Start Your Travel Writing With A Bang

by Ian MacKenzie Oct 31, 2006

What’s the difference between a boring travel journal and a killer one? Usually, you can tell within the first few sentences.

Consider the following:

“So we arrived early in the morning in Cusco with about three days to acclimatize prior to our five day trek to Machu Picchu. The airport is pretty small with the typical assortment of travel agents, tour operators and taxi drivers all vying for your attention.

We got our bags (lucky for me, often mine seem to go MIA) and managed to find a taxi driver who didn’t look to intimidating and who actually spoke English somewhat and headed into Cusco, only about a 10-15 minute drive.”

Granted, it’s grammatically correct and flows at a even pace. You learn how the travelers arrived in the airport, how they got their bags and hailed a taxi, then headed on their way.

Does it provide the basic information about the writer’s experience? Yes. Does it reach out and grab you by the throat, pique your curiosity and compel you to read further? Hardly.

Pam in How To Make Me Read Your Travel Blog explains why:

“Reading itineraries is really boring, unless they’re mine. I skip right over blogs that list where the writer went without telling me anything about happened there. These things get hidden in entries – first we went to the Museum, then the park, then we took the subway back to the old part of the city…. Meh. Doesn’t tell me anything.”

Itineraries are the notes you create for yourself to either plan where you’re going or to remember where you came from. They are useful. But they are extremely boring to read, even if you’re family and friends won’t tell you.

Many travel blog writers can get by with their photographs to supplement their bland prose. That is fine, especially if you’re simply writing for yourself and don’t care about crafting gripping dispatches for any sort of audience.

But for the rest of the amateur travel writers looking to improve, there are a number of techniques you can use to pull your readers in and banish the bland to the digital trash bin.

1. Share a touching anecdote

Instead of talking about the initial flight itself (or ferry, train ride, etc) , share your experience of being on the flight with your companions, or even memories of past/similar situations.

“Every time I take a long flight with my father, he always says the same thing. When daylight retreats, he pokes my arm and says: “We’re chasing the sun kid!” Yes. A dad joke. And I’m not going to catch the light on this three hour flight back to Beijing, but it makes me smile just the same.” (from 1 More Wong In China)

2. Fanatically describe your setting

Often it’s the details that make the difference. Open your travel dispatch with a description of a particular location you discovered on your trip, and how it made you feel, both physically and emotionally. Who cares how you got their initially? Those details can come later, if at all.

“Sitting silently in the temple I am lifted to a higher consciousness, floating somewhere above western state of mind. Yellow light shimmers hypnotically off the black still water of the holy pool where the leper was healed 1000 years before.

Echoes of soft Punjabi scripture and the soothing hum of pilgrim’s mantras lift me away from myself into a religious fog. The warm Indian night wraps me in a silky cocoon absolving all thought and anxiety from my mind. Peace and bliss resonate.” (from Eager Bros)

3. Use interesting dialogue

Whenever I was stuck with a blank computer screen or pad of paper, I tried to remember specific conversations I had throughout the past few days.

Whether it was the words of a particularly charismatic street vendor, or the indignant declarations of my companions, chances are you can recall a gem that lends itself to a strong opening.

“Never again,” are Karen’s words as we step out of the mini-bus into the main street of the tiny backpackers town of Vang Viang. The driver, smiling jovially, climbs onto the vehicle’s roof and hands us our bags. “Really?” I ask. “I didn’t think the ride was that bad.”

Five hours earlier we’d set out from Louang Prabang, the mini-bus precariously hugging the high mountain curves that wound through village after modest village, dodging cyclists, large-eyed children, and the occasional farmer busy thrashing stalks of some plant against the pot-holed pavement.” (from Cheating Death in Vang Viang)

So there you have it, three techniques to invigorate your travel journal openings right now.

Again, I want to differentiate between those travelers who are interested in simply jotting down where they went, and those travel writers who are eager to develop their craft.

The opening of your travel dispatches is the most important place to entice the reader to stay a while longer, to accompany you along your journey, and to ultimately share in your experience.

The trick is to forgo the general in favour of the details. Open with an anecdote, a provocative setting, or a memorable conversation, and watch your readers stick with you until the end.

Or at least the next paragraph.

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