Want to be a travel writer?

So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips?

Okay, first of all, after teaching travel writing over many years I can tell you most people never get published – sad but true. In fact, that’s why I stopped teaching – it didn’t feel right to be encouraging an almost impossible dream. Unfortunately, as a freelancer, you will find there are and fewer places for you to send your work to, and the competition is high.

You will also find that you will not be swanning around the world with free airline tickets accommodation in five-star hotels and meals at fancy restaurants – again, sad but true.

I’m sure your friends and family tell you that you write really well, that you should be a travel writer, that in fact, you should write a book. That may well be true, but and this is a big but, editors do not want articles sent to them that is really like a letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with a dishy Italian.

Something else that stops people fulfilling the dream to become a travel writer is a discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and it is a chaser, and of course photographer. Oh, one more thing, you also don’t get paid until the editor actually prints your work – so make sure you have some cash hidden away.

However, if you love to travel, if you love to write, if you love to take photos, this is a great job: in fact, I think I have the best job in the world. I’m on the bottom of the food chain, but I have a great lifestyle. Sometimes I do get airline tickets and five-star accommodation too but that’s because people know my work and believe they get value for money from me. What’s even more confirming is that I have been invited more than once to the same place by the same tourism agencies.

I started travel writing after a year-long trip around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand, I took a small writing class where I was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement, they were all accepted and cheques were sent to me – I immediately decided I would be a travel writer. It seemed it was that easy, but no over the following years, I received many ‘no thank you’ letters, or, as you will find out, silence from editors. Yes, that’s right, most don’t even answer.

Nevertheless, if you decide to become a travel writer here are just a few tips – I don’t do these all the time, but mix-and-match to suit the occasion, and more importantly, the style of the magazine or newspaper I’m pitching to. As I am not a journalist, I very rarely approach editors before my travels – this is because mostly I’m a traveller who writes, not a writer who travels. Sometimes I have an idea of stories before I go, but usually, I just go exploring and stories find me. Back to that list of tips.

And, there are more in my travel memoir “Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad

  • The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview the computer or guidebook your readers can do that for themselves
  • Don’t write about places you haven’t been to -unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list
  • Get lost – the best stories are not always in the main tourist destinations but in the back roads and streets of places
  • Take notes, ask questions, get quotes, and note colours smells and tastes
  • Avoid clichés like the plague – although I’ve just used one because occasionally they’re useful
  • Lose the ‘best-kept secrets’, ‘city of contrasts’ and ‘unspoilt gems’. Why do lodges always ‘nestle’ at the foothills or ‘perch’ vulture-like atop a mountain with ‘breath-taking views’ over a ‘rustic’ village?
  • Find a fresh angle to the story. Rarely will you find a place that has not been written about so find something original to grab a reader’s attention?
  • Be realistic and tell the truth – in other words, talk about the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs or what seems to be, starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps.
  • This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, frequently. Good reading will make you a better writer. You will never develop your own voice and style without reading.
  • Along with reading you need to write, write, write, even when you don’t want to. Paint a picture with words for your reader
  • Add some historical or political context to add to the point. As Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not TakenIt is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.’
  • Write about your local area, become a travel expert on your own city. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had the quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines
  • Don’t forget the old adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King would tell you – lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
  • Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least captures the point of the story. Don’t dare say you ‘can’t wait to return’ – it’s been done to death.
  • When your piece is finished, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spellcheck- put your work aside for some hours or days, or even weeks, then read it out loud again then, and only then send it to an editor. But, make sure you have read their publication again and again so you know their style, and if they ask for 800 words that means 800 words. Not 802 not 850 but 800.
  • If they require photos send your best half a dozen and caption them.
  • And some final points, don’t tell people what you going to write as you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike advert and just do it
  • Don’t write for free. Let me repeat that don’t write for free. If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth paying for. You don’t need a portfolio to start, the editor is only interested in the piece in front of them.
  • Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away free there: I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course,
  • you need to be on all social media to encourage all those eyeballs over to your blog.

What’s a travel writer? What’s a blogger?

What’s the difference between a travel writer and a blogger? And can you be both? These are questions I’m asked, along with how do you get editors to answer you and ,can you live on the income you make as a travel writer.

The last first: I can’t live on my writing income – some, maybe many do, but I’m just not one of them. And that’s for a number of reasons. Reasons such as:

  • I only write about things I’ve done or seen. So, no interviewing my computer  for me – and that’s just one of the ‘ethical travel writer’ parts of me.
  • And, I only do or see things that interest me – the world interests me, but we can only do bits of it. I don’t do wine stores, but do write about food!
  • I pay for most of my travel to go to the places I want to see and thing I’d like to write about (of course I do accept being hosted to countries and places I like, or somewhere new.)
  • I’m not disciplined enough – and have a monkey mind, a short attention span!
  • I not particularly materially minded – so can and do, travel and live “off the smell of an oily rag’ as my dad used to say. So not really motivated for more money enough to write from morning ’til night:  refer back to the first points.

What is a blogger? Well, there are as many sorts of bloggers as there are blogs.  They could be from a daily diary about your life, the food you are eating, the diet you are on, to the travels you’re doing now.  Some are just for friends and family to read, others are by people who want to ‘be famous’.  Some are by famous people who want to get their message to you.

My blogs are about places I’ve been to or done; they can also be articles I’ve had published in airline magazines or local magazines and newspapers (that is a double bonus for the airline, travel destination or activity who hosted me) or they’r one off stories about something I found interesting.

What is a travel writer? Once again this is different for different folk. I even know of so-called travel writers who never travel! Sure they write about travel but they are not what I consider ‘travel writers.’ Others write guide books. Once again they are not really a travel writer in my sense of the term.

For me, a travel writer tells tales. They write stories that makes you want to go to a place or, conversely, perhaps never to travel to a particular place! It will be addressed to a certain audience according to where it will be published; it will be a specific length, and will be completed by a certain date. And, I will be paid for those stories – I’m not a PR person writing for magazines for free (to the magazines)

A blogger may do all those things too but it’s not an imperative. I also belong to a professional body which has standards and ethics that bloggers are not required to have. I belong to Travcom ( NZ Travel Communicators Assn.) which has ethical standards.  (see it below the picture) And talking of standards – editors rarely reply to emails – ‘too busy’ ‘too many emails’ they say. If you find one that answers, cherish him or her.

So, although I am on the bottom of the food chain  money-wise, I live a great life, do some wonderful things, see fabulous places and meet amazing people – all worth way more than money to me.

Nevertheless, should you wish to hire me to write something, contact me; if you want to invite me somewhere, contact me; and, if you want to fly me somewhere, contact me – my passport is up to date, my bag is ready and waiting and I believe the ratio of value of dollars spent on ‘comps’ to marketing dollars is 50 to 1.

This is in India - not Africa!

In Gujarat, India (where I was hosted by Gujarat Tourism) I was surprised at the Lion Safari Camp,  to find a village of African migrants living there for years, employed in Gir National Park, looking after the wild lions.

Travcom Code of Professional Conduct
Travel journalism must be accurate and free of unwarranted bias or prejudice.Members shall not write about a destination without first-hand knowledge, unless reliable sources of information are used.Payment or courtesies shall not be accepted in exchange for providing favourable material about travel destinations or operations that conflicts with the member’s own professional appraisal.When accepting complimentaries (‘comps’) members should make all reasonable attempts to acknowledge the donor in the media. Members shall exercise common sense and courtesy to the host when sharing ‘comps’ with non-professionals not involved in the assignment.Conflicts of interest should be avoided where possible or, if not possible, should be disclosed in or at the end of the article.In joining Travcom, members acknowledge they undertake travel writing/photography for commercial gain. Therefore it is unacceptable to compromise the opportunities and income of other members by working for nothing. Travcom strongly discourages members from submitting work for print or on-line, without financial reward from the publications concerned.

It is unacceptable to plagiarise or infringe the rights, including copyright, of others. Photographs or editorial material supplied by others shall by acknowledged with appropriate bylines.

Members shall not engage in conduct that embarrasses Travcom or otherwise harms its reputation or professionalism. Members shall treat colleagues and hosts/host countries with common courtesy.

Travcom may discipline members by suspension or expulsion for serious breaches of the Code of Professional Conduct

This is in India - not Africa!
%d bloggers like this: