So you want to be a natural history writer

A photograph of author Danielle Clode and a Koala, accompanied by the cover of her book Koala A Life In Trees.

Love koalas, nature and writing? You might be interested in the life of a natural history writer. But what is a natural history writer and what do they actually write about? We talk to Danielle Clode, a biologist and natural history writer. She is the author of five books, including the newly released Koala: A Life in Trees, published by Black Inc.

Q: What is a ‘natural history writer'?

A: Natural history writers can sometimes be defined very narrowly as only those writing in a very personal and poetic way about nature. I prefer a much broader definition as everything we write about nature, and the language we use, reveals a great deal about our attitudes and engagement with our natural environment – from field guides and government reports to poetry and memoir. I think I fall somewhere in the middle – my goal is to bridge the emotional and intellectual gap that sometimes divides literature from science, by drawing on both to explore nature and our relationship with it.

Q: What are some of the main writing challenges facing a natural history writer?

A: For me, natural history writing has several competing demands on top of the challenge of trying to write well (which is a big challenge in itself). For me, there is always a lot of research to get on top of and it takes a lot of effort to understand the science well enough to synthesise and present it in a more accessible form. And I often forget that I also need to spend time outside in the environment I’m writing about too and get off my computer. There’s a lot to be gained from slowing down, relaxing and giving your mind time to process things and come up with new ways of understanding.

Q. If someone wanted to become a natural history writer, is it important to have a background as a biologist or scientist?

A: No – there are so many ways of engaging with nature and science is just one of them. Some of our finest nature writers, and even naturalists, are not scientifically trained. Spending time in nature and careful observation are probably even more useful.

Q: Where do you see the key opportunities for a natural history writer to earn an income?

A: I’ve supported my writing by working as a technical editor in both environment and health. There’s a big demand for good written communication skills and many government departments and businesses need help with learning how to write clearly and well (even if they don’t always know it).

This work can be both salaried or freelance. There’s also a strong need for good environmental journalism, although that is primarily a freelance career. Other than that, just working in any job with a strong connection to the environment would be hugely useful for a writer! Perhaps even better if it gives you plenty of time to think.

Q: What key skills do you think are essential to be a natural history writer?

A: I think a sharp eye and a questioning mind is essential. You always have to look beyond the obvious and superficial to write something that really resonates with people. As for most writers, reading widely, being prepared to pick and unpick your words and sentences until they are just right, and having an ear for the rhythm and music of language are pretty essential.

Q: Why did you want to write Koala: A Life in Trees?

A: Everyone knows about koalas – and many people love them dearly – and yet most of us know so little about them. I always write books about topics I want to learn about and I’ve really learnt a huge amount more than I was expecting from writing Koala.

Koala: A Life in Trees by award-winning writer Danielle Clode is out now.

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