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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.

Photo: Sami

Example #1

“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.

Example #2

“The lusterless red paint was once coruscating and neoteric.”

Photo: Eralon

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.)

Example #3

“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.

Example #4

“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.

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

Teresa Ponikvar

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.

  • Christine

    I totally agree with number 1, because as a reader I get really bugged when there are too many words from a different language that I have no idea what they mean. How can a person possibly get the point of a piece if they don’t understand what is being said? I feel like throwing in too many non-English words in an English piece is definitely more for the writer than audience.

    And another point that sort of blends 1 and 2, for both travel writing and any other form of writing where you are the “expert” in that field–don’t use your “expert” language. For the same reason that I am in not interested in deciphering an 8-page study written by doctors because it is in their “language”, and people aren’t interested in trying to figure out my holistic health speak, travel writing should be accessible to everyone. So save the big words that only you and your close compadres understand for your discussions over organic, vegan wine and raw cheese (and that’s making fun of myself because that is what I’d be drinking and eating! Oh wait, I don’t eat dairy…).

  • Hal

    “take yourself just a little more lightly than you take anything, or anyone, else—except maybe mimes, and politicians.”

    Love it, and agree completely.

  • Lola

    Great tips Teresa!

    My vocabulary isn’t that big so (hopefully) I can naturally avoid #2 :)

  • Craig

    I’ve noticed myself falling into trap #3 in my home-coming conversations. Luckily we’re back recently enough to be forgiven!

  • Parind

    Excellent post, Teresa. This will help many travel writers.

  • Turner

    “As my rock-hard abs were slowly immersed in the ataractic ofuro, the corpulent man clumsily diving in to my right took me back to my scenic bike ride around Lum Pi waterfall.”

    All in one sentence. I rock.

  • Stephen Hartshorne

    As one who works all week editing stories from travel writers around the world, I’d like to commend you for hitting the nail right on the head.
    It reminds me of the old saying about press trips: “Look around for the (expletive). If you don’t see one, maybe it’s you.”
    My own pet peeve is travel snobs who say, “Last year this was a beautiful unspoiled destination, but this year YOU showed up.”

  • Sarah

    Ha! Brilliant, Teresa. My Comp students in China were all about sprinkling random, huge and supposedly sophisticated-sounding words into the most straightforward sentence:

    “We had picnic in park. The green was shiny luster splenderfulness.”

    I admit, the inventions were pretty great sometimes, but I don’t know how many times I had written in all caps, circled, and underlined on the board, SIMPLE! SIMPLE! In China flowery writing is considered sophisticated, and in English it reads like a paperback romance novel. So we had a lot of work to do.

    I also feel a strong wave of repulsion whenever I see a French word italicized somewhere in the midst of an article. I get these visions of white gloves and horrible, insufferable pretension.

  • Christa

    Oh, that Fearless Flyer/red paint sentence. Fortuitously, I myself am punctilious to the point of oversolicitousness apropos of supererogatory utilization of hypertrophic verbiage. Tks 4 the tip tho! (another topic for another day…) ;D

  • Kate

    So seldom do you find guides to writing amusing. This was a great read with some truly solid tips. Yes!

  • Eva

    Ha! Great tips, Teresa. And they apply to all forms of writing, and civil discourse in general, I think. I was in a history class once where we were talking about the French Revolution, and one girl kept referring to it as “la revolution” in an over-the-top French accent. (The rest of the conversation, of course, was in English.) Eye-rolls all around.

  • Andy

    Absolutely true…and equally hilarious. I must go now, as posting in this forum reminds me of the time I was walking the streets of Nice, France. My brown hair was wet from the humidity and my adidas shoes were looking great.

    Oops sorry.

  • Steve

    Aargh! Certainly been guilty of a couple of those crimes in my time. Great observations which I’ll bear in mind in my future attempts at scribbling.

  • Caitlin

    Great article! I’ve certainly been guilty of some of these, especially #1. Should try to avoid that more often.

    “I nervously planted my small, Chaco-shod foot on the path” – this sentence seriously made me laugh. Although I don’t know if I’d call Chacos “cool clothing.” Those things left embarrassing Z-shaped tan lines on my feet for months.


    This is great information on travel writing. I like Examples # 3 and #4. Sometimes I’m not sure if I ought to go into detail and quite frankly, I don’t think readers would be interested in what I look like…I guess it comes down to what type of article you would like to write…

  • Scott

    Point #2 is interesting. Some of the most celebrated travel writers have used academic language in their works. Does this mean they are jerks or are they allowed to use more academic language because their works are well liked?

  • Eva

    @Scott — I think there is a way to use academic language in a way that fits, that doesn’t sound like the writer is digging through a thesaurus in an effort to over-awe his/her readers. I’m not sure who you have in mind exactly, but if they’re well-known and well-liked I’m willing to bet they’ve mastered the walking of that fine line.

    Besides, all rules are meant to be broken. I think awareness of the rules is key, and breaking them knowingly, though.

  • Colin Wright

    I laughed out loud at a few of these, because I’ve seen them enough to realize that, yes, they are oft-used, and yes, they are obnoxious (and should be avoided). Thanks for drawing attention to something in plain-sight that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise acknowledged!

  • jsk

    Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Rum Diaries” frequently tread upon three and four. Hemingway also had no problem using foreign words in his writing.

    Both were arguably jerks, depending on whose accounts you read. So maybe this article is right – there is a direct way to avoid sounding like a jerk. But… maybe I like the jerks.

    I hate to say it but I like the ego in travel writing because it tells a lot about the lense of the writer. I find a lot of the writing I’m seeing lately dull and solipsistic precisely because it subscribes to an idea that viewpoints can be neutral and we should all aim for a style that communicates effortlessly in narrative requiring no thought or interaction on the part of the reader.

    I’m not saying the article is wrong, I’m offering it up for discussion, which seems to be a declining activity in matador comments lately.

  • David Miller

    @ jsk: i’m in agreement with a lot of what you say. i use foreign words in what i write because i live in a world of constantly speaking 2 languages and there are many readers living bilingually / biculturally as well.

    also, certain things can only be captured this way, for example–la buena onda.

    i’m in agreement as well about big words–if you can get away with them, go for it.

    great writers will always break rules.

  • Larry Bleiberg

    These are great tips, and if you’re trying to sell your writing, ignore them at our own peril.

    The problem is that very few of us are Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson, and ever will be.

    As for big words and foreign phrases, I fall back on this: Never use a quarter word, when a nickel word will do …

  • Teresa Ponikvar

    I think the number one writing rule is: go ahead and break the rules–sometimes that’s the only way to make it work. And there are fantastic writers who do all these things and do them beautifully. But I think that it’s pretty tricky for the average, non-literary-genius writer to pull these things off–which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try if that’s what you’re feeling. Do you really care if I think you sound like a jerk?

  • CanCan (Mom Most Traveled)

    How true, how true!
    Also I hate it when travel writers act so knowledgeable about “the locals”.

  • Bella Stander

    I love this: “Never use a quarter word, when a nickel word will do.” Am going to quote it in next Twitters (w/ link to this article & Larry Bleiberg, natch).

    The best writing advice I ever got, which I quote endlessly: “See how many words you can take out and still have it say the same thing.”

  • brian from

    Keep it simple stupid! That applies to so many things, travel writing included.

  • Ryan

    For the record, I don’t believe these are listed as “rules” at all–simply guidelines. Other rules are simple to break. I for one am a huge fan of choosing whatever form of punctuation I see fit or using the occasional word that might not actually be a word but is completely understood in context.

    It’s a great feeling to write in whatever style is most comfortable for you. That being said, I am still frustrated when I read something that resembles some of the ideas mentioned in this piece. I enjoy being able to take a simple travel article and let my imagination give it life but if the author has made the effort, I do my best to pick up what they’re puttin down.

    However, with beauty being in the eye of the beholder, an article that confuses me or turns me off may actually brighten the day of another reader who eats up every bit of the writer’s story. I think these are great tips but no matter what, so travel stories will have you sounding like a jerk and others will bring you much praise.

  • Vicky

    Haha loved this! I actualy laughed out loud at some points. Great article

  • Jill

    I’ve done every bad thing there is. I’m always grateful when some clear-eyed soul writes a post like this.

    The fear of sounding bad shouldn’t put us off writing, but the absence of that fear is a warning sign that maybe Mr. Arrogance and Ms. Complacency have come to call.

    Thanks for the reminder, and for putting it in such an entertaining way. The light tone makes the medicine easier to swallow.

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