7 Ways To Ruin Your Travel Writing

MikeachimBlogging, The Everyday, Travel, Writing19 Comments

hammock on beach at sunset

A sweeping vista of bad advice.

There’s plenty of bad, bad travel writing on the Web. (I know this, because I’ve written some of it). And so much of it is avoidable. It really doesn’t need to be that bad – but again and again, the same mistakes, the same unthinking, uncritical , haste-addled incompetence.

(Yes, I’m still talking about my own writing. Well spotted.)

Here are  7 ways travel writers can – and unfortunately sometimes do – ruin their writing.

Cheerios

1. BEGINNING IN THE WRONG PLACE

Good stories never begin at the beginning of the events they’re describing. It’s easy to see why:

I first heard about the Fevered Mutterings blogtrip to Hull on their website one morning as I checked through my RSS feeds. I read up on the city using Wikipedia, contacted the blogtrip organiser and, to my joy and also horror, was accepted! Then 6 months passed, during which I did entirely unrelated things.

Then! The fateful day.

First I got up, then I had breakfast (a bowl of Cheerios; a slice of toast; proper Seville Orange marmalade, not that cheap stuff), packed my rucksack, checked my e-mail for the last time…

Oh, get on with it!

The only person who cares about your run-up to the event in question is you. Everyone else is here for the chase. They want the action, the drama, the sights and sounds — in short, they want to be there already, not watching you bumble around with your Cheerios. They want you to truly begin. And unfortunately, you probably only have one paragraph to do so. Most people will read your lede and use it to decide whether they want to continue reading.

So cut to the chase and grab them immediately. Hook them with drama, with humour, with mystery, with titillation or disgust, but whatever you do, hook them. Start with a pivotal moment, and don’t try to explain why it’s happening – you can do that later, when the reader can’t look away….

Later, lost far at sea, when you’re trying to forget all you’ve left behind, the memory will bubble up unbidden: a village that once lay by the ocean.

The Man Who Sailed His House” – Michael Paterniti, GQ

EndSign

2. WRITING BEYOND THE END

The mirror image of the rambling first paragraph is the story that just won’t end.

I walked to the edge of the Acropolis and looked down, across the darkening sweep of Athens, my legs like jelly, my heart thumping.

It had been one of the worst days of my life, everything had gone wrong – but here I was. A lifelong dream, fulfilled and a day’s adventure, plucked from the jaws of defeat.

Incredibly…

*I’d made it*.

So anyway, then I turned around and a few hours later I found this nice little place that sells gorgeous dolmades (that’s vine leaves stuffed with rice). There are lots of quality eateries in the Plaka district, and they stay open well into the small hours because Athenian people never go to bed! I had another beer. The really great thing about Athens is…

Woah woah, look — are we done yet?

The way you end a travel story is a large part of the way readers will remember it. So end well — solidly, or with a flourish, or if you’re feeling really brave, a line that unlocks some key aspect of everything that’s gone before, so it continues to unfold in the reader’s mind as they walk away from it. (My personal yardstick: British scifi author Iain M. Banks ended his novel Feersum Endjinn with a sentence that ended with a word that explained the story’s central mystery. Simply dazzling.)

However you choose to end . . . make sure it’s obvious to the reader that you have ended.

swedishflag

3. USING CLICHÉS

Sweeping vistas. Hidden gems. Veritable smorgasbord!

What is a cliché? It’s shorthand. It’s a word or phrase that has been said so many times by so many people that it’s been rendered meaningless. It’s just white noise. Every time you slot a cliché into your writing, your carefully crafted prose is interrupted by a blast of static, CHHHHHHHHHH! The reader is startled and disgusted. What’s that doing in here?

The reason for it being there, unfortunately, is that the writer momentarily stopped doing their job. Their brain stepped away to have a cup of tea and a cigarette, and something that didn’t require any thought was inserted as a placeholder. A placeholder the writer forgot to remove at the end. That’s how embarrassing clichés are. They’re as professionally unfinished as typos.

The only time you should use a cliché is when it’s correct. If you’re down the Kimberley Mine, you’re allowed to use the phrase “hidden gems”. Please only use “local colour” when referring to community-sponsored murals. And a Smörgåsbord is a Swedish buffet. Does the thing you’re describing look anything like a Swedish buffet (for example, is it a Norwegian buffet)? If it doesn’t – put a lid on it.

laughinghands

4. TAKING YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY

Read all of these, over at World Hum.

(Don’t worry. I’ll wait.)

Now tell me that you don’t want your travel writing to be that funny, that engaging – that interesting.

Humour is a tool that good writers use to bolster and accentuate what they’re trying to say. It’s also pretty much the reason most things become popular on the internet. What “virals” get the most traffic? The ones that make you LOL. For example, this utterly daft 16-second bit of video has been watched by over 5 million people – and the sequel, almost twice that number.

(As a personal example, this is still one of my most popular posts on this blog, and bagged me a mention by World Hum and Lifehacker.)

You want some of that fun-seeking audience. That’s your job. But you also want to tap that richly trafficked vein of stupidity without trivializing your work. That’s the challenge ahead of you. And it’s the ticket to online fame and fortune.

So go on – crack a grin once in a while.

turqwater

5. WRITING MEANINGLESS LISTS

Lists get a right old bashing across social media these days.  Never mind that they’re a staple format and that they’re proven to drive traffic – they’re evil.

But the problem isn’t with lists themselves. It’s the way they’re being used.

Top 10 beaches. Ultimate best things to do in Europe. The 19 Most Amazing Types Of Cheese. 46 Best, Top And Most Amazing Beaches With Cheese Nearby! 186 Most Interesting Things Involving Other Things, Ever!

We’re being machine-gunned with this kind of crap on a daily basis, and unfortunately it’s making us hate lists – but the real problem is those little value-laden adjectives – “Best”, “Top”, “Most Awesome”. Because they’re usually meaningless.

And the easiest way to discover that?

Say “OK – prove it.”

When you write a value-judged list, you are offering it as an opinion and your credibility hinges on you being able to defend that opinion with an argument and supporting evidence. And if you can’t – you’re going to look like the Biggest, Most Amazing Idiot Ever. (Sorry).

TenFactsScrabble

6. PRESENTING OPINION AS FACT

From an early age, we’ve been told that to be respected in our opinions, we need to get our facts straight. But recently, the simple act of opening a blank blog post seems to have driven this out of our heads.

Over the last 7 years I’ve blogged a few things in a way that made me sound like an ass. Not because they were invalid viewpoints to have, but because by failing to flag them as What I Think, I presented them as fact . My intention was good but my phrasing was bad. I meant to open a discussion – but I sounded like I was preaching. Thou Shalt. Thou Shan’t. Do This. Forsake That!

Travel writers are passionate folk, because they’re talking about something that isn’t just a job – it’s a passion. Everyone within the industry cares about it, hard. Consequently, they have opinions and they’re not shy about sharing them. All well and good. The problem starts when opinion-driven blog posts are written as preaching fact, and suddenly the writer in question is Public Enemy Number 1 and his or her Inbox bulges with hate-mail.

Don’t do that.

(And another reason not to do it? You’re allowed to have stronger opinions if you add a personal disclaimer. You’re allowed to be more of an ass. And who doesn’t want that, eh?)

Personal Disclaimer: the writer of this post proudly upholds the right to be both wrong and an ass. Thank you.

Sharpener

7. PRESUMING WRITING SKILL IS A TALENT OR A LUXURY

And finally, we come to the biggie – the mother and father of all Don’ts when it comes to travel writing. And everyone falls foul of it at some point.

It’s a two-parter. (Yes, I’m cheating – which is another good tip, “always cheat”. Well, I digress.)

COMMON ASSUMPTION 1:

You’re either born a writer, or you’re not. And if you’re not, you either don’t write or you get a job writing for tabloid newspapers. Whatever happens, your writing is genetically or environmentally programmed, because it’s not a skill, it’s a talent.

COMMON ASSUMPTION 2:

Think you’re not any good as a writer? Oh well. Then why try to improve? (After all, see Assumption 1 – you can either write, or you can’t – no way of forcing it). But hey, it doesn’t matter, because as a travel blogger you can compensate in other ways (having lots of swanky visuals, or being super-active on social media). Good writing isn’t a requirement in this business…it’s a luxury.

Put these two assumptions together and you have this: some travel writers don’t need to learn to writeAnd that’s true –in the way that they don’t need to know anything about other countries. Or about talking to people. Or, you know, travelling.

In the virtual world, your writing is at the heart of the all-important first impression you make with your readers and with potential business partners. Good writing gets you better treatment – in exactly the same way that your appearance is linked to how people judge your character in real life. You wouldn’t turn up to an interview dressed in a cloth sack smelling of horse manure — so why present yourself to potential investors (business partners, customers — anyone who will invest in you) with a shapeless heap of badly worded, erratically spell-checked writing that fails to convey what you’re truly capable of?

You don’t want that — and you don’t need to settle for it either, because writing is a skill. It can be learned. It’s not some mystical super-power the Chosen Few are born with — it’s something that comes easier to some, harder to others, but is accessible to everyone. Nobody is born knowing how a camera works, and similarly, nobody is born knowing how to string a sentence into meaning.

If you’re a modern travel writer (and/or travel blogger, or online publisher in the travel business) . . . one of the soundest investments you can make is to learn how to write better.

And everyone can learn how to write better.

Originally at Travelllll.com (now replaced by Ghost)

Images: 2493visualpanicY’amalJSolomonHitchsterdgj103benjiphig and Lost In The RP.
  • Great piece, very helpful thank you :-)

  • Great advice! I wish the majority of travel bloggers would read this article.

  • There is always room for improvement as long as you desire for it. Your article tells that you’re a good writer yourself:) Keep posting!

  • Thanks for addressing the *whys* that makes a travel piece.. bad. I do find myself guilty with posts that are riddled with cliches and never ending stories… arrgh. No more, no more!

  • Hey Mike, what you basically are saying, is that if you want to write good, read a language style book. I studied journalism and all your advice comes straight of the book. Either by experience, feeling or just plain talent you know this, the majority should make exercises. I have been writing for quite some time and my sister thought it would be easy to copy me. I don’t think of myself as a great writer, but my sister had to find out it really is harder than it looks. So my complementary advice would be: make writing exercises and let someone give you feedback on them. And kill your darlings :-)

  • Playing the contrarian when you see a stereotypical travel article can be a great way to break out of this mold I find…!

  • This post came at just the right time for me. I’ve been struggling with a bad post i was writing, and reading this reminded me of everything I’d learned in your class at TBU but had gradually ceased applying. Thanks for the reminders!

  • This is great advice and also good to see a writer who is refreshingly honest.

    These lists, top 10’s, best of etc are what all the blogging advice sites advocate and the likes of MSN and Yahoo use religiously. They are effective at drawing people in and getting eyes on web pages. I agree with you though, 95% of the time when I read these articles I’m disappointed. And why should anyone tell me “What I MUST know about….”

    Also, you make a very good point, Iain Banks was a fabulous author.

  • Charlie

    Great post with some really valuable advice. Each of these mistakes stem from the same too negative traits: laziness and lack of thinking. I’m far too often guilty of both. This article is a great kick up the arse to focus on quality when writing!

  • Thank you for this great post! A lot of good information and useful tips. It’s good if somebody brings you back on the earth and share what is good what it’s not that good, what to use and what not. Thanks! Keep up the good work.

  • I so agree with you! I will think about all this when I write my travelblog. At least I know I’m good at not taking my self too seriously ;)

  • These are great tips to be mindful of. It’s so easy to fall into cliches and I have to catch myself all the time. On the other hand I have no problem taking myself too seriously, I love sharing me some embarrassing travelers diarrhea stories.

  • Clear and good tips. Thank you for sharing :)

  • Mike — I found myself constantly face-palming while reading this. I’m guilty of all of these. So thanks for the tips. Now, off to do some better writing.

  • This was highly accurate, and also very hilarious (I laughed out loud at “Swedish buffet smorgasbord”. I myself am a guilty victim of the occasional cliche and pop-culture reference, thinking it makes me sound really clever and witty. Not. But seriously speaking though, I do really adore lists – I like writing lists, and I love reading them too – that’s one of the reasons why I love Buzzfeed. And this post also happens to be a great list of 7 ways to ruin travel writing.

    • Yup, absolutely nothing wrong with using lists, or any other method of arranging words online. Its never the medium that’s a problem…

      Ah, that 7 Ways post is a favourite. I wrote it in 2011 for the now-closed Travelllll.com travel blogging website (reposted with permission from its former owner, John, who reflects back on running the site here: http://john.onolan.org/travelllll-post-mortem/). Everyone does these 7 things at some point, myself included. The trick is to avoid doing them all at once. ;)

  • Accidentally writing opinion as preachy-fact is something I’m definitely guilty of. Not on purpose, mind. I have opinions, and often wind up ranting about them, rather than writing objectively. I guess I need to work on that!

    • Thanks, Scout – and I hear you. So easily done. That’s what I tell myself anyway, because I’ve probably done it more than most.

      Being opinionated but fair & accurate is the sweet-spot for quality blogging, and it ain’t easy.

  • Great work! Thank you. There are too many distracting things affecting travel writing…