Why I’m Giving Away My Story Course For Free*

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

Fancy a scholarship in travel storytelling, including entry to a $160 course, all for free? Read on.

Sometime around 2011, in the midst of my attempts to make a sorta-maybe-kinda career as a travel writer, I blundered across a website called Nieman Storyboard. It’s an offshoot of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and it’s about something called literary journalism.

My initial reaction at the time was “wow, now that‘s a super pretentious sounding made-up name for something that’s not an actual thing!”

Also, wasn’t it meaningless? Because isn’t all journalism literature, like everything else involving words that you can read?

But for some reason (maybe desperation, as my writing really wasn’t selling at that point) I kept reading – and my own ignorance became clear.

There was a big difference between “journalism” and “literature”, a big one – but professional writers had been winning Pulitzers by combining the two since the ’60s, back when my existence as a human being was measured in minus-figures.

Journalism is – well, you know what journalism is. It’s about writing in newspapers, writing news stories, current affairs. It’s reporting.

Literature is about made-up things (although not always), and characters, and plot arcs, and happy endings (those things that seem to be a bit thin on the ground in journalism). And above all, it was about stories.

Literature was that thing journalists read to unwind after a brutally long and hard day of reporting.

Honestly, these stock photos are ridiculous. Look at that typewriter – you’d get tetanus if you tried to write anything. I like the notebook, but that camera looks like it was recovered from Chernobyl. And what the hell are those letter-block things, bottom-left? Massive cry for help.

So, at some point in the 1960s, some bright spark working in journalism thought “hey, if I write this news story like a story, as if I’m Charles Dickens or something (LOL), and send it to my editor, will I get fired? Let’s find out!”

Their editor was a bit confused, but ran it anyway. The article did unusually well, and later won a big prize awarded to things that sell lots of newspapers – and then later, another prize awarded to things that were unusually well-written.

The same thing winning both prizes was really weird. And exciting.

So at this point the editor really started to pay attention – and thus, literary journalism was born.

In a nutshell, literary journalism is where you steal techniques from the kind of storytelling that’s been popular for thousands of years, and plug them into the factual reporting that fuels our thirst for The News today, to make it more engaging, memorable and emotionally effecting to read.

Then I thought – Wait. Isn’t that like the difference between travel writing and, well, “travel writing“?

Two ways to interpret this stock photo from Unsplash.com: (1) “Life is about leaping into the water and shrieking because it’s cold but doing it anyway, something something inspiration”, and (2) “this photographer is overly obsessed with their own crotch.” I’ll let you pick.

Online travel journalism is mainly non-fiction, information-heavy content that relies on a number of established formats. There are the How To guides. There are the top 10 listicles. There are the Day In A Destination guides. And so on.

If you grew up reading travel writers like Bill Bryson, Dervla Murphy, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Freya Stark and the like, it’s easy to think that travel journalism is nothing to do with your kind of “travel writing”. It’s easy to wrinkle your nose and curl your lip.

And in doing so, you can entirely miss the point that literary journalism is trying to make.

Any piece of travel journalism can be immensely improved, maybe even transformed, by the intelligent application of the best storytelling techniques that have made travel writing a popular form of entertainment for hundreds of years.

Take this piece by Tim Cahill, about the time he nearly drowned. It’s “How To Not Drown In The Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls” – and yet it absolutely isn’t.

Or maybe take this article by Leon McCarron, about enjoying mindfulness in the wild. It’s “How To Be Mindful In The Wild” – except it’s really a short arthouse film made of words, or perhaps something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s amazing.

But in travel, none of this is called “literary journalism”.

It’s just called “wow, this is so good, I love it”, often followed by “it’s a damn shame nobody does narrative anymore. Oh well.”

This biblical display of sunlight was taken from the window of a cabin in the mountains of northern Portugal. I was just recovering from gastroenteritis and as I brought my phone up to take this pic, I realised my hand smelled of poop. The lesson: some stories add exactly nothing to your photos and should be omitted entirely.

So, that felt like a thing I wanted to get noisy about.

I started running a story consultancy business to help travel journos and bloggers weave a bit more story into their non-fiction work.

Then I made a course around the whole thing, aimed mainly at bloggers, which I’ll be relaunching at the end of the year (it’s currently unavailable).

Now, with the help of my friends at Hecktic Media, I’m helping open a fully paid storytelling scholarship, for seven people, with all applications judged by three people who really get how to tell a story that matters.

Once training (via my story course) is complete for the winning applicants, we’re going to see what weird and wonderful experiments we might run, to maybe shake up online travel writing just a little, just to see what could happen…

* Free to you, that is. Full dislosure: Hecktic Media have paid me for my services so you don’t have to. There are just seven places available this time round – and you need to apply by the end of Friday, October 12th (which is tomorrow, at the time of writing, so you’d need to get your skates on).

Up for it?

Click here to find out more and apply.

(Or if you know someone who would be a great fit, I’d love it if you could forward this post to them. Ta.)


– Mike

Further Reading:

  • Brenna Holeman‘s travel blog is a favourite of mine because it’s the right kind of opinionated and always from the heart. This “how to become a travel blogger” post starts by ignoring the usual stuff about hosting packages and branding and whatnot, and focuses on far more useful advice for complete beginners like “just do whatever the hell you want” and “make it fun” – and here’s a piece of advice that’s all you need for your first few years online: “Play. Experiment. Figure out what you love to do and then learn how to do it really well.”
  • Jodi Ettenberg (one of the judges for Share Better Stories) has a terrific roundup of story-crafting material here, including this bang-on line: “Use the platform you have from the informational posts that bring in SEO traffic or pageviews and then hook them with interesting, unique stories that you alone are capable of telling.”
  • Professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys has a ton of good advice here about telling the story of your travels in a vivid, practical, social-media-friendly way.
  • My own storytelling resources page is in need of a good update, but it still points to a lot of useful stuff out there on the interwebs.

Images: Unsplash.com and Mike Sowden