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Writing for the Ornamental Aquatics Industry

By Steven Pro

I wanted to write this article because I wanted to share the tips that have been given to me by my friends and industry associates.  I believe that there are many experienced hobbyists that have something to add to the body of knowledge of aquariology.  They just need the inspiration to put the proverbial pen to paper and some guidance as to how to properly formulate and communicate their ideas and theories.

My first tip is to always carry a notebook, notepad, or for the really sophisticated a small tape recorder, digital voice recorder, handheld PDA, or laptop computer.  You never know when inspiration is going to hit you and if you are nearly as forgetful as I am, you will be far better off prepared to commit your thoughts to paper as soon as possible.  In fact, this paragraph was written while I was in the middle of servicing a 220-gallon freshwater tank.  I was shoulder deep when I remembered this trick, stop briefly to get my words down, and later typed them into my computer.

A well stocked library not only makes you a better aquarist, but provides a ready source of references for you own writing.

Secondly, you have to read a lot.  Obviously, you must be knowledgeable regarding the subject matter you want to write about.  And, that is more than just your own limited personal experience.  Mind you, experience is great.  I would never think to write about a fish that I had never personally kept.  But at the same time, your own experience should not be your only reference.  What have others written on this topic?  Does their experience coincide with your own?  If it does not, why is that?  Have you discovered some secret or trick, or have you been merely lucky?  These are all questions that can only be answered by a thorough search through the literature.  Also, in this regard, don’t limit yourself to merely hobby writings.  Search through the scientific literature.  You will be amazed at the material available at your local library.  And, if they don’t have it on hand, usually a kind librarian will be more than helpful in assisting you with an Interlibrary Loan (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an ILL for short, is when your library requests the material you want from another library that has it.  This means no matter where you live or how small your library is, you can eventually get your hands on whatever you need.)

On the other hand, I don’t like to use only scientific literature in my writings.  I like to merge what the scientific community has studied and learned about a subject with the experiences and writings of advanced aquarists and fellow authors.  I believe this is a perfectly complimentary approach that we should all strive for on both sides.  Scientists should be more willing to look at what we are able to accomplish.  There is much we hobbyists can teach them about keeping marine ornamentals in captivity.  At the same time, we should not discount what they have to show us.  For example, when we forgo proven methods of treating fish diseases in favor of anecdotal evidence that sounds more like practicing witchcraft than medicine, then how can we expect to be taken seriously by the scientific community?

Once you are well read, what do you do with all this reference material?  A giant stack of magazines is cumbersome at best.  It is exceedingly difficult to dig through this pile to find the article that you need for a reference when all you remember is that you read it about a year ago.  That is why when I am done reading a magazine, I tear it all apart.  Then I staple the pages of each article together and file them by subject.  I got this tip from Robert Fenner and I have found it tremendously helpful.  Now all I have to do when I want to write an article is grab the file folder on that subject and all my needed reference material is there.  Many times I even photocopy the article to place it in multiple files.  If for instance, I read an article on breeding and rearing Clownfishes, I would place a copy of the piece in my file on Clownfishes and one in the file marked Breeding.

Placing magazine articles in meaningfully labeled files makes them easy to find and eliminates piles of old tattered magazines.

A lot of people are going to get caught up in the words they choose and the way they sound.  I am going to give you some simple advice, write as if you were talking to someone.  If you can carry on a conversation and sound reasonable, yet passionate and informed, then you can write.  If you can’t inspire confidence when you talk to someone or you come off sounding uneducated, well then you have a greater problem than I can address in this short article!

Once you have been inspired to write, you quickly come to the question, "what should I write about?"  This is fairly easy to address.  First off, I like to watch the various online message boards.  Are there questions which are routinely asked and yet have not been discussed in detail in an article?  If not, that is a perfect subject for an article.  Providing all aquarists with a detailed discussion addressing a common question is truly beneficial.  I, for one, when I ask a question would much rather be directed to an in-depth article that is on topic rather than a broad answer, maybe a paragraph long, in my posted thread.

Have you been successful keeping a challenging organism?  This is another worthy topic, but only if you can be fairly certain exactly why you have succeeded when others have failed and more importantly, you can document your success.  You really need to take pictures of your animal when you first acquire it and then once per month for about a year to be able to demonstrate a history of health and growth.  Also, you must be able to detail how your husbandry has differed and the tips and tricks that you have discovered.  If you can’t explain why you succeeded and provide enough information to have others replicate your results, you really shouldn’t write about your triumph in keeping a difficult animal.

Another important subject would be a spawning report.  Have you been able to encourage one of your aquatic pets to spawn?  What kind of food do you feed, how much do you feed, and how often?  What kind of lighting do you utilize?  Did you do any manipulation to the lighting (lengthening or shortening the photoperiod or using moonlight) or water quality (large water changes or fluctuations in salinity or temperature) that induced the spawning event?  You should also mention how long you have had the animals to assure readers that they spawned in your care, versus ones that were fertilized in the wild and simply spawned shortly after you received them.

Author Steve Pro Hard at work writing!  Photo by his ever supportive fish wife Deb.

Related to the spawning reports would be articles describing successfully rearing the young.  What foods and at what point were they offered?  How many larval stages were there?  How long did it take for them to mature?  What percentage lived?  Even if you were not successful, perhaps others could learn from your efforts.  Sometimes an abysmal failure can be a great learning experience.

Another perennial favorite are Do-It-Yourself-style articles.  This hobby can be very expensive and people are always looking for a way to do things cheaper.  Just be careful that your DIY project is easy enough for most individuals to accomplish, comes with detailed, step by step instructions, and  (most important) safe.  You don’t want to make a name for yourself with the "John Smith DIY Exploding, Fire-Causing Wave Maker".

Once you have decided on your subject matter and have started to formulate your article, you want to try to identify your audience and target them in the length of the piece. If it is a beginner type article, try to limit yourself to 1,000 to 2,000 words, which works out to be about 2-4 pages in Microsoft Word with 12 point Times New Roman font.  If on the other hand, you are dealing with a complicated or scientific subject 3,000 to as many as 5,000 words would not be unheard of.  In fact, some of the articles I have penned have been as long as 7,500 words, although I hate to be that longwinded in one article.  I prefer to break something like that into parts if possible so I don’t bore people and lose their concentration.

Now that you are finally ‘finished’, it is time to begin the editing process.  I prefer to send my completed articles off to some fish friends for their review and suggestions.  It is always beneficial to have a fresh pair of eyes go over your work.  A lot of times, I have a tendency to read what should be there instead of what I have actually written.  Considering that you have worked on this piece for quite awhile, you have likely read it over several times as you added to or changed the article.  Plus, you know what you mean and what you what to say.  Your friendly editor only knows what you have explicitly written and explained to them with your words.  If they don’t understand what you are trying to convey, then it is likely that the greater audience will, either.

Once you have gotten to this point, you are finally ready to submit your article for publication, but to whom should you send it?  Of course, you should consider sending your work to Conscientious Aquarist, but there are other venues as well.  I generally prefer to offer my work to the various online publications.  They are usually quicker to actually put the piece in ‘print’, their compensation is reasonable, and they pay on time.  Unfortunately, I have not had the same experience with the paper magazine I have worked with in the past.  I should point out that I have only written for three magazines in my career, so I can’t speak for all publishers’ policies.  I am sure that if the editors of Conscientious Aquarist pass on your article for whatever reason, they will direct you to a publication that would be appropriate for your work as well as practice good business.

So, it is time to get to work.  Please share what you have learned.  This hobby can always use more information provided by advanced aquarists.  I, for one, am looking forward to reading what YOU have to say.

Related Reading

Writing for the Pet-Fish/Ornamental Aquatics Interests: On Writing Reviews by Robert Fenner

Literature Searches, or Just Where the Heck Do You Get All This Stuff? by Robert Fenner

Building Your Aquatic Library by Robert Fenner

Collecting Aquarium Literature by Robert Fenner


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