How not to become a travel writer: five mistakes you can avoid
Travel writing is a dream job that can pay your way around the world. But beware of beginners’ errors…
1: Boring us all
The error: forgetting to give anyone a reason to read your story. It’s easy to assume that because you had a great time, your trip will interest anyone else in the world. This may not be the case. Especially if your story lacks a sense of place, purpose or plot. It needs to be a story, not a self-indulgence, and the good old-fashioned elements remain the same, whether you’re writing travel, thrillers or TV scripts. Without these, even friends and family may not really care that much.
The solution: sift your travel experience for material that could make a strong and simple story – maybe just a slice of the trip, that hangs around a single theme or event, so you’ve got a coherent concept to work with. Then think about the shape this might make, starting with a bang of some sort to grab the reader, a series of varied moments to keep them strung along, and an ending that answers all the questions – did you find the temple in the jungle, see the wild tiger, learn to make sushi like a local? Many travel stories – and almost all travel articles – have a purpose to their journey, and this can provide a natural direction and shape.
2: Talking about yourself
The error: thinking that your personal opinions, dazzling life story or incredible adventures are more interesting than the places you’re writing about. This might work if you are as famous or fascinating as Bill Bryson, say, but otherwise it’s safer to assume that people read travel stories to learn about places they might like to visit themselves. It’s not your adventure that counts – it’s theirs.
The solution: choose somewhere interesting to write about and make sure you do just that. Take us there through the vivid pictures you create with your words, make us smell the spices in the marketplace, introduce us to the carpet dealer, show us sunset from the rooftop bar. You can add a little of your own emotion and expertise, but only if these add to the picture and illuminate the place. Alternatively, set up your story from the start as a personal journey of some sort, with a clear and compelling reason for why we should care two hoots.
3: Telling your story from A to Z
The error: telling us what happened from day one to day seven in a straight sequence with no regard to how interesting or otherwise each moment really is. This is why train journey stories get so dull, because we can predict the route and the next five stops and we’ve got to get through them all to reach the end.
The solution: liberate yourself from the tyranny of time. Choose the five most interesting moments from your trip and rearrange them into a sequence that makes a great tale. Feel free to lose the boring bits in between. Skip across the tedious stuff with a phrase like ‘Two days later…’ Cut people and events that don’t add much or don’t relate to your theme. Spend more time with the key episodes and characters, savouring what is special. Maybe start with one of these – in the middle of some action, say, or meeting an amazing person. That way you’ll transform your random real experience into a working story shape.
4: Writing fancy
The error: filling your story with garbage words because you’re freaking out that someone else may read it. Words you’d never naturally use, like ‘nestled’ and ‘boasts’, or words so fancy they need a lot of space on the page and patience from the reader. Was the sea really ‘cerulean’? Was that what you thought, on the beach? What kind of blue is it, anyway, and how long should I spend working all this out? I’m meant to be watching your story, not your verbiage.
The solution: write in your natural voice, using the good English words you normally use. If something’s difficult to say, it may not be worth saying. If it’s pulling towards fancy phrasing, that may be to hide that it’s empty inside. So check that it’s worth the space on your page. A safeguard against writing purple prose is to keep your sentences short and clean. Let each contain just a single subject. If you’re using a lot of clauses and punctuation, you may be over-complicating things. Try inserting a full stop. There’s nothing like it for clarity.
5: Pitching to the wrong person
The error: trying to get an article or blog published by sending it to a media outlet that is not interested in that sort of story – for example pitching a luxury golfing trip in Florida to Wanderlust magazine, which prefers its sports live and dangerous, like sledging with huskies or swimming with sharks. Every outlet has its own sense of what it likes and who are its readers, and if you get this wrong you won’t get far.
The solution: if you’re keen to get your stories published, then find the places that might take them. In other words, research the market. Google around your chosen topics and start following outlets and editors who run your sort of thing. Read their magazine or website for some months to get an in-depth feel for what they want. Then pitch something like that. And if they often publish a certain format of smaller article (known in the trade as a ‘slot’), like ‘48 hours in…’ or ‘A room with a view’, try creating a story idea that perfectly suits that slot and send it in. You might just win.