Travel writing is something that has always appealed to me, as I’m sure it has to billions of others. Being paid to just fly away and experience a new culture, city or population and sharing it with others through the written word is no doubt etched into the minds of many before they go to sleep at night.
But taking on the role of travel writer takes more than a love of travelling – it involves a lot of hard work and competition, and can, at times, be extremely frustrating. Behind the romanticised idea of the travel writer lie the same nuisances that regular travellers experience – such as language barriers, airline fees, lost passports or baggage, along with the added stress of meeting deadline, pitching editors or finding a story that will sell.
Most travel writers operate on a freelance basis and very few enjoy the luxury of free travel and accommodation. Despite the setbacks, many would say they do it out of love and the instinctive curiosity to explore new cultures, places and people, and for the rewards gained at the end of it all. So how can you become the best travel writer you can be?
It has been said that no genre is more prone to cliché, boring writing than travel journalism. Writers can fall into the trap of crafting their article like a brochure, using words such as ‘sparkling lakes’ and ‘pristine beaches’. Good travel writing is a blend of journalism and creative writing. Articles must include information and observations without sounding dull. Show, don’t tell the reader about an experience – make sure they feel moved by your description. Recreate the moment so that the reader is in your shoes, visiting the places you did, meeting the people you met, and feeling the things you felt. Make them feel inspired to fly away too.
[Writers] assume the reader will be as interested in their travels as they are. Second, they stick too hard to chronology, without ever telling a story. All the worst stories are just a bland recounting of events. While travel writing should never be fictional, it should emulate the best techniques of fiction, such as character, action, plot, foreshadowing, dialogue and payoff. Character and dialogue are especially important, since they bring the story to life,' says author and journalist, Rolf Potter.
Don’t write like a fact-checker or in report style without any sense of engagement. Great writing is fresh, with personal observations, and incorporates simile and metaphor.
According to Don George, author of Lonely Planet’s ‘Guide to Travel Writing’, travel pieces need to have a warm voice.
You are undertaking a fundamentally human adventure – encountering new people and a new culture. Your humanity should be one of the fundamental strengths of your story."
- Write in the first person, past tense.
- You need to be observant; it’s often the details that bring a story, and the place you’re writing about, to life.
- Give the locals a voice! Quotes from people you met can give a piece so much more depth!
- Include where you were, what you were doing there, and why.
- Start your story with a strong anecdote that introduces the general feeling, tone and point of the article. Something that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on.
Finding and Focusing Your Story
Finding the right subject is vital to the success of an article or travel guide. According to Lonely Planet’s ‘Guide to Travel Writing’ a good topic is usually a marriage of passion and practicality:
As a writer, you want to choose a subject that will allow you to infuse your story with a sense of connection and conviction; at the same time, you need to write about a topic that will capture an editor’s attention and will fit well with the publication you’ve targeted."
Know the market. Study the publications/websites you’d like to write for. Analyse the focus, tone, approach and length of the articles they publish, but at the same time, focus on the subjects/places that interest you.
- Make sure your article/guidebook has a point. What do you want the reader to learn from the article?
Inspiring the Audience
Travel journalism is about bringing the people, places and cultures you experience to an audience. Inspire them. Make them want to be where you are. There’s nothing more appealing than an article or guidebook written by an author who is excited about the trip and who want to spark a sense of adventure in their reader. Focus on telling the reader about an experience that they might have if they were to repeat your trip.
Be a passionate storyteller and active observer. Leave your comfort zone; make sure you notice everything – even the little things, because those are often where the best stories are. But most importantly, excite yourself. Find the story or adventure in even the most dire situations. The reader cannot be inspired unless you are.
- Be completely open to new countries/ideas.
- Don’t be bias.
- Use your voice to express opinion/judgment. Readers and editors are relying on your expertise to steer them away from scams or disappointment.
Traits of a Good Travel Writer
So what, exactly, does it take to be considered a ‘good’ travel writer?
Curiosity – about the world and its people – is a given. Don’t make assumptions about a place you know nothing about. You need to research and investigate. Be very wary of how your first perceptions of a country, culture, or community and be prepared and willing to have your world view changed – not just once, but often.
In this day and age, writing alone may not cut it. Having the ability to take photos – and good ones at that– is what will add colour and depth to your story.
Australian-based travel writer, Andrew Bain, maintains the importance of photos to accompany a story:
Photos are crucial. If editors are choosing between a story that requires photos from a library, and a story presented with good photos, they’re likely to go for the complete package, especially for writers new to them.'
- Keep your eyes and ears open to potential story angles and ideas that might impress editors.
- Fact checkingis a vital part of every type of writing. Talk to people, read books or do other research. Make sure you use reliable sources and double-check they are correct.
- A common mistake that inexperienced travel writers make is to put too much of themselves into a piece; your job as a writer is to be the reader’s portal into a deeper understanding of the place and of the experience of being a traveler there.
Separating Yourself from the Crowd
Travel writing is a fiercely competitive industry, and with good reason. With thousands of aspiring travel writers around the globe, it’s important to separate yourself from the crowd. To be able to do this, you must find your niche – choose a destination, activity or subject that impassions you and make it yours. Sharpen your expertise and share that knowledge. Get to know the locals, and uncover the more off-the-beaten-track places to eat, drink or visit. Don’t rely merely on the conventional information you’ve found on a place – talk to people and discover the best kept secrets of your destination.
To make a decent living as a travel writer, you need to be able to turn your hand to a variety of travel articles. However, it can be very much to your advantage to find the niche that best fits your expertise as a writer," says Don George.
Once you’ve found your subject, find a way to make it unique. You may not have been the first person to conquer the Inca Trail, but you do have the ability to put a fresh spin on the experience. Reveal a new or different side to a destination or experience. Cultivate a unique voice and personality. Your writing should add to what is already found in the existent guidebooks and websites. Andrew Bain’s advice to those starting out in the freelance travel writing industry is to choose destinations that aren’t already clogging the pages of travel sections and magazines:
Look for lesser-known places with appealing quirks. But if you must stick to the blue-chip destinations, find a different way to look at them. Develop a specialty – food, spas, outdoor adventure – that will gain you a niche market, then supplement it with general stories."
Pitching to Editors and Making a Name for Yourself
It is essential to create at least a portfolio website/blog. It is a digital billboard where you can present your biography, past and upcoming travels, and social media feeds, and where you can showcase your articles, photos and videos. When it comes to pitching to editors, be concise, to the point and familiar with your topic. Make sure your article caters to the style of the publication/website you are pitching to, and that is a fresh take on what has previously been covered.
No editor wants to be contacted with vague proposals that haven’t been thought through. If you’re going away, think of a few angles or ways to treat a story that would suit the publication you’re targeting," says Don George.
Travel writing is a competitive, hard industry, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarding or out of reach. To be the best travel writer you can be, ask yourself: what sparks your passion? What’s the first story that comes to mind? Focus on the story that guides your intuition, because that’s what will entice and inspire readers everywhere. Become a travel writer to inspire – to satisfy that itch. Do it for love, because you will meet people and see places that will stay with you forever, and change you forever.
Travel writing is one of the globe’s dream jobs. That doesn’t mean it’s beyond your reach. The world of travel writing is open to everyone; if you love to travel and you love to write, it’s a natural. No one can guarantee you’ll be successful, but it is guaranteed that you’ll never be successful if you don’t try.” – Don George.
Resources and Further Reading:
- Matador Network is an online travel resource website. For travel writing articles click here.
- To extend your knowledge on the craft of travel writing, consider these courses from the Australian Writers’ Centre.
- For further travel tips visit these sites:
George, Don 2013. Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing - Expert Advice from the World’s Leading Travel Publisher, 3rd Edition, Lonely Planet Publications.