so much reporting and research, to organize it and piece it together. But the opportunity to spend more time with a subject and dig deeper into understanding it has been rewarding.
It says on your website that you are an “avowed generalist.” Do you find this to be an opportunity or challenge when marketing yourself to potential freelance clients?
I think it’s an opportunity, and I’ve been fortunate enough to write for outlets that have pretty good breadth in terms of the sorts of ideas they’ll consider. That said, the “generalist” tag may perhaps be more aspirational than realistic at this point, as the bulk of my work is in what you might call the environment/adventure/travel vein of what Outside and magazines like it tend to publish. But for me—and, I’d assume, for other freelancers—keeping that generalist’s mindset has been crucial, because even as you specialize, I think it’s important to maintain a pretty wide-ranging, active curiosity. It takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm to keep the ball rolling on a freelance writing career, and I find that staying curious about lots of things is important in maintaining that passion.
What advice could you give to other freelance writers who are also interested in breaking into travel writing?
My first advice would be to realize that travel writing is not what it once was, sadly. So if you’ve been reading Chatwin and think that’s what you’re in for, think again. Go to Barnes & Noble and read every travel-themed magazine there to get a feel for what the state of play is. Read the New York Times’ Sunday Travel section. And having read all that, if you still want to do it, start thinking about what niche you could see yourself filling. Start looking for online publications that cover that niche and try to establish contact there. Start blogging. Start contributing to places that don’t pay.
The digital publishing revolution means there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to get your stuff out there, so just start writing for whoever will have you and get some stories done, because you have to prove you can do the work before you can think about moving up the ladder to bigger publications. Say yes to all opportunities. Multi-task. Become proficient with cameras—photo and video—and learn to create content across multiple platforms. Recognize that there’s not a lot of glamour or money in it, but there are other rewards.
And perhaps more importantly than any specific advice, two pieces of general advice: read widely; travel widely. The best travel writing is informed by knowledge of the history, politics, and culture of the places you’re planning to go, and that’s one of the thrilling things about the job is the opportunity to constantly educate yourself on new things. In addition to reading for information, you should just be reading good books generally—as with any other kind of writing, if you’re not a reader, chances are you’re not going to be much of a writer.
My second piece of advice—travel widely—probably seems more problematic, but if you’re young and relatively unencumbered, you can find ways to make it happen. Working strange jobs in strange places is a writerly rite of passage and as much of an education as anything else you could do. Besides the Let’s Go gigs, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska, as an English teacher in Spain, for an architect in Mexico, and for an antiques dealer in London. You’ve got to get out and see the world if you want to have anything interesting to say about it.