So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips. Okay first, 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, like me, with shrinking travel pages in magazines and newspapers, you will find fewer places for you to send your work to and, the competition is high.
You will also discover 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 are really like an email or letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with that talk dark and handsome, very dishy, Greek. These absolutely could be the basis for a great story – just written differently.
Something else that stops people fulfilling their dream to become a travel writer is the discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, time manager, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and editor 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. I live on a budget so I can travel to where I want to go … not just to the flavour of the month destination, or where I’m invited – in fact I turn down invitations if they don’t excite me!
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’ve been invited more than once to the same country, or event, by the same tourism agencies.
I started travel writing after a year-long trip, alone with no bookings, around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand I took a short writing class and was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement they were all accepted and cheques sent – 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 – if you continue your dream of travel writing – 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. However this too can be a cultural thing – each country expects different things from writers. For instance, when I have sent stories to the USA I need to use American spelling – seems editors there don’t think their readers can translate from Kiwi, or British, spelling.
Back to that list of tips, and of course other travel writers would add or subtract from this – so, please add your tips in the comments below:
- Of course, first you have to be a writer – travel writing is just one genre. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview your computer or guidebook, your readers can do that for themselves; but they are a good source for the correct spellings of places
- Don’t write about places you haven’t been to – unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list. That’s PR/editorial work, not travel-writing, and you want your readers to know you are reliable for telling the truth.
- 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 the colours, smells, and tastes. [I don’t journal when travelling but take copious photos and lists of ideas, and notes on speech, dress for example]
- Avoid clichés, almost like the plague – although, see 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. [Apart from the occasional cropping I don’t edit my pics either – you see what I saw i.e. I also tell the truth in my photos]
- Read travel blogs, travel writers books and, of course, magazines and newspapers travel pages
- This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, often. 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.
- Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not Taken ‘It 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. After all, your city is somewhere travellers visit. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing many travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines]
- Don’t forget the adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King will tell you, when you read ‘On Writing‘, lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, so ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
- Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least capture 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 complete, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spell-checker, and your eye, over the piece, (I print to read from) 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. However, 790 or 736 is usually fine
- If they need photos, send your best half a dozen, and caption them. If they ask for one . . . guess what, send one.
- And, some last points, don’t tell people what you going to write or you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike ad’ 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: I know that from my travel editor days – for one year, for a now redundant Christchurch newspaper
- A supportive group of hardcore travel writers I know are discussing, on-line right now, how they hate people asking for advice and tips then don’t say THANK YOU within 24 hours – just saying! I say thanks to places who host me: I also send links to all the work I publish that mentions them, and a PDF of a piece I’ve written about ‘how to make the most of having hosted’ me. Once again, win-win.
- Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away there for free. I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world so fares are not cheap and time can be an issue) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course you need to be on all social media to urge those eyeballs to come over to read your blog. (See my links here)
See my three books here (two are travel, one about suicide grief)