Brigid Mander: Writer and Skier

Brigid Mander did not intend to be a writer when she left college or even several years after that — it came to her after 6 years of ski bumming as a way to keep up her skiing lifestyle and make some money. Her foray into journalism started with a 5,000-word article about a ski hut in Argentina, sent as a cold pitch to The Ski Journal.

Without the help of a degree in journalism or any editorial internships, but with a huge amount of experience as a skier, Mander researched other writers, found mentors, and pushed her way into the industry as a writer. Now, she lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and skis and travels as much as possible.

When she was starting out and asking other writers for advice, she found it frustrating they couldn’t give more decisive steps to becoming a freelance writer. Now that she’s giving advice to other writers, she’s realized it’s not that simple and there isn’t one clear path or list of steps to follow.

Here’s what she has to say.

Year started freelancing full-time: 2012
Age when started freelancing full-time: 33
Preferred Pronouns: She/her

brigid mander in a bivi hut in Julien Alps
Brigid, Liza, and Molly thrilled with the good fortune of finding this cozy caver’s bivi in the Julien Alps.

What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?

I try to just get away with saying I’m a writer. Then they’ll ask, do you write books? And I’ll have to say, “not yet, but soon…I’m working on it!”

What did you do before freelancing?

Right after college, I was working back in New York, saving money and trying to figure out what to do, but pretty uninspired. So I saved some cash and took off out west, planning to spend one season skiing. I ended up ski bumming in British Columbia for three winters.

Eventually, I ran out of money, and found myself in Jackson, WY, working just enough to ski as much as possible. The second winter I was there, I began a once a week ski scene satire column for one of our local papers. That was my first writing job. 

What made you decide to start freelancing?

I didn’t want to do ski bum jobs anymore, but I was also scared of going to grad school and moving home to New York, and back to that normal kind of life – very structured, making lots of good money, but you don’t have a lot of free time and you’re not that in control of your life.

In writing, I did not want to work for a magazine. I did not feel like getting a job at a publication, it just didn’t look appealing to me, and I definitely wasn’t going to intern for ‘experience’ because I didn’t have money to support myself if not working.

So I was like, this is the only way I can do it if it doesn’t work, I have to do something else.

What was your education before starting freelancing?

I didn’t write anything until 27. I studied history in college and had no intention of being a writer after school. By the time I started freelancing though, I knew skiing and ski culture really well, so that’s what I started writing about.

What preparation did you do before going full-time freelance?

I read tons of magazines and googled all the writers and editors I saw.

If I saw a writer’s name with an article I liked, I would read all their stuff — their background, what happened to them, where’d they come from, how’d they get where they are? Kind of what you’re doing now for people [with The Freelance Outdoorswoman]. I knew everyone’s name. 

So, I kept a close eye on the writers who were doing what I wanted to do, just to see where they come from, what they were doing and where they seemed to be going.

What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?

The most challenging thing for me when I started was I had no idea how writing, or the journalism industry worked. None! I knew I could write good stories. And I knew I had a ton of skiing experience — I was immersed in this ski bum, or ‘skid’ as we say in Jackson, and big mountain skier culture, so I was writing about something I really understood in-depth. 

I skied every day. Even though I had little money, I managed to ski all over the world. I tried doing competitions. I knew a ton of people in the ski world. So I was very confident in my subject, I really knew it inside and out. So that was helpful. 

The challenging part was, how do I translate this into stories and then money? That was really hard. 

Honestly, the first story I submitted to a magazine after my $25 a week humor column was from when I went to this crazy hut in Argentina with some friends. I wrote a five thousand word story and I submitted that plus like a hundred photos to The Ski Journal. I literally didn’t even know what a pitch was. [PS: There are now lots of pitch resources out there – here’s one good Twitter thread on them but there are many.]

The editor at the time, Kris Kaiyala, eventually got back to me and thanked me for the submission. That was exceptional, because a lot of editors might have just deleted a five thousand word story from some no name ski bum. But he read it, and really liked the story. He said they’d run it – after some editing for length, of course! Then he informed me, for future reference, it was too long, and not to send all the photos at once. That most writers send a query pitch, which is just the outline of the idea.

This is literally where I learned what a pitch was. It was extremely illuminating! 

So anyway, we cut it down to three thousand words and it ran as a big feature. That was my first magazine article. I will never forget that guy; he was very helpful and encouraging even when I clearly had no idea what I was doing.

What helped you the most when starting out?

After Kris Kaiyala, the next big helper appeared when one of the pro skiers I knew, Martha Burley, introduced me to Megan Michelson when she was at Skiing Magazine. She gave me a couple tiny blog pieces for $50, to see if I could write. She liked them, so we kept working together. 

Then I went with her to ESPN and that was where having someone you trust in the industry who’s really experienced — she’s super ethical, she worked at magazines, she’s on top of it – really became invaluable. The fact I was able to ask her all kinds of embarrassing, clueless  questions and seek advice about the magazine world, and writing in general, was priceless. I’m sure she has no idea how much she helped me. Also having a female editor was really nice.

The other thing that helped me when starting out was determination — I didn’t want to go to grad school and move back to the city so I was knew I had to make it happen. It had to work!

How did you get clients when you first started?

Just that blind determination!  And I focused only on ski magazines. That was what I knew and I knew it really really well. It was very easy for me to talk to those people and tell these stories, I was supremely confident in that.

How did you become a contributing editor at Backcountry Magazine?

This is funny. They just told me they were putting me on the masthead, perhaps because I contributed to them a lot. I don’t actually think I’m on the masthead, anymore.

In my one experience, it  was just a title, it was a compliment, and I didn’t have to do anything extra.

Does it come with any additional perks?

No, not for me. Other publications could be different, but no. I never really asked them, I was like “cool!” And that was the end of it. I’m sorry this is a disappointing story.

How do you balance writing with your travels and adventures?

A lot of my travels were ones that I put together myself, either self-funded or I got sponsors to chip in, so they were usually long trips. This was an evolution of ski bum trips when I would spend all that money I earned from gardening or waiting tables going to Europe or South America for two months. 

Then while I was there, I would try to line up a slew of stories, so I’d get tons of work coming out of each trip. Especially if I got the big expenditures mostly paid for — once I figured out that as a writer, I could get people to fund stuff, then I was able to make pretty good amounts of money from these trips.

After, I’d come back and I would be really busy for a couple months. So a period of no income, lots of adventure and then a period of a ton of work, no adventure. And that was how I balanced it. It’s just what had to happen. 

Then, once all the deadlines and work was done, I would have another period where I was pitching and plotting and scheming. So those were the three cycles I had. 

I find it a lot more difficult to balance my work and my travels that I want to do when I have agreed to go on a lot of media trips, because generally they are shorter. 

How do you manage working with PR and media trips with ethics?

I’ll take media trips, but I like to be measured about it, and be clear upfront that won’t guarantee a story on something I have not experienced. If they require that kind of commitment, I won’t go. I don’t really even think it’s that appropriate as an ask. 

Ethics in writing is my biggest struggle because I don’t want to be somebody’s marketing tool and it’s a disservice to readers as well. If they’re reading a travel blog they know has a ton of sponsors and content that’s half advertorial, that’s one thing.

I want to write about genuine experiences and genuine stuff that is interesting and useful to a reader whether or not they ever plan on going to that place. 

At one point I downloaded an American journalists ethics paper (Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics) and a lot of it has to do with just regular reporting and not travel stuff, but it still applies. I am curious about best practices and maintaining integrity as a writer for myself and my publications. If I could take one journalism class, I would take an ethics class.

Do you ever go into topics outside of the outdoors niche and skiing?

Now that I’ve been at the writing thing for a while,  skiing is not my sole focus. Skiing used to be my complete total identity. I was a skier and it had also become my job, but now I have broadened my life and interests. 

So I also cover important things and issues, such as wildlife and conservation issues in the American West. Overtourism is another really big focus of mine. I’m trying to write more stories on overtourism, because it’s a huge problem globally.

How did you make your website portfolio?

I traded my friend who’s a tech guy some writing for the website build. I wrote a couple things for his rock climbing guide book and he made my website. He made it really easy, we used Squarespace. Now, when I want to update it, I do it all myself. 

It’s not that I couldn’t have made the website, I just didn’t want to. It would have taken me 15 times as long as it took my friend.

How do you work in vacation or sick days?

Ehh. I just do it. If I don’t feel well, I don’t work. I’ve never had that happen where I was really pressed for a deadline and it would ruin everything. 

And vacation, I mean, my life is kind of like a vacation. I guess real vacation is when I disappear into the woods or something and I’m off the grid, or I go on a trip with no assignments. Again, I just do it when I don’t have any other obligations. I could work harder and be less flexible and make more money, but right now, I don’t need to. 

How do you manage retirement funding? 

I have a healthy savings account and that’s about it.

How do you handle your accounting and taxes?

I have an accountant.

Even when I was a massive dirtbag and making 12 grand a year, I had an accountant because taxes make me cringe. Plus, my accountant’s a friend and when I was super broke she would give me a really good deal on her fee. Although, I suppose my taxes were less complex back then.  

An accountant can go through all the stuff so easily and it’s worth $3-400 to me to have her deduct everything and accurately take care of things for the most benefit to me.

How do you decide your rates?

I usually just go with what a publication offers and if their rate is too low, I just don’t work for them. Sometimes I will ask a magazine to pay me more if it’s a really complicated story or it’s going to take a long time and that’s actually always been a successful ask. 

A lot of these are lessons from The Wall Street Journal. For example, they know when a story is really complicated and difficult and 60% of the time, they beat me to it and they’ll say, we’ll pay you this much more.

Other times, if it’s becoming more time-consuming, I’ll ask I can I invoice for X amount more? They always say yes. I’ve successfully done that with magazines a couple times as well. 

How do you negotiate rates with clients?

I think negotiation is hard. 

We read this in so many business stories about women — we are less likely to negotiate, more shy about it, and we ask for less. 

Even when you’re really confident in what you’re doing, like I was about writing about skiing, it was awkward. It’s difficult to say, “I want more money for this”. Either for this story in particular, or I want more money in general because I know what I’m doing, I turn in clean, fact-checked copy and I turn it in on time, and I should be getting paid properly. 

Nonetheless, you have to do it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s a super important skill. You just need to make sure you do it when the time is right.

But yeah, it’s a difficult skill, but you should always keep in mind that you’re going to have to have those conversations, and even if you feel like you’re being overly aggressive, you’re probably not. 

Do you have any guidelines for when the right time to do it is?

For the most part, I think you want to prove yourself first, as you need something to stand on. I guess it’d be like asking for a raise anywhere – why should they pay you more? You need to have the answer. 

Have you ever had to dump a client?

Honestly, I don’t really think of publications as clients but I guess financially they are.

I have cut ties with a couple editors, if I found they were unprofessional or not especially competent at their job. Occasionally, you’ll discover simply because someone is working as an editor doesn’t always mean they’re good at it, it’s important to keep that in mind. I want to work with good editors who are clear, competent, honest, and their standards are the same as mine.

I have bailed on publications when, for example, an editor rearranged articles so that quotes were in there out of context and had a different meaning. Or, when they either added or took out really important information concerning the facts of the story. They didn’t send me a final redeback, so I couldn’t make sure it was correct. No matter how it happens, the final is on me if it comes out in print with incorrect information and my name is the name on it. 

Also, I’ll drift off from a publication if getting payment is consistently late, or a battle, and it takes sixteen emails for them to cut the check. I’ve only cut ties with maybe 3 publications, for a couple reasons. But if the editor is the problem, if and when that editor leaves, I’ll certainly reach out to the new one. 

Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman in the outdoor industry?

In skiing, yeah, of course, you often get guys who think they’re better skiers than you just cause they’re guys, and even when they’re clearly not, it’s as if they refuse to see it. I guess that’s a problem in many facets of life, though.

Nonetheless, this kind of behavior can certainly leak over into assignments, I think there’s still an ingrained, default tendency that a male writer might know more about these action and adrenaline-driven sports, regardless of experience or background or skill, or ski partners, and so forth. 

It’s so amorphous, I don’t know if I could really point it out as a concrete experience. Sometimes I get the feeling I have to work a bit harder than some male writers do to pitch stories rather than editors assigning them. 

I do feel like that happens less with my female editors. I do feel they will keep other women on their radar more than like the guy editors — he may just fall back into thinking about his guy contributors, but I couldn’t prove that. So, I don’t know, it’s just sort of a feeling that I have based on conversations with other writers.

What do you think is the most important skill to have for freelancing in the outdoor industry?

Know your subject, and tenacity. 

If you don’t know your subject, even if you feel like you’re making little money per hour, research it exhaustively, because it will shine through if you don’t know and fully understand what you’re talking about. 

Is there anything you’ve done as a freelancer that you regret?

The only thing as a freelancer I regret is sometimes I poo-poo ideas instead of pitching them and then I see them out there. An editor had assigned the idea to someone else. So you should always pitch ideas. 

I used to pitch Megan the dumbest ideas. Oh my god, I think she would be like, what is wrong with you? Do you want us to be a laughingstock? She said no plenty, but at least she still kept working with me. There’s probably a happy medium in there – I’m still looking for it! 

If you could give any advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?

The only two pieces of advice that I really give people is one: never do anything for free. Maybe when you’re established and you want to be nice to some little nonprofit website or something, maybe. But writing is a skill, otherwise someone else wouldn’t be asking you to do it.

And two: there isn’t a magic formula. It’s not like becoming a cardiologist where you have steps to follow. Whatever way you see through to making it happen for yourself, maybe that’s the way. You might have to change tactics here or there, but I think it’s a very amorphous path and it’s so different for everybody.

When I was trying to start writing, I asked a few skiing outdoor writers in town for advice and they were very unhelpful and discouraging, just like “[dude voice] wahh, it’s so difficult. Don’t even bother, you can’t make any money.” 

They were really unhelpful, but I didn’t let that deter me because I wanted to do it. So you have to pick and choose what advice you absorb. Because in my experience I also found that every writer has done it differently.

Some of the people I asked for advice, I thought they weren’t giving me the path, like the steps because perhaps they weren’t confident and didn’t want any competition. But I realized when people started asking me — which first of all, the first couple times that happened was so weird. I thought, ‘I don’t know anything! How could I help anyone else?’

But I think that’s just it; I don’t know how to replicate what I did because honestly I don’t even know what I did half the time, I just did it. And it’s way different than what Megan did or what your readers might do. You just have to see the goal and then just keep going. It definitely requires tenacity.

And being on time with submissions is really important.

I think for me it was really intimidating — people would always just say this empty answer, if you want to be a writer, go intern. Go intern at Powder, or Outside, or wherever. And I really didn’t have the money, I couldn’t do it. I considered it, “sure, I guess I could, and live in my car and then have a side job as waitress, but do I even need to do that?” 

So you don’t have to do some of these steps. It might make it a little harder for you, but writing is such a broad industry and that’s the coolest thing about it.

As ambitious as you are and as good as you are, that’s as high as you can go. You can write for all these magazines — you start at Backpacker and then, in 10 years, you write for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker, and then you write books. You can just go up. That’s the coolest thing about it in my opinion. You’re not stuck waiting for someone to promote you.

Want to learn more about Brigid Mander and her writing and skiing career? Check out her website.

A few of her stories: