Being paid to travel and write about it sounds like a dream come true, but good travel writing is a unique genre that involves uncommon skills.
To start with, you need to be a compelling storyteller who can share a sense of humanity with your reader.
Readers are looking for content they can trust, written by somebody with a depth of experience about the place they’re visiting. They want a writer who can expertly evaluate the environment and provide authentic advice about questions they may not have yet articulated.
New York Times contributor and seasoned travel writer Tim Neville put it like this:
You need facts, and lots of really captivating ones, but the best travel writing also includes some subtle statement about who we are as humans and how to make the most of the precious time we have on this great big earth.
An essential component of a travel story is the plot – why is this place worth visiting? What happens when you do visit? Is something at stake? Is there conflict? Is there some dialogue with locals you can incorporate?
The story doesn’t need to revolve around an earth-shattering event. It could be a simple adventure, such as finding a historic library amid the cobblestone laneways of Rome, but the writer must take the reader on the journey. And, as Neville reminds us, “By the end, I want to be left with a subtle nod to something bigger than just travel.”
Travel writing should also reflect changes occurring in the travel industry – both from the perspective of the destination and that of the traveller. There’s little point attempting to write authoritatively about a travel destination if you haven’t talked to the locals and done research at ground level. There’s even less point if you haven’t researched the demographic you’re writing for, or identified your niche readership.
Let’s zoom in and look at Venice, as an example, where the authorities are considering charging day visitors a new tax in an effort to reduce the number of tourists descending on the fragile city for short trips. But, hang on a minute. There’s more to this story. A local group, known as Venezia Autentica, is coaxing tourists away from the crowded piazzas and offering tours and experiences with local guides and artisans. They offer tourists authentic cultural experiences that support the local community and ‘positively impact the city’.
The takeaway here is to dig deeper, peel away the tourism industry veneer and look for meaningful experiences and hidden treasures to write about. Many travellers are yearning for more authentic travel experiences, and a lot of locals in tourist destinations want visitors to have genuine interactions with the local community.
Another example of locals taking action is in the Cinque Terre, where a UNESCO-sponsored youth program is helping to restore the decaying terraces and stonewalls that for centuries enabled the vertical farming of lemons, apples and vineyards along the rugged coastline. If you research the Cinque Terre online, you’ll find multiple references to the desperate measures being considered to restrict tourism – again because of overcrowding.
So what do you do as a travel writer? You consider the jewels strewn among the back streets. You search for more authentic travel experiences to share with your readers. In Florence, write about the Laurentian Library, which was designed by Michelangelo, instead of the pleasure found marvelling at David in the Accademia Gallery – after long hours in the queue outside. In Venice, consider writing about the Jewish Ghetto in Carneggrio (the first ghetto in Europe), instead of more famous and hectic sites of interest such as the Rialto Bridge or Doge’s Palace.
In Milan, write about the Botanical Garden of Brera, where Mozart once roamed, instead of sending readers to get trampled in the crowd at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Or, instead of urging readers to join the never-ending queue at the Milan Cathedral, encourage them to pop around the corner and climb the 250 steps up the staircase to its roof. It’s almost half the price of the elevator and twice the fun. Walking on the cathedral rooftop with more than 3400 marble spires, statues and gargoyles will literally blow their socks off.
Pauline Frommer says it perfectly: “Travel writing is not about travelling well, but about writing well.”
Textshop’s 12 travel writing tips
- Write in first person and past tense.
- Identify your reading audience and pitch specifically to them. When you’ve defined your niche stay with it.
- Plot out your travel story, and have a clear narrative that links the beginning to the end. It should never read like an itinerary, or a series of unconnected facts or thoughts.
- Don’t tarry about getting to where you are in the world, and where your story is set. Your reader will want to know if your story is relevant to them before investing too much time reading.
- Avoid travel cliches. Be imaginative and make up your own quirky turns of phrase.
- Use emotion. How did the trip affect you or change your worldview?
- Detail is crucial – remember what you leave out is as important as what you include. Don’t use words like ‘superb’, ‘stunning’, beautiful’ or ‘breathtaking’. Use a synonym finder and find interesting more imaginative substitutes.
- Show, don’t tell. This rule applies to any type of writing, but more so in travel writing. Don’t tell your readers what to think. A good idea is to imagine you’re describing things to a blind person.
- Practise using all your senses when you’re taking notes at your travel destination – smell, taste, sound, touch and sight. This will help you describe things better in your writing.
- Include meaningful quotes and anecdotes from locals. This will add colour and context to your story. Take care to quote exactly and spell names accurately – and don’t run off without jotting down their contact details.
- Always check your facts. This is very important. Verify things people tell you and follow up your own observations. Only use reputable websites for research and double check on a second reputable site.
- Invest in a good camera and learn some basic photography skills. It’s much easier to pitch a travel story when you have great images to go with it. Remember, if you photograph people ask them to sign model releases; otherwise, the photo won’t be accepted for publication. You can find sample model releases here.
In an interview with the BBC, the inimitable Paul Theroux spoke about the importance of travelling and writing, and he summed it up with this quintessential quote:
Travel in an uncertain world … has never seemed to me more essential, of greater importance or more enlightening.