3 Laws of Writing on Wildlife



Guest column by Mark Seth Lender, NPR contributor,
nature writer, and photographer. His new book, Salt
Marsh Diary (St. Martin’s, March 2011), is based off
his syndicated column that reaches
100,000 Connecticut
households. Find the book here on Amazon, or buy it
directly from Mark with an autograph.


1. All animals all the time.

I’ve had a dedicated and passionate interest in wild animals and wild places since I was 8 years old. Reason? Walt Disney. It was Disney’s early short films on wildlife that sucked me in. He showed animals in their natural habitat and lots of them. One of those first films was on seals. The biologist who did the footage telegrammed Walt to ask what to do next. Disney sent a three-word answer: “Shoot more seals.” He was right then and he is still right. The First Law is: Wildlife is your subject. Stay on subject! Your opinion is not as important as what you see and how that made you feel. Share that experience with your intended audience as if they are there with you.

2. The public already knows

If you love hard facts, go easy. There is a huge wealth of information out there, in both its academic/scientific and its devolved and popularized form. Unique, empirical, first hand observation has value, but even there, if you want to sway hearts and minds information is the hard way. The Second Law is: People want to hear the story, not the “facts.” If you can tell a piece of truth as you saw it and felt it with every emotional highlight intact, you will both make a memory, and have a convert.

3. It’s a jungle out there…

There is a tendency among naturalists, especially if they are holding a camera or a microphone, to take unwarranted risks (I know because I’ve done it myself). So when that moose takes that single sharp step in your direction, a twig snapping under his hoof; or the grizz you’ve been dogging for the last half hour turns and looks right at you and not in a happy way; or the lion you did not see for the lion-colored grass that you should not have entered in the first place is suddenly too close, her brow furled in annoyance – take the hint. The third, last and most Important law is:  DON’T GET EATEN! Courting disaster is the worst thing you can do for wildlife. The public instead of respect and awe will regard wildlife and wild places with irrational fear. Never mind the average American is fifty-seven thousand times more likely to die in the family jalopy than by puma, it is that puma who will pay.

Follow these rules and you will have something to say that’s worth hearing. Be persistent, and on that basis, you will be published and, what’s more, you will have done invaluable service to the world. It is your job to prove that wildlife is necessary to human well-being, emotional as well as physical. When the only face left on the planet is the one that stares us in the mirror, what then?

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One thought on “3 Laws of Writing on Wildlife

  1. Paul Greci

    Great advice. I spend a lot time in the wilderness. It’s awesome to get close up footage but not at the expense of harassing the animals. And yeah, not at the expense of getting eaten! Thanks!


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