“Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” – Ernest Hemingway
This time a year ago, I had my toes buried in talcum-powder-fine sand, a book in my hands, and a cold margarita on the table to my left. Last June, I headed south to a tiny island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras with my husband and toddler son in tow. I arranged for a specially discounted rate at a luxurious beachfront condominium. I toured the island, interviewed some locals, ate lobster, relaxed on the beach. And then I sold a story about my experiences that more than paid for the cost of airfare for my whole family. And I was able to write off on my taxes the “business” portions of my trip, too.
No denying it: Travel writing offers unbeatable lifestyle perks.
And you don’t have to be a gifted wordsmith to take advantage of them. Granted, it entails a bit more than scribbled postcards home to Mom and the kids. But if you’ve ever come back from a vacation and convinced somebody else to go where you went, you can do it. It’s a craft you can learn. Plus, to my mind, visiting a destination with a purpose — when you have a reason to be somewhere, to ask questions, to really get to know a place — gives your travel more texture and more depth. It makes your experience of the world that much richer.
I’ll talk in future ETR messages about how to get the most out of your travels, but for now here’s a quick guide to get you started on the right foot if you’re interested in getting paid to write about the places you visit.
STEP 1: The most successful travel writers are good travel readers. As in any business, it pays to know what the competition is up to. So subscribe to at least a couple of travel publications and make a point of reading two or three articles in each every month. Read for pleasure, certainly, but also pay attention to the way the authors put their stories together. How do they start? What’s the main idea? How does an author integrate opinions, quotes, descriptions? What do you like most about any given piece? Tear out the articles you admire and keep them in a file. In short order, you’ll have a collection of “models” you can use when you sit down to write your own stories.
STEP 2: Train yourself to notice things. The more you notice — the more specific, interesting details you pick up when you travel — the more rich material you have to include in your articles. And it’s those rich details that editors like. How do you find them? Start with these three techniques:
- Rely on more than your eyes. Certainly, pay attention to what you see. But also take note of what you hear, what you smell, how things taste, how they feel.
- Count. How many steps must you climb to reach the top of that lighthouse? How many steeples do you see jutting up above the rooftops? How many tourists are standing in line? Specific numbers often provide the kind of astonishing detail that’s useful in an article.
- Talk with locals. No matter where you are — in a bar, a cafe, a shop, a taxi — strike up a conversation with a local. Ask directions. Inquire as to how things have changed in the past decade or more. Ask where he or she takes family and friends who visit. Do a load of laundry in a Laundromat or have your hair done. Both activities will give you ample time (and an excuse) to ask questions and learn things.
STEP 3: Think carefully about what sort of person would be interested in the travel story you have to tell. Targeting your audience properly is critical to your travel-writing success. If you have a passion for gardening, for example, and you plan on touring the many well-tended parks, squares, and gardens in Savannah, Georgia this summer, consider a garden-themed travel article for an audience who, like you, likes to garden. If you’re an adventuresome sort who enjoys offbeat cultural offerings and quirky, out-of-the-way cafes and shops in the sort of up-and-coming neighborhoods often populated by artists, you might think about an article geared to a younger, hipper, more budget-conscious readership.
Once you have a handle on the kind of readers you’re after — the specific audience that would find each story idea most engaging — you must track down the exact publications those people are reading. How?
- Get a copy of “Writer’s Market”, an annually updated listing of more than 8,000 publications in North America, which includes information about exactly what the editors are looking for, advice for writers, and the practical information you need to get your story into the right hands.
- Study writer’s guidelines. These are the specific instructions editors publish for freelancers who aim to get a byline and earn a check in their publications. For a sampling, go to www.google.com and search for “writers guidelines travel.” Or go to the website for the publication you’re hoping to write for and search there for “writer’s guidelines” or “editorial guidelines.”
STEP 4: Write clearly (write the way you speak) and edit yourself. There’s no room here to get into the specific guidelines I encourage my students to follow — but you’ll find two resources in “It’s Good to Know,” below, that will be very helpful.