So you think you can … write about environmental issues?

by Justine McClymont
20 May 2022

With the growing public concern about environmental issues and the climate crisis, there’s never been a more important time for quality stories and content about the world we live in. No longer just the domain of scientists, people want to understand what’s happening with our natural environment and what it means for the future. In fact, more and more people expect to understand and are keen to know how they can be part of the solution. 

Someone has to write these stories and create the content. But it takes more than being passionate about the environment to tell the stories that matter. Of course, it does help. But even if you wear khaki pants, carry a set of binoculars and watch David Attenborough on the regular, there is more to environmental writing than meets the eye.

So what exactly is environmental writing?

Environmental writing is any type of writing that explores our natural environment and the impact of humans on the environment. Subjects include climate, energy, biodiversity, wildlife, water, air quality, pollution, recycling and sustainability. This extends to other topics (think farming, food or tourism, for example) if the story or content has an environmental or sustainability focus.

It’s different from scientific or academic writing, as the point of environmental writing is usually to communicate with a nonscientific audience. Environmental writing not only informs or educates the reader, but, at its best, can inspire great change. 

How did I become an environmental writer?

Before becoming an environmental writer, I spent 16 years working in policy, project and communications roles in environmental, conservation and national park government agencies. I also have a degree in environmental science and a graduate certificate in environmental education. 

In 2012, I decided to do an online magazine writing course and started writing magazine articles while still in my part-time government job. I eventually took the leap and left my job to become a freelance copywriter, content writer and feature writer specialising in environment, sustainability and nature tourism. 

What’s the best way to get started writing about environmental issues?

For journalism, I’d suggest looking at your current areas of interest or expertise and finding opportunities to weave in environmental themes or angles. For example, if you’re a food or farming writer, you could pitch profiles on sustainable food producers or regenerative farmers. If you write for the construction industry, you could write about low-carbon materials. If you’re a travel blogger, you could feature nature destinations with a focus on wildlife.  

In terms of corporate writing, content writing and copywriting, I’d suggest thinking about the types of organisations you’re interested in working with and reaching out to them. LinkedIn is a great place to make connections and contacts. 

If you don’t have any portfolio examples yet, consider writing some of your own blog posts to showcase your style and interest in the environment. Or you could offer your services to smaller environmental not-for-profits, which are always in need of help.

What type of work can you get?

There’s a wide variety of work, including writing:

  • Articles for magazines, news media and industry publications
  • Blog posts, web copy and emails for environmental/sustainability businesses or brands that are wanting to position themselves as environmentally and socially responsible 
  • Content for environmental education, community engagement or behaviour change programs 
  • Copy for advocacy and fundraising campaigns 
  • Corporate material, including fact sheets, case studies, white papers and sustainability reports
  • Communications material, including press releases and speeches.

Should you pick a niche within environmental writing, such as climate, for example? 

Sure you can, and a handful of journalists do this very well. But you’ll soon find that most environmental topics overlap and interrelate. When I write about plastic pollution, I’ll often delve into how the production of plastic contributes to climate change, or about its devastating impacts on marine wildlife. So if you want to increase your opportunity to gain work, you could be doing yourself a disservice by having such a narrow niche. 

If you’re interested in writing for clients, another option is to niche in the types of organisations you want to work with. Do you want to focus on small businesses, startups, content agencies, not-for-profits, big corporates, education providers or government departments? 

Do you need qualifications in environmental science or similar? 

Look, it certainly helps, particularly when it comes to understanding industry language. Because I have a background in this field, I know what questions to ask and I can generally understand what most of the data means. And I have a good understanding of the audiences and what matters to them. 

But I don’t think environmental qualifications are necessary to be able to write compelling stories or content. What is important is to read widely and keep up to date with what’s happening, whether that’s the latest science and research, global targets and trends, exciting innovations in the sector, or even interesting stories in your own backyard. 

What kind of rates can you charge? 

I started with freelance feature writing (which I still love to do when I get the chance), but the majority of my work is now writing for clients. I’ve found it much more reliable and it can be incredibly fulfilling. 

When it comes to client work for bigger organisations, an experienced environmental writer or environmental copywriter can charge anywhere from $500–$700 for a 600–800-word article. For multi-page factsheets, case studies and other documents, you can be looking at rates of $750–$1000 or more. It all depends on the amount of work involved and how much research is required (which is often a lot). If you’re the type of writer that likes to knock out a blog post in two hours, writing about complex environmental issues might not be for you.

What are the best and worst bits of writing about the environment? 

Without a doubt, one of the best things about being an environmental writer is being able to have a far-reaching influence and impact with your words. You also get the opportunity to work with or interview some super talented and smart people, many of whom are at the forefront of incredible change and exciting innovations.

But it does come with challenges. Not least of which is the ongoing frustration and disappointment at the slow pace (or lack) of change and action on climate and environmental issues at the highest levels. It can be very disheartening. If you want to be an environmental writer for altruistic reasons (like most of us do), you have to understand you might not witness the change you’d like to see immediately. 

What are some resources to tap into?

Here are some helpful resources:

  • LinkedIn — while I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, LinkedIn can be such a fantastic place to connect with people and keep up to date with what’s happening both locally and internationally 
  • Go along to conferences, seminars or webinars in the environment industry — if you want to immerse yourself in the industry, make contacts and learn new things, this can be a great place to start.

Final word 

If you get excited about things that other people wouldn’t — like insects or recycling bins or how a seed can grow into a giant tree — then writing about environmental issues could be for you. 

We need great storytellers and writers to help solve the world’s problems. 

And if you think you can be part of the solution, go for it*.

*Khakis and binoculars optional.

Do you write about environmental issues or would you like to dip your toe into this space? We’d love to hear your thoughts below on Justine’s post or any questions you may have. And don’t forget to browse the other expert posts in our So You Think You Can series!

Justine McClymont
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