How to become
a travel writer



I am unable to respond to all requests for career advice, due to a busy work schedule. My best (and admittedly biased) recommendation? Take one of my classes online or in-person workshops (Seattle or Rome). But if budget woes prevail, below are some resources.


How to
get started




Read, read, READ: writing in the genre and about the genre. Learn the rhythms of the trade — like what sells where and how masters approach not just the art of reporting and writing, but the craft of running a business. Classes help. So do mentors, alpha readers, developmental editors, and writing groups IRL and online (many of which share submission calls open to new voices).

Conferences can also be great ways to kickstart self-education and building a community. In particular, Book Passage offers a great boot camp in the Bay Area, while Travel Classics forges and tightens relationships between top writers and editors.

My all-time
favorite story
on the genre


Columbia Journalism Review: Tom Swick lambastes the genre. The 2001 article is titled "Roads Not Taken" and kicks off with the question Why is so much of travel writing boring? Highly recommended.

"The Travel section has enormous potential precisely because of its life of low expectations. It need not adhere to the strictures of journalism that govern the rest of the newspaper – brevity, clarity, distance; instead it can accommodate leisurely, nuanced, occasionally passionate writing. Because it is not the most important section of the paper – quite the contrary – it can experiment, take risks, have fun. It should -- by virtue of its generous space, deadlines, and subject matter – feature the best writing in the newspaper."


The best
journalism resources

The nonprofit Poynter Institute provides incredible advice archives online. I'm especially enamored with Don Fry, Chip Scanlan and Roy Peter Clark, author of the essential Writer's Toolbox.


The most
realistic article


Susan Spano takes a hard look at the profession in this Los Angeles Times article. " Most [travel writers]— myself included — have scant preparation and back into the profession, which is an illegitimate child in the world of the letters. There's no graduate program culminating in a master of travel arts degree. Journalists consider it frivolous and easy. Poets and novelists look at it as slumming," she writes.

Here's the bit I'm determined to prove wrong, however: " Professional travelers can rarely have dogs, gardens, children or any other variety of significant other."


What's the
first step?


Most freelance stories begin with a pitch, aka a "query letter." This proposes a specific concept, ideally while explaining why THIS idea right NOW by YOU. If your clips aren't robust, look for ideas that exploit your expertise, background or unusual access. Here are five great introductions to this art!

The Beginner's Guide To Freelance Writing by Jenna Glatzer
A fellow instructor provides a detailed primer.

Top tip: Quotes aren’t necessary in a query, but it’s nice to give something specific to show that you have done some research into your topic, and that you have access to resources that will enable you to write the article well.

Don't Fall into the Query Letter Quandary by Sherry Ma Belle Arrieta
An Interview with John Wood, Author of How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters.

Top tip: "Devise a scintillating title and subtitle for your idea in the style of the magazine you're pitching," he says. "Center it and boldface it right up front after your initial introductory paragraph.

Dos and Don'ts by Gail Eastwood
The author addresses book queries, but her advice is mostly applicable, except letter length (I wouldn't stretch to a page and a half in journalism, unless querying National Geographic or some other titan).

Top tip: DON'T indulge in a long story synopsis, or include an autobiographical essay about your writing or your children. Just focus on what makes your book special. Why do you love this story? Why did you want to write it? Why does it fit this publisher's line? Capture its essence in your letter and if it fits, the editor will be asking to see it.

The Perfect Travel Story Pitch: Tips from an Editor by Norie Quintos, National Geographic Editor at Large
An industry legend offers insight into the minds of assigning editors.

Top tip: "When pitching before a trip, never lob the lazy 'I’m going to be in Some Amazing Country, do you need anything?' The answer will always be 'No,' unless you happen to be Pico Iyer or Tim Cahill or Cheryl Strayed or Paul Theroux. Always have some concrete story ideas.

How to Write a Query Letter by John Hewitt
Clean, clear and succinct with bullet points, Hewitt defends the traditional, more formal, query letter.

Top tip: Your idea should be presented at the very beginning of your letter. Your lead-in should excite the editor.


Do I need
a blog? A site?

 
I've taught travel writing since 2003 and have had hundreds of students transition to f/t careers — staff and freelance — now. Blogging definitely isn't the power tool for emerging authors it once was, though it can still be useful. Some editors seek out prospective writers' blogs to see their raw, unedited style. But a basic portfolio site with a bio and a few highly polished pieces written on spec can accomplish that better!

The following five steps will create an online portfolio using free blogging platforms.
  1. Create a static page and make this the first thing people see. Blogs publish in reverse chronological order — placing the newest material at the top. That's not ideal for an online portfolio, so tweak it so folks see your bio or an overview first (WordPress tips, Blogger advice).
  2. People are visual creatures, so post your photo, avatar or logo on there. (WordPress tips, Blogger advice).
  3. Show off your stuff. Make a list of content, ideally featuring headlines, place and date of publications (if relevant) and a few lines to ignite interest. Experienced authors may want to group material by topic. Include links to work online (WordPress tips, Blogger advice).
  4. Create more static pages, allowing you to post content not already online. (WordPress tips, Blogger advice).
  5. Advanced wizardry: set up a custom domain like www.yourname.com, instead of http://yourname.blogspot.com. It costs less than $20 per year and takes minutes (WordPress tips, Blogger advice).

That's it. Five simple steps to a writer's website. You don't need Contently's free portfolio, unless you're working for one of its clients (and enjoy sending an agency lots of web traffic). And I'd avoid Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and other site builders, which can trap your material in proprietary formats.

Don't wait to hire a designer and developer. Get your shingle hung in cyberspace, somewhere you can update it easily. You can always get snazzier in version 2.0!

Now get cracking if you haven't already!


Talkin'
money

 
We all start somewhere... and that's cool. But once you have six published clips, start pitching up the food chain. No- and low-paying outlets often latch onto emerging talent and ride it hard, which can exhaust writers and scare them into quitting the business.

Entry-level rates tend to run $50–250 per piece. But most f/t veteran freelancers earn $1 to 3/word, sometimes dipping down to fifty cents for passion projects or gigs in their wheelhouses with easy edits. Many mix copywriting and consulting with traditional journalism to help keep their income comfortable and arriving reliably. Others capitalize on skills like teaching, photography, video, social media management and even brand ambassadorship.

Discover how writer and photographer Lola Akinmade balances her career, mixing editorial pitches with projects, partnerships and passive income.

It takes time and determination to build a robust business. But it can still be done. Remember that top-tier publications rarely put out calls for submission and rely more heavily on referrals. Build solid relationships with your colleagues!

Learn to dodge the bullet of bad assignments with "Should you take that job?" Tom Brosnahan challenges the industry's pay rates in "Is Guidebook Writing Worth the Money?"

Finally, the UK's National Union of Journalists offers a Freelance Fees Guide, as well as EU late payment fees and a nifty interest calculator. Who Pays Writers also explores rates.

Read before
you write

 


"While travelers have been sending back personal dispatches from the road for centuries, the first-person narrative — shaped like a work of fiction with a beginning, middle and end — has really come into its own only in the last 50 years or so,” pointed out Lonely Planet's Global Travel Editor Don George, also the author of Travel Writing.

Paul Theroux's first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, marked a turning point in 1975. The curmudgeonly bestseller was “a pivotal part of a widespread movement that liberated travel writing from the confines of pure guidebook writing, and began to equate first-person narrative with literary art,” George said.

Other contemporary authors have gained literary laurels: Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, Pico Iyer's Video Night in Kathmandu, Tim Cahill's Pass the Butterworms, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and nearly Jan Morris's entire catalogue, especially Journeys. Peter Mayle's 1989 memoir, A Year in Provence, sold over a million copies, was translated into seventeen languages, and became a popular British TV serial.” Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes won similar commercial success and a silver-screen debut. Bill Bryson has grown so monumental, he tackled A Short History of Nearly Everything in 2004.

Guidebooks too have their superstars. Arthur Frommer and Rick Steves, among others, have spun themselves into multimedia franchises. Even group-authored travel tomes enjoyed a boost: sales swelled 23 percent to $222 million from 1997-2000, then diminished slightly post-9-11. Nevertheless, as of 2005, Lonely Planet sold six million copies a year, dominating a quarter of the estimated English-language market .

Armchair anthologies are another growing venue for both new work and reprints. Travelers' Tales is a leader with 60+ titles in print. The imprint ranges from anecdotes (collected by country or region) to advice compilations like Mary Beth Bond's best-selling Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom.

Major publishing houses – like Vintage, Random House, Broadway Books and Crown Journeys – are best approached through agents, who generally represent established authors with book proposals (20-60 pages) or new talent with finished manuscripts. Some travel writers prefer to skirt the system and self-publish, keeping a larger share of the profits. Tom Brosnahan led the charge with his 2004 memoir Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea. But he built on a stellar reputation, having sold nearly four million guidebooks worldwide in 12 languages for imprints like Berlitz, Frommer's and Lonely Planet.

“Publishing your own guidebook profitably can still be done today, but it's far more difficult,” he cautioned on Writers Website Planner, an advice archive he maintains online. “Well-known series grew up with world tourism, expanding the load on bookshelves in tandem with the increase in the number of travelers. Now the bookshelves are stuffed with good titles, the long post-oil-crisis economic boom is over, terrorism threats are crimping world tourism, and competition for readers is fierce.”


Reference,
scholarly texts
& writing advice
 


Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
Chicago Manual of Style
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
Tourists with Typewriters by Patrick Holland and Graham Huggin
Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing by Don George
The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda
Telling True Stories by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
The Travel Writer's Handbook by Louise Purwin Zobel
A Writer's Coach by Jack Hart
The Writer's Market — find places to pitch!
Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

See more travel writing resources


Most convincing
study for more
travel coverage
 


Travel journalism splits into three broad groups: the inverted pyramid format, commentary and feature-style, also called narrative writing. The Readership Institute discovered that the latter increased satisfaction, as well as comprehension and retention of the material.

Its landmark Impact Study also revealed that the public craves more “go and do” information, nitty-gritty details like phone numbers, times, dates, addresses, contact names and Web sites. Women, especially, want more travel coverage. Younger readers favored a weekend getaways section, while occasional readers requested less staff-generated, local articles. International issues are desirable in the food, science, technology and environmental sections. Remember that the travel genre can stretch to include these topics – and others.




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