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Why Every Travel Writer Should Embrace Their Ego

by Josh Lew Oct 3, 2007
Getting your travel writing published is a game of numbers. If you submit enough work, you will find someone to publish it, eventually.

IT’S FRUSTRATING because the fate of your writing career is in the hands of a seemingly fickle editor who has his or her own tastes when it comes to the written word.

No doubt they have spent the better part of the day sifting through the mountain of submissions known as “the slush pile.”

They are probably mildly distracted, perhaps nursing a case of the common cold or daydreaming about the chicken dinner that awaits them at home.

Once it reaches the editor’s desk, the fate of your article is beyond your control. What can you do?

Work on that which is under your control: your craft. Because it’s also a rule that good writing will eventually get noticed.

The Road To Better Writing

What is good writing? Many “experts” will be happy to listen to themselves dish out advice. Many books promise to train you to pen nothing less than literary magic.

However, writing is a very personal endeavor. Another person’s ideas cannot make you a complete writer.

You might learn ways that change your approach to your work, but the personal element, the You, is still the biggest influence on your words.

According to William Zinsser, one of the better teachers of writing around, the personal element is indispensable.

“Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”

“Ego” is no less than a swear word in many circles, but I think Zinsser is right. The mere fact that you are writing to share your experiences and your ideas with others proves this point.

No matter how hard you try, your view of the destinations you visit is going to be different that everyone else’s. And you are going to convey those ideas in a unique way, no matter how hard you try not to. So the first piece of advice for aspiring travels writers: be yourself and trust the way you see things.

This doesn’t mean that the best writing is unedited, stream of thought. (Not many want to read that kind of writing). Zinsser points out that the trust of self is an “attitude.”

It is a way to approach the craft of writing. It is not a substitute for craft.

Of Pen And Paper

So what is “craft?”

It is the ability to communicate through the written word. In terms of travel writing, it might mean communicating a sense of place or the feeling of experience.

However, words are an imperfect medium. How can they be used to communicate the visual and visceral? My man Zinsser has an answer: simplicity.

Craft is stripping away the superfluous from your work so that what is left is as concise as possible.

Instead of trying to force images into your readers’ minds with adjectives and oh-so-clever wordplay, strive for straightforwardness. After all, you are trying to communicate something, not show everyone that you can use a thesaurus.

Craft is stripping away the superfluous from your work so that what is left is as concise as possible.

Don’t Stop Writing

So how do you get better at it? My personal advice: Write.

Setting up a blog these days is easier than brushing your teeth. There are ready-made travel communities that offer blog hosting. Others will see your writing and perhaps you’ll start earning feedback.

You can even ask other readers what they think about your writing style, the content, etc. I’ve found that some readers are happy to oblige you with some constructive criticisms.

Send In Your Work

Submit, too. A writing teacher of mine once compared the process of submitting articles to initiating a conversation with a stranger.

Sure, you’ll get rejected. Perhaps even embarrassed. But occasionally, an editor will take some time to let you know why your work wasn’t accepted.

Take this as constructive criticism, no matter what the tone of the advice is. This “conversation” with editors, if taken in the right way, can help you to hone your craft.

Take Notes

Some writers take notes while actually on the road. Others wait until they have returned to their guesthouse for the day. Others wait until the trip is over.

Once again, it is a matter of personal taste. Of course, you don’t want to forget any of the details you might want to include in a story.

At the same time, if a place did not find a place in your memory, is it really worth writing about?

Read Others

Finally, read great travel writers. You can learn a lot from taking the time to pick through a Pico Iyer essay or a chapter of a Norman Lewis book.

Their style may be different than yours, but perhaps you can garner something from the way they are able to communicate the feel of a given place so vividly.

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