HERE AT MATADOR, we know that travel—and travelers—rock. But how can you write about your amazing adventures—and your amazing self—without sounding like a showoff? Here are some traps we can fall into as writers, and how to avoid them.
“The last time I was in Trondheim, or Trondhjem, as the locals call it in the Trondsk dialekt, or Trondheim dialect, I made sure to ta en tur to one of the beautiful stavkirker, or stave churches, for which the region is deservedly kjennt.”
So you’re bilingual. Trilingual. Omnilingual! That’s great, and will certainly enrich your travels and your travel writing. But as tempting as it is—and as natural as it may feel when you’ve been living in another language for a while—try to resist the urge to use excessive numbers of non-English words in your English writing.
Unless you’re experimenting with a new bilingual style (an admirable pursuit, if a tricky one to pull off) or you’re certain that all your readers share your knowledge of Norweigen or Quechua, use only words that genuinely have no English equivalent, words whose meanings are obvious from context, or obvious cognates—and even then with a light hand. You want to add a little local color to your writing, not give a demonstration of your perfect command of Italian to all your amici, or friends.
“The lusterless red paint was once coruscating and neoteric.”
We’re writers, at least in part, because we like words—and there are a lot of them out there.
Sure, it’s more fun to say “coruscating and neoteric” than to say “new and shiny,” but the simple truth is that it makes you sound like a pretentious jerk at best, and a loser with a thesaurus at worst. Keep the unnecessarily fancy words to a minimum unless you’re writing an academic treatise.
And if you simply can’t resist using “coruscate” or “perspicacious”, consider putting those five-dollar words in unexpected contexts. The gold trim in a cathedral can coruscate, but what about that abandoned Coke can on the side of the road? A perspicacious professor is a yawn, but how about a perspicacious three-year-old? Or better yet, a perspicacious dog? (There’s really no excuse for “neoteric”, though.)
“As the plane skimmed over the jungles of New Guinea, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the small Nicaraguan village where I worked with the local coffee co-op for two years in the early 1990s.”
You’ve traveled to so many incredible places, that it feels natural to start most conversations with “When I was in [insert exotic locale here]…” Well, you’ve learned a lot from your travels, and you’ve got all kinds of stories. But in your writing, focus on the subject at hand.
If you’re writing about New Guinea, write about New Guinea. Even if you genuinely were reminded of Nicaragua while you were there, it’s difficult to mention that without sounding like a showoff—and for your readers who haven’t been there, the comparison won’t be especially illuminating, anyway.
“I flipped my long blonde hair over my tan shoulder and looked up at the mountain. I nervously planted my small, Chaco-shod foot on the path.”
You readers might well be curious about what you look like. But let them Google you if they really want to know. If you describe your physical attributes and cool clothing too often, not only do you rob your readers of the chance to imagine you, but you sound hung up on yourself, and not the experience you’re describing.
That said, there are some instances in which some aspect of your appearance or physique may well be relevant to the story—your blonde hair in a remote Chinese village, perhaps. Go ahead and describe it, but be brief and avoid sounding self-congratulatory. If you can laugh at yourself a bit, even better.
Actually, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb for sounding like someone your readers will trust and like: take yourself just a little more lightly than you take anything, or anyone, else—except maybe mimes, and politicians.
*The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance leads for paid travel writing, travel jobs, and press trips, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.
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Teresa Ponikvar is a former Matador editor, a current reluctant English teacher, and a future mini-farmer. She lives in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, with her husband, young son, and assorted animals and arthropods. She blogs here.
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