So You Want To Be A Travel Writer?

MikeachimBlogging, Travel, Writing10 Comments

You want to be a travel writer? Oh ‘eck. Well, you asked for this…

Hello! If you’re one of the folk who have contacted me over the last couple of months, asking me how to get started as a travel writer – well, I probably sent you elsewhere. But no longer!

Here’s some advice to get started.

(Oh, and in this article, I’m defining travel blogging as one aspect of travel writing – even though there are plenty of travel bloggers who are known more for their photography or other work than their actual writing. In reality, it’s complicated. Here, I’m pretending it isn’t.)

writing in notebook

1. Who Do You Want To Be?

Start by copying someone.

You want to be a travel writer because some piece of travel writing, or travel-related media, had a profound impact on you. And that’s great! That means someone’s really doing their job. (Send them an e-mail and thank them.)

So, whose boots do you dream of filling? Is it Bill Bryson, Rick Steves, Dervla Murphy, Nomadic Matt, Adventurous Kate, Carmen Sandiego – who?

Here at the beginning it’s smart to try to be someone else, unless you’re taking that sentence literally, in which case, seek help. However – if you spend the next year climbing the rankings until it’s just you and your hero, and it’s ‘last man/woman standing’? Sorry. They’ll win. Sometime soon, you need to learn how to become yourself as well. It’s a requirement if you want to get anywhere.

But for now, I recommend stalking your heroes. (Again, figuratively, please. – Mike’s lawyer) It’ll help you identify your enthusiasms, and it’ll help you survey the existing travel-writing landscape so you have a better feel for what’s not being written.


2. Why Are You Doing This?

Yeah – why?

You know this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme? You know it’s a ton of hard work, whatever path you take? So you must have a good reason, right?

What is it? What do you want to accomplish? What’s going to spell out success for you? Is it financial? Literary? Are you primarily interested in travelling the world, or becoming a better writer or blogger? (ie. if you had to choose between “travel” and “writer”, which would win?) Or do you burn, burn, burn to tell good stories in a way you can’t articulate to your friends without sounding deranged?

You need to define your Why because it’ll point you in a particular direction and help you separate opportunities from time-wasters. Your goals are going to change over time – which is a pretty good argument against setting any – but your direction is massively important, because you can’t do everything, and it would be utterly daft to try (see section 8).

In this case, “everything” is a LOT – because the options for going professional (ie. being paid to do it) have never been more diverse.

(But hell, you may not want to go professional – although I’d still say, chase the money, it’s where your best writing is.)

So – what’s your Why?


3. You Need A Website – And Probably A Blog

Sorry. Non-negotiable. You need other people onboard for this crazy ride.

If you want to be a travel blogger, you should be unsurprised to learn that you need a blog. If you’re writing magazine articles for other people, you need a public portfolio – so far, so obvious. But even if your aim is to sell books, you need a website – and if you’re taking the traditional publishing route, that publisher will want evidence that have already have the attention of a big audience, ideally through an e-mail list. The best way to build that list is with a website, ideally a blog.

Whatever you’re doing with your travel writing, a big, healthy blog with an engaged audience is an incredibly useful asset.


4. Find Your Flavour

Here’s the thing about travel writing these days: it comes in a variety of flavours.

Despite what some people may sniffily argue, one flavour is not innately better than the other.  Travel writing, and travel media in general, isn’t a hierarchy – it’s a shelf, stocked with lots of varieties, and the best examples of each are really great. (For example: think storytelling in travel advertising is soulless and boring? Watch this, from Expedia, without wiping your eyes.)

In the new, multimedia, multi-platform sense, there’s no perfect standard of “travel writing” – the same way there’s no perfect type of spaghetti sauce. If it has an audience, and that audience really cares, it’s doing its job.

(That said, it’s easy to ruin your travel writing – like this – or this.)

However, you can pick the wrong flavour, because you came into this with a specific set of tastes, probably based on how your travel-writing heroes pursued their craft.

Everyone has their own special thing. So if you try creating one type, and end up with a nasty taste in your mouth? Pay attention. Maybe this variety just ain’t for you.

The Shambles, York

5. Become A Better Writer And Photographer

Again, this isn’t optional.

Even if you don’t want to be published anywhere except your blog, you need to hone your writing skills. Darren Rowse’s Problogger is a site all about how to make money with a blog – and he has spent years hammering home the importance of effective writing. Pam is cranky and knows her writing (that’s her above, hunting for cake in York). Seek her out and pick her brains.

If you want to publish photos that don’t ruin all your other efforts, learn the absolute basics, like the Rule Of Thirds, and not posting photos with wonky horizons. If you want to be recognised for the quality of your photography, you should be paying attention to people like Gary Arndt and Ken Kaminesky and the authors of this Instagram account – and not to people like me. (I’m not a good photographer, but I’m trying to get better. *lower lip wobbles*)

Oh, and a word on “effective writing”. That doesn’t mean you use every word in the English language, including all the really really long ones.  It’s not about being clever, in the tedious, going-round-the-houses way. It’s about being clear. Good writing cuts to the chase in a beautiful, elegant way. It delivers meaning in a way that’s understood by the widest number of people – and it lingers in your mind until you’re left changed forever. Which is how you got here, with that special thing that made you want to be a travel writer – right?

So while we’re on that subject…


6. Learn To Tell Great Stories

This is the thing I teach, so I’m biased. Seriously, don’t get me started on this one. I’ll just say this: it’s not the same as “learning to write” – and storytelling isn’t a meaningless buzzword.

And if you want a short introduction to the subject, try this free course.

Or watch this TEDx presentation from Andrew Evans, below. Or read Dan & Audrey. Or…

Okay, I’ll stop now.

7. Learn To Read

Referring back to 1) again – you’re here because someone wrote or did something amazing, and it inspired you to follow their footsteps. So, read all their stuff! And learn how they learned to do that amazing thing. (For example, did you know Bill Bryson spent a number of years working at newspapers on London’s Fleet Street? He’s not just a self-deprecating buffoon – he’s a professional journalist as well.)

But before you go plunder the archives of professional travel writers, read this. It’s the best introduction you’ll ever find.

OK. After you’ve stalked your heroes – start reading widely. Remember Stephen King’s advice: good writers only spend half their time writing, because the other half is about reading. Read the stuff published today. Read the classics, most of which are now free. Read the crap out of everything you can get your hands on.

It’s not just for fun anymore. It’s an essential part of your job.

barcelona door

8. Be More Aware

Good travel writing is about paying attention, so you can find the stories in the details around you – many of which are hidden in full view, because you’re tuning them out.

Here’s a great book that will teach you to see like an explorer.


9. Travel Blogging Is Not The Only Option

I’m amazed I’m even writing this, because it’s a sign of how much things have changed. Ten years ago, a “How To Become A Travel Writer” article could get away with not mentioning blogs at all, perhaps by defining travel blogging as a hobby, not a serious business venture. Now travel blogs are grabbing a lot of the attention, like here in the New York Times.

There are a bazillion ways to run a travel blog. Perhaps the most popular right now is the model promoted by Travel Blog Success, which teaches its students how to build a travel site that uses sponsorships, affiliate links and advertising to make money. The people behind it are smart, and good at what they do. I haven’t gone through TBS and I choose to make money in other ways, so I can’t personally recommend it – but some of its ex-students now run their own high-profile travel blogs with huge readerships. (Also check out this course from Matt Kepnes and David Farley  – again, I haven’t gone through it, but I’ve heard good reports.)

Other writers prefer to keep adverts off their blogs, eschew sponsored content and monetize in different ways…

Check out tips on running a travel blog from:

…and have a read of how travel photographer (and blogger) Brendan van Son makes a living, and how Candace Rose Rardon became a professional travel sketcher.

Now, here’s why it’s important to choose your direction. Ever dreamed of getting your writing into the travel section of the New York Times? Then you need to read this:

The Travel Section will not publish articles that grow out of trips paid for or in any way subsidized by an airline, hotel, tourist board or other organization with an interest, direct or indirect, in the subject of an article.

New York Times submission guide

They’re pretty hardline about this right now. If you run a travel blog and you take sponsored trips, you can’t write for the New York Times. This also applies to sponsored trips you’ve previously taken, within the last few years. That door is closed until a certain amount of time has passed. Other publications aren’t as aggressive, but you’ll see these kinds of restrictions in a lot of newspapers.

(Of course, if you have no interest in being published in newspapers, this will never be a problem to you.)

Now – forget all this. Because in another five years, everything will look different. Maybe even unrecognisable.

Please forgive me, because I’m about to commit one of the seven deadly online sins. I’m about to quote myself.

“I think the first travel [writer] who finds a way to publish his or her work on a platform like Kindle or Nook, using a cleverly marketed micropayment model, perhaps a serialised one, is going to change everything.”

– me, quoted in Lonely Planet’s Guide To Travel Writing (edited by the legendary Don George)

That’s one way it might happen. There are others I barely understand, like using YouTube, the second biggest search engine in the world. There’s Wattpad and Kickstarter and Patreon and Paddle (for selling ebooks directly to readers). There’s a new breed of travel magazines on the rise. There’s all sorts of stuff to try out and maybe somewhere in there is the Next Big Thing In Travel Writing.

As for me, I believe in the incredible power of upper napkin-space.

adventure misery

10. Learn To Deal With Criticism Without Losing Your Mind

Yes, as with all kinds of writing, you should be proud of your best work, confident in your manner, and you absolutely need to get out there and hustle like you’re being paid by the eyeball.

But when you’re assuming you’re so awesome that you can’t take well-meaning criticism without sounding like a jerk? You’re the travel writing equivalent of this guy – and probably finished for good, because travel writing is small and word will get around.

One of the greatest things about writing for established newspapers and magazines is that their editors will tear your writing to shreds. If you take it the right way (and survive the process), you’ll end up a much better writer than you were before.  It’s the fastest way to become a better travel writer. Nothing better (plus, you might get in print!).

Learn from good criticism, ignore bad criticism (ie. malicious gossip & trolling) and glide serenely through these choppy waters.

 Oh, and lastly?

Ignore Posts Like This, Make Your Own Rules, And Experiment Wildly

I’m some guy who grew up reading Bill Bryson and National Geographic. I have a bunch of opinions, I know some stuff, and I’m running my own experiments – but I also have a very limited grasp of the possibilities here. Some things will never change – the need for a good story, for example – but the rest is making my head spin.

If you’re in your twenties or thirties and you’re just getting started as a travel writer, you’re a digital native in a way I will never be. You get stuff I don’t get, you do stuff I’ve never tried, and you can come up with ideas that would never cross my so-called mind.

Your biggest asset to you, as a writer, a creative artist or a business-person of any kind, is your imagination. So dream up something none of us have ever thought of before, and go do it.

Show us how it’s really done. We dare you.

ps. If you’re an experienced travel writer – what have I missed? Let me know!

All photos: Mike Sowden. Disclaimer: I totally linked to a bunch of friends in this post, but they’re really good at what they do. (Don’t tell them, I’ll bloody well never hear the end of it.)

  • judy garrison

    Yeah. Totally nailed it. And, by the way, it’s hard. Ignore the people who say it’s easy and you can make a ton of money. And if you find someone who will share the true scoop, respect them more. I started late in my life; in fact, I’m still a virgin travel writer. However, I’m getting damn good and lovin’ every minute of it! in case you’re interested. Thanks again, and happy travels.

  • Yup, agreed, so you want to be a travel writer should really = so you want to be a writer. The travel part is easy. It’s the writing that’s a bugger. I had my own take on this, but glad to see we agree on most nearly everything!

  • ralphcarlson

    As an inexperienced travel writier who’s good at planning and research and inept about doing, it seems you’ve covered all the bases. I just read Stephen King on writing (one of my take along books from our trip to Portugal last month) and understand that writing is not just something you do when you feel like it. What do you suggest to get around the overwhelm of what I don’t know enough about and get into a routine of writing and learning?

    • I’m deeply late at replying to this, Ralph – but in the hope you see this: I hear you, because I get overwhelmed all the time (the internet is an endless parade of shiny things to think about, plus, there are many people out there who are very good at making things that grab your attention). Most times, I have two related solutions to this:

      1) I have to get off the internet. I open up a notebook, the paper kind, and start making lists to organise my thoughts – or I go for a walk or sit in a cafe, eavesdropping on interesting conversations, and allow my brain to organise itself. I cannot get those thoughts organised when I’m online. The internet is too distracting and thought-jumbling. And I can’t learn if my brain is jumping around. Learning is about staying with a thought and chasing it as far as it goes.

      2) I read a book about someone else organising their passions into a creative project. Books are linear, you can’t click out of them and get lost down a tangential rabbit-hole. You can skip between chapters, but it’s all the same book, the same progression from beginning to end between two covers. That helps me focus – a lot. And if the topic of the book is the topic you’re trying to focus on, it makes things a lot easier. That’s when I start to see the overall shape of things to come, can see some of the edges of the work I want to do, and can start sketching out a map to get there.

      When do you feel at your most focused? Is there anywhere you find you can just read and read or think and think without your brain jumping around?

  • Linzi Clark

    Some great tips here particularly about accepting criticism from national newspapers – not always easy to take but a great way to improve.

  • Anil Gurung

    Nice tips. I suppose ‘making your own rules’ might actually be as important a pointer as any, or else we wouldn’t have much diversity in travel writers.

  • Go-Eat-Do

    Thanks for these tips. Writers definitely need to find their own voice too. Looking forward to returning to your site.

  • Andy Merrett

    I’m a bit concerned how sharing the guy’s response in #10 sits alongside “not gossiping”. Of course word gets around when people who seemingly didn’t even read or review the book — a book which isn’t even in the same genre — get involved because it makes for some kind of titillating example.

    • Yep, that’s a fair comment. Thanks, Andy.

      I chose that example because I saw it melting down at the time, and while there were people attacking him who hadn’t read his book, the way he responded was so breathtakingly arrogant and self-righteous that it became the topic of discussion, instead of the merits of his book – and that’s why I linked to that Goodreads thread (now deleted by the author, but archived behind that link).

      I think having your work unfairly criticized is part of the job, and it can’t be ducked. It can be infuriating when people haven’t actually read what they’re attacking – but in a way, that’s the real test, when you as an author *know* your reader is being unreasonable. This is something I haven’t encountered yet, since I’m currently unpublished in book form (changing this year) but I gather it happens to everyone. How you respond to that defines your professionalism – and responding to it that badly, to both the well-meaning and the unreasonable criticism, I think that’s a skill we all need to learn to be able to keep putting our work online without losing our minds. ;)

      So I included the link not as a “ha, look at this fool” kind of snipe, and not as a statement about the quality of his work, but as a reference-point on how not to respond to people on the internet if you want to keep your reputation in one piece.