How to do travel writing

Beware, long post!

Before I post this I should make it very clear that I am not making any claims for myself to be a successful Travel Writer, nor would I describe myself as a Serious or Proper Journalist. Like I suspect most people who write about travel I do other things with my time too, and manage to make writing one part of making a living.

There are bad places to visit

Why I’m writing this, however, is in response to the very nice emails that I get sent now and again asking for tips on ‘breaking into travel writing’ or amorphous concepts like that. I’ve found myself giving the same suggestions time and again. Maybe some of you might come to this site looking for suggestions. Either way, I hope you’ll take these suggestions in the spirit they’re intended.

It’s been nearly twelve years since I got my first job in travel, and in that time I’ve noticed a few things that link together most people who make some sort of a living from travel writing. They tend to be very driven and enthusiastic individuals, as I’d imagine is anyone who manages to make money from something lots of others aspire to do. They go to the end of the road, work contacts and check, check and check again. When it comes to wanting to find something out, the guidebook writer to a country tends to know first and best – almost always far better than the tourist office or embassy of a country. If you don’t share this drive then I am sure you’ll find getting going hard going.

Next, they love the world and they love to travel. There’s nothing too hard about this and it’s what brings most people to the idea of travel writing. Note that there are two words in this phrase though – travel AND writing. If you’re doing the former, are you doing the latter? Are you keeping a blog which is an instant portfolio for your work? If not, then you’re missing out on a chance to show and tell anyone what you do – and how well you do it. It should have your contact details on it too. A lot of freelance work comes my way from people finding my blog and emailing me. Others have had TV and radio work and even book publishing deals come to them through this route.

Bueno photo, Diego

A small reality check. Very few people are full-time travel writers. I know how bad my attempt at being Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux would be. I’ve no idea how good yours would, but publishers aren’t exactly falling over themselves to publish travel lit right now. If you’re not a celebrity then it’s very hard to get someone interested in your bike ride from Bognor to Bhutan. Don’t lose heart though, you may be able to sell some pieces about this trip either while you’re away or when back.

What most people think of when they think of travel writing is going somewhere, writing an article about it and being paid for it. Then maybe doing another, and another, and then making a living from it. In fact, the majority of travel writers spend much of their time writing or updating guidebooks and writing about things other than just travel. I’ve done guidebook work but I’m not an expert. For that, think about following some of the top-notch travel writers you’ll find on Twitter like Paul Clammer or Nicola Williams, and have a read of the Travel Writing book I mention below. Leif Pettersen’s blog post on guidebook writing is an excellent read. There are details on writing for Lonely Planet here.

So what about selling an article? Impossible? No. Difficult? Of course! If not everybody would be doing it. Selling pieces is a tricky business, and people often ask about whether to submit a precis or a whole piece. I’d go for the former, though sometimes the latter is more appropriate.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Travel Editor at a national newspaper. They’ve got great jobs on one hand, but don’t be fooled into thinking they travel all the time. Often, they’re the most desk-bound people in the industry, working very long hours to get that week’s supplement out the door or, increasingly, stretching their working days to produce fast-changing online travel sections. One Travel Editor once told me that they received something like 30 unsolicited pitches and articles from people they didn’t know every day. Over a month that’s 900 pitches. Of these, they may take one. Or two. They also have an avalanche of email from travel firms trying to promote their holidays, flights and packages. The tough truth is that your 1500 word piece, sent in for consideration, may not even get looked at. Instead, then, send a snappy 75 word summary of the piece, stressing why it’s of the moment and why it’s right for the audience of the newspaper. It needn’t be about travelling to the ends of the earth.

Another Travel Editor I spoke to last year, at the height of the second coming of British holidays, lamented the dearth of inventive pitches on corners of England she’d love to have commissioned articles on: Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Essex and Notts.

So that’s quite a hurdle to jump. Ask yourself this though: is your pitch sharp and suited for the newspaper or magazine’s audience? Is it topical? Don’t overlook the latter. You might have a great idea for New Zealand, say, but it may be better to wait until the Rugby World Cup next year, when the country will be in the spotlight. Similarly, move fast. American travel pages have had plenty of London coverage off the back of the Royal Wedding. That could have been you if you’d have been quick. You might even get a reputation as someone who can write and deliver accurate and relevant copy at short notice.

Before I move on to more cheerful matters I should also add that your article, when published and beautiful will get you somewhere between £200 and £400. That may not cover your costs. But think about how wonderful it is to see your writing in print, talking about a memorable trip. This isn’t all about money.

Is your piece on track or hitting the buffers?

The good news is that there are more ways in than there used to be. I’ve already mentioned blogging as a way of building a portfolio. You’ll find like minded travel bloggers and tweeters organising meet-ups all over the place. These are good ways to meet people and make contacts. You’ll find plenty of sites who’ll publish your work if it’s good enough. They probably won’t pay but the networking benefits are there. Like lots of tough jobs to start doing you may find it helpful to do some things for people for free. Lost of people disagree with me about this and say you should never, if you want to be a Serious Writer, write for free. Such decisions are interesting and await you down the road.

If all else fails there

Other tips?

I’d also strongly recommend getting hold of a copy of Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing guide, written by Charlotte Hindle. It’s full of useful tips.

Get some formal journalism training so you can use shorthand and understand how to structure news and feature pieces. I’m being hypocritical here as I don’t have this. I wish I had.

Take pictures too. This is especially valuable if you go somewhere interesting. I’ve lost commissions due to a lack of decent photos. Durr.

Always note you are writing for an audience rather than yourself, and know who this audience is. It’s not you. You should sit quietly in the background as the place and the people you meet come to the fore. The exception is when you do something stupid. Then you can push yourself out there as the hapless clown. Everyone like a good travel disaster story.

Lastly, and most importantly, I would urge you to commit to being excellent. I’m surprised at the number of people who send in pieces without having read and re-read them and polished the prose until it shines. Read it out loud. Ask someone else to read it. It’s your work, be proud of it.

2 responses to “How to do travel writing

  1. Thanks for the mention Tom!

  2. Very helpful advice!

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