Why I Love Your Travel Writing

MikeachimThe Everyday64 Comments

travel pens

Oh, I love the way you write.

Seriously. Such a thrill. I’ve read a lot of travel writing (and a lot of “How To” travel writing) online and offline — and it’s such a relief to read someone who truly gets it. I love your stuff.

Here are three reasons why.

1. You’re Subjective

A really good way to sound an idiot is to define what travel writing isn’t – but in this case I’m going to risk it. Good travel writing is not just a string of facts. It’s never, ever that. Never mind the shaky foundations of the whole concept of “facts” when applied to human affairs – no, the point is that facts are not the reason why people read travel-writing. I don’t read your stuff to find out things I could discover myself with a little creative Googling. Anyone can list facts about a place. And this is the problem – too many do.

Not you, though. You know that facts are an ingredient, not a recipe. This is because your writing is smart enough to put aside silly notions of objectivity, of pretending what you’re writing is inalienable truth – a truth built with facts. You’re wise enough to know the truth of a place is always a matter of who you are and where you are. It’s negotiated, thrashed out, agonised over, and rarely survives contact with another person’s mind.  And hey, you also know that people who draw a line between “subjective” and “journalistic” are being really daft – as if journalists aren’t people.

Put slightly differently: facts do not convey an experience.

Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands to the north of Scotland, it covers roughly 200 square miles and its administrative capital is Kirkwall, which is nothing to do with the one in Dragon Age 2. It is windy.

This isn’t your kind of travel writing, the kind I love. It’s too….factual, you know? Blahdy-blah, yadda-de-yadda, plod plod and then we’re done. So come on. How did it make you feel? How big was the sky? Was it so deliciously quiet that after a while you started to hear all your demons and all the pressing worries in your life, and you went a little nuts? (Hey, me too).

What did the haunting tone of the horn of the evening ferry from the Northern Isles do to your breathing? Are the flies really that bloodthirsty?

Come on. Let me in here.

2. You Sound Like You

Sometimes we meet people and we blink, because we were expecting…well, someone different somehow. Their voice is all wrong. The words, the cadence, the way they string sentences. Is this the same person?

Others, they sound just like their writing.

In most cases, I don’t reckon the latter comes naturally. It’s the end result of a long and difficult process of unlearning to write. See, we’re taught all these rules, and all these grown-up hats to wear, and after a while we have these different ways of behaving. There’s Hi There, Welcome To [Mike’s Day-job Workplace], Can I Help? and there‘s Hai! My name’s Mike. I can fit 4 Snickers bars in my mouth without passing out – wanna see?

(Incidentally, I recommend meeting me for the first time while I’m at work. I hope it’s fairly obvious why).

We have Formal Us, and we have Relaxed Us. It’s unavoidable and necessary, but it’s also a way our true writing voice, the one filled with charm and character and irreverent, childlike curiosity, gets muffled. We start doing a really bad impression of ourselves.

Not you, though. Your writing is always true to the way you think. It’s wry where you’re wry, morbidly reflective where you’re morbidly reflective, as tenacious and contrary as you are in all three messy dimensions. It sounds like you. It is you. And I know that’s the scariest thing for a writer – to write as yourself, and to let the world see it. I know how much it costs you – but I also know how fulfilling it is.

(I hope I can be that brave, someday).

3. You Write Stories

I remember looking through one of your notebooks. What really struck me, apart from how dreadful your handwriting was? It was just notes. You don’t write stories, you write notes. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t seen it. Because your writing always suggests you wrote down everything at the time, in sequence, starting with Once Upon A Time and finishing with The End.

And that was when I realised you do exactly what everyone else does (only better). Travel writing is storytelling. It’s not a string of events that writes itself. It is cherry-picked experiences structured in a way that emphasizes particular characters, events and themes. It’s a story.

(I’m not suggesting you make things up. Although I bet you do. You know, just at the edges).

But I just love that. It’s such a relief. Travel writing is storytelling. I know that now.

And I love stories.

Thank you.


Further Reading

Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – Don George (ed.)


Images: Mike Sowden and retro traveler.
  • I’m happy to hear you’re such a fan of my writing. ;)

    You hit the nail on the head here; everyone likes a good story, and travel writing is no different.

    • Mikeachim

      Besotted with it, I am. ;)

      Stories matter. It confuses me when people argue otherwise. They’re like why lists have become popular online – as very quick, very easy ways to get things into the heads of other people. Except with stories, the process is much more powerful. Lists get crossed off. Stories stay with us forever.

      • Top 10 lists are NOT the height of travel writing?? Blasphamer!!

  • Sharon Miro

    And the oscar goes to…. good piece, nailing what good writing of any kind is…

    • Mikeachim

      Thank’ee.

      And…I’d tend to agree with you. I reckon all writing needs some kind of story running through it, to engage the reader. Even if that story is “insert flange A into recess B”.

      (Pls note I’m talking about assembly instructions here, not, ah, ‘marital assistance guides’. Thx).

  • This was a great post for me to come across today. I’m just starting out with my blog and seem to be struggling a lot lately with where it should be going and how I should be writing. I like the storytelling aspect of blogging and will keep working to improve on that. Thanks!

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks for popping by, David…

      What kind of blogging would you find the most fun? Travel narrative? ‘How To’ stuff? All/none of the above? Fun is the biggie, for me. It has to be fun for me to stick with it. (I’m lazy like that).

  • Andrea

    Really enjoyed this…makes me want to be a better writer.

    • Mikeachim

      I’ve never wanted anything else. ;)

      Thanks for the kind words…

  • Great points to always keep in mind while travel writing! Looking back, I was too factual when i first started out, it’s interesting to see how my writing has evolved. Thanks for the great read!

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Christine.

      (Love the column layout on your site, by the way. Very fun).

      Do you find yourself speaking your mind more, having grown more comfortable with your writing? I find myself ranting more than I used to – not angrily (well, hopefully not), but definitely more forcibly.

      (Evolving writing equates with more opinions? Well, maybe that’s a generalisation too far…)

  • Liv

    Thanks for reminding us writers to be ourselves Mike. It’s one of the hardest things to be confident enough to do isn’t it? Too easy to wonder ‘will people like me?’ when there are days I don’t even like me! I blame my occasional bouts of ‘stiff’ writing on trying to balance professionalism against readability. I strive to make readability more frequently the winner!

    • Mikeachim

      Readability wins every time, definitely. The only test of writing is to be read and understood. I reckon it’s always worth taking a few professional risks to make that happen. :)

  • I’ve got some Snickers bars. When can you come over?

    • Mikeachim

      Okay, disclaimer.

      I mean Party Pack sized. You know, the little ones.

      And so please note, when a lie is for the sake of Art, it isn’t a lie. So I totally didn’t lie there. I was being Artistic.

      I mean come on. Four normal Snickers bars, sideways in my mouth, at the same time? *FOUR*? What am I, Mick Jagger? Am I a python, able to unhinge my jaws? I am none of these things, and will not risk a truly freakish death.

      I will however accept your Snickers bars. In the conventional one-at-a-time, end-on kind of way. Thx.

  • What a refreshing post. Finally travel tips that are not focused on the negative parts! Thanks for writing this. Truly interesting.

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks!

      And oh, I’m all for negativity. As long as it’s the constructive, positive kind, of course…

  • Couldn’t agree with this post anymore, I want to clap!!! When I read posts that are just Top 10 lists I think you are sooo not a travel writer. Anyone can make lists, but telling an engaging story is another thing all together.

    • Mikeachim

      I’m not sure I’ve ever had a round of applause for something I’ve blogged before. This could set a new standard of Totally Going To My Head.

      Lists. Oh, don’t get me started on lists… ;)

  • Great title, first off. And then fantastic post FTW. Things I’ve been struggling with of late in your words. Nicely put and bravo!

    • Mikeachim

      Struggling is the key. I raise an eyebrow at people who don’t struggle…

      (Thanks for your kind words).

  • One of your best pieces, I was clinging to every word.

    • Mikeachim

      Thank you, Ayngelina. :)

      Although…some of my words are slippery, and others are a bit loose. Be careful you don’t fall.

  • Sweeeeeeet.

    • Mikeachim

      *gives a sweet to Candice* There you go.

      Sheesh. Some people are just demanding. “Gimme this”, “gimme that”…

  • Interesting post. I wondered at first if you were being sarcastic and taking the mickey out of travel blogs that were more personal than travel :P Guess not.

    I suppose it all depends on why you read a person’s blog. I sometimes find the facts fascinating, if they coincide with what I’m interested in and I’m not being bombarded with too many of them. My feed reader is a mixture of blogs that tell me about a place and some that tell me about someone’s experience in that place. So we really need both kinds of writers :)

    • Mikeachim

      Me? Sarcastic? Never. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s humour.

      *very straight face*

      Agreed, we need the more factual, functional-based posts. But that doesn’t mean they need to be dry and flat and standoffish and impersonal. I’d much rather get the information I need *and* enjoy what I’m reading (and if a piece is written in a fun, engaging way, the content sinks deeper into your mind).

      And I’d never draw a line between a post telling me about a place and a post telling me about someone’s experience of a place. They’re the same.
      (Discuss?) ;)

  • Thanks a lot! To be fair, I love your writing too (Seriously!) ;)

    • Mikeachim

      I thank you. Seriously. :)

  • I love this post. I love good stories too… Good travel stories are somewhat rare though.

    • Mikeachim

      Cheers!

      >>”Good travel stories are somewhat rare though.”

      Do you mean online? I’d certainly say narrative travel-writing is harder to find than the How To kinds of stuff. But if you’re more specific in where you look, eg. places like World Hum and Travel Intelligence, there’s plenty to read…

      I reckon a part of the seeming difference between online and offline travel literature is that offline, it’s more clearly divided. Guidebooks are clearly guidebooks, for example – they (usually) have their own shelf. Narrative travel-writing is usually clumped together at one corner of the bookstore, or on a page at Amazon, etc.

      But online, it all gets blurry. Websites pick & mix in the hope of finding the right formula to get the biggest audience. They have the freedom to shift between categories – between shelves, if you like. And hardly anyone writes purely narrative travel-writing online. So at first glance, it looks like good storytelling is rare. But I reckon…ain’t so. We’re all doing it. :)

  • Really enjoyed reading this.

    • Mikeachim

      Ta.

  • I have just begun telling my story. It is really important that you mentioned that travel writing is storytelling. I love how one can embrace their 5 senses in each article; you really capture the true moment and you feel what the reader went through. Plus, stories like this are really interesting and it makes me want to read more from this author. I have found a few traveling blogs and I can honestly say that I am hooked – mainly the reason because I can feel like I am there. After all, if I cannot truly be there in that moment in time, least I can imagine it clearly! Kudos to you for an awesome post!

    • Mikeachim

      Good point – the more of the author that’s in a story, the more the reader is (usually) intrigued by the person behind the words. (Even if they’re annoying. In fact, particularly if they’re annoying).

      That makes some writers very twitchy because it’s a whole other level of intimacy – not just the thoughts but the actual physical presence and identity of the writer, there on display. In short, even if in a very mild way, celebrity status. And looking at the boom in celeb-oriented culture is a clear indicator of the pulling-power of personality.

      Stories should have a main character, after all.

      But I can definitely understand why some people hate to come out from behind their words.

  • Di

    Oh my … that was beautiful.
    Thank you.

    • Mikeachim

      Kind of you to say, Di. Thank you.

  • Richard P

    Ahhh Mike….

    I am writing my Personal Essay (describe a significant experience etc. etc.) for my masters application right now, and you have just reminded me of the reasons why it sucks….

    second draft… here I come!

    (Maybe I should write about the time I met a certain travel writer on an excavation on a small Northern Island?)

    • Mikeachim

      They’d never believe you. “We didn’t ask for a piece of fiction!” etc.

      Speaking of all things Orcadian….this tickled me:

      http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Kirkwall

      Yes, Bioware loves Orkney too.

      • Richard P

        Genius!

  • I stop reading this post when I realized there wasn’t a list. Or bullet points. Seriously…. get with the game already.

    • Mikeachim

      I may have written an essay, but I was thinking of it as a list, a *Top Ten* list, the whole time.

      1. Sorry.

      2. It won’t happen again.

      3. (see 1 and 2).

      4. There is no 4. Only 10. 10 is our shepherd, and He maketh us bleat. etc.

      5. Is half of 10.

      etc.

  • paula

    Ditto on all the raves about the article but where did those Bic pens come from?? I want some!

    • Mikeachim

      Nice, aren’t they? My thoughts exactly. But alas, I’ve no idea, that photo is lifted (with appropriate credits etc) from Flickr…

  • As always, a unique twist on an oft-discussed subject that really got the point across. I’m sure you know that I hand-pick the best narrative travel writing on the Internet and feature one per day on my Facebook Page; this one has to be one of the best, even though it’s not “technically” a travel article. But the next time I have to explain to someone why their writing isn’t good enough to be featured, I’m going to just point them to your article.

    • Well, um, I’m a bit late in saying it, but thanks, Barbara!

      Since this post is getting a bit more traffic than expected, I’m coming back in and adding a “Further Reading” section, pointing to books and articles that have helped me get my travel stories straight. In a way, your comment is a good reminder than I should have done this in the first place. So thanks. :)

  • I dig this a lot! Great job. Like Michael H., I almost stopped reading this too. I mean seriously no bullet points? However, I decided to push on, and I am glad I did.

  • Well, sure, you SAY you love my travel writing, but have you ever sent me a package of Bic pens with the world on them?

    By the way, Barbara Weibel (Hole in the Donut) is doing a series of her personal picks for good travel narratives on her Facebook page. You’ll find lots of things to love there.

  • I am dictating this comment while I have four Snicker bars in my mouth. I can assure you that if this comment sounds rubbish it is purely down to the speech to text conversion program. You will note from my other comments on your site that I always dictate my comments with four Snickers bars in my mouth.
    Once upon a time a blogger visited Orkney and wrote about his experience of bloodsucking flies and how his breathing quickened when he heard the horn of the ferry approaching. Salvation!
    He had read a truly magnificent piece of travel writing, saw Kirkwall mentioned and booked the ferry the next morning. Apart from blogging, he had spent thousands of hours playing Dragon Age II. He occasionally liked to travel. He had been so disappointed when he saw Kirkwall that he cried. He wept even more when his tent blew away in the night. At least if the ferry could dock he escape back to the UK mainland on a pitching and rolling ship that smelt of oil and fresh vomit.

  • Jim

    Love this Mike. I like reading of other’s actual experiences, their real take on a place or happening, a story, and like you if I need bare facts, I can google for them.
    So I’m learning a lot since I started blogging a year ago.
    I set out to chronicle or travel stories of the past 40 years so my descendants can read them. I’d like to know about my father’s and my grandfather’s experiences, but they’re all gone. Today our generation has a facility most take for granted, we can record every minute of our day, if we wanted to.
    And the other reason I blog, is to use our travel experiences to highlight some issues I feel important, wildlife conservation and social issues.
    So keep on blogging everyone, and tell your stories too.

  • I think I’ve slowly come to this realization after 6 months of blogging. I’m still working on finding my voice though, I think. Great post, Mike!

  • Amen, preaching to the choir, while I don’t think I am the best writer in the world, telling your story is important. Frankly, I love good travel stories (and for me travel with kids is a bonus) and there are not too many out there. Great post!

  • Never mind round of applause, I just gave this post a standing ovation *seriously*!

    Great stuff Mike. Love it when you can hear a writers voice in their writing, sometimes have to remind mine to be less cockney geezer for the sake of the international audience though :)

  • very well written..I am learning a lot…

  • Mike, you’ve won me over. I’m hooked, and have spent the last 2 hours scouring through your site. My fav part of this post?

    “Sometimes we meet people and we blink, because we were expectingâ�¦well, someone different somehow. Their voice is all wrong. The words, the cadence, the way they string sentences. Is this the same person?

    Others, they sound just like their writing.

    In most cases, I donâ��t reckon the latter comes naturally.”

    I totally agree and I believe we all sound different from our writing. Love your sense of humour. Way to go Mike!

  • Abi

    Hmmm…Feeling slightly nervous now that I’ve read this. After all, I DID just meet you…Gulp!

  • Make your life a story to tell is our motto. So we try to get our stories of travel across.

    i may not be the best descriptive writer but I am good at using my voice and putting my own personal angle on a story. I know that when people meet us they get exactly who we represent on our blog. Voice is everything, this is how people most connect with you.

    We sometimes put the factual pieces on our blog as we know there are people out there wanting and researching for this information. Our blog is not just about us and our stories but it is also about sharing all we have learned in 14 years of travel to help others do the same. I think this is a different style of travel writing- the informative style- which carries its own purpose and weight. And everything in life needs to be evaluated in accordance with this.

  • Very nice take on the what makes great travel writing. Story telling is a must as is letting out personalities shine through.

  • Why sir, thanks for enjoying my writing! :) Actually you said lots of points that I love about travel writing. I know informative ad destination oriented posts are good for monetizing and SEO but I am not very appealing for them. If I liked destination post, that would be very subjective post.
    Travel writing, especially travel blog is about intimate travel stores, I think. And I’m trying to be.
    Thanks for great post Mike!

  • love this – travel is ALL about experiences. but not many writers remember that! one of my very favorite travel writers is joel carillet. i will read ANYTHING by him – because he makes me feel as if i am right there with him!

  • I just happened across this post while browsing your site, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. It is took easy to fall into fact-sharing travel agent mode when writing. The reason I started my blog is to record memories I have of my vacations, and to document this upcoming trip I’m taking to Europe with my mom.

    When I get a little too factual, I do a writing dump. I type whatever comes to my mind – whatever sticks out about an experience. Luckily I can type fast enough to mostly keep up with my thoughts, but if I need to slow down my thoughts so my fingers can keep up, I find a glass or two of wine helps get the creative juices flowing :)

  • Great post! You hit the nail. Travel is all about experience. And I do try to write my stories that way.

    But a question here. Many writers are asked to write “how to reach, what to do” articles, at least a para on each of these besides the main story. How to deal with that?

    P.S.- Do read my latest story. :)

  • I love this post – I do every time I read it. Then I slink off in guilt and try to bury my “10 Things to See in Touristlandia” deep in the bowels of my blog, where no Search Engine has gone before.

    It’s always healthy to be reminded that blogging and writing have little to do with journalism, which is what I know. After a lifetime of chasing ‘facts’ I find it gut-grabbingly difficult to inject that “opinion” thing into a piece. I swear I can still feel old Clarie Pottie’s cigar breath on my neck after all these years, his ash dropping on my typewriter as he scares me to death: “I want FACTS FACTS FACTS! Who cares what YOU think?”

    But I’m getting over it. I’m working on opinion. And voice. And stories. And the good thing about stories is they don’t end until you want them to.