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30 Essential Skills for Travel Writers

by David Miller Jun 6, 2013
The travel journalism skills below complement those taught through the curricula at MatadorU.
1. Being an active observer

Active observation is consciously looking for connections between what’s visible in someone (their expressions, clothes, what they’re doing) and invisible (their histories, upbringing, dreams, desires).

This is key, because within the gap between what’s visible and invisible is often where the deepest, most credible, and most interesting stories are found.

2. Recognizing patterns / bias in the way you observe people

While it’s important to be an active observer, at the same time there are also common ways of looking at people that can mislead readers:

  1. Romanticizing someone else’s life (Ex: A mountain guide in Ecuador)
  2. Appropriating someone else’s problems / struggle as your own (Ex: Local people being displaced by newer, wealthier immigrants or tourism)
  3. Believing that someone is a “father / mother / brother / sister figure”
  4. Making assumptions based on cultural heritage
  5. Isolating people from time / place / family relationships so that they become, essentially, symbols or simply props for the narrator or author’s ego
  6. Attributing the emotions someone made you feel (especially if you’re observing them from a distance instead of interacting) back to them (Ex: “The carefree Cuban woman”)
  7. Dismissing material / economic connections between yourself and others (Ex: The “incredibly affable taxi drivers,” in Costa Rica)
  8. Seeing people exclusively through the filter of strictly held philosophical, religious, or artistic beliefs / aesthetics
3. Being aware of how you look at place

In a similar way, people often haven’t considered the ways they may conceptualize or view place and how this affects their travel writing. Here’s a sample from 14 common ways of looking at place:


Mythologizing place is looking at place as an abstraction. People mythologize place by (a) assigning some kind of abstraction [ex: virtue, nostalgia, chivalrousness, level of backwardness] to it, or similarly (b) assigning some kind of abstraction or quality to themselves because of it.

Ex: “The South taught me how to be a gentleman.”

No, your parents did.

Mythologizing is the act of creating illusions about place. These illusions “exist” within the discrepancy between the concrete reality one experiences in a place (examples: how long one has lived there, where one lives — downtown, suburbs, outlying areas — one’s role in the local economy / community) versus the image one has of his / her life there.

Mythologizing often happens when people look back at where they grew up, or lived, or once traveled, and feel certain emotions that didn’t exist when they actually lived or traveled there.

Ex: “I’ve never been in a hotter place than a soccer field in North Georgia in the summer.”

No, actually it was much hotter when you were in Ecuador.

Commodifying [fundamental]

Commodifying (on a fundamental level) is reducing place into a singular context of resources in concrete reality. Examples would be looking at forests as “timber to be harvested” or rivers as “hydroelectric potential.”

Commodifying [common]

There exists however a much subtler and more pervasive form of commodifying where instead of concrete reality, the context of “resources” includes abstractions, associations, “appeal,” or “image.” This is how travel marketers often look at place — as an image which needs to be packaged a certain way, transformed into a product to be “positioned” in the market.

4. Being aware of marketing language / constructions in your writing

Marketing constructions, such as the “casual imperative,” the “hypothetical,” and the “hey-let-me-show-you” may unintentionally end up in travel writers’ narratives, weakening them.

5. Being aware of fallacious arguments

Fallacious arguments are ideas expressed without logic. For example:

“I doubt if the business, housed in an elegant 16th-century building, could last a month without us.”

This is a fallacious argument known as confusing correlation and causation. Confusing correlations and causation works like this: A person says “1. A occurs in correlation with B., 2. Therefore, A causes B.” This isn’t necessarily true.

6. Understanding the “Ladder of Abstraction”

The Ladder of Abstraction is a simple but powerful way to habituate a critical attitude towards language and writing.

It’s also helpful to understand in the context of recognizing fallacious arguments, and, as we’ll see next, the codification and commodfication of people / place / travel in writing.

7. Being aware of codification and/or commodification

Codification and commodification are ways of expressing place, culture, and people as salable commodities, and are fallacious but very common in travel writing. Example:

“Art lovers know there’s nothing that tops a free exhibit on a warm summer day.”

Codification begins when a narrator suggests something without actually declaring anything or referring to anything that exists in concrete reality (concrete reality being the real world in time/space). For example, “art lovers” is only a suggestion, not an actual group that exists (as opposed to, say, “the sophomores at Savannah College of Art and Design.”)

Codification and commodification, like fallacious arguments, are patterns that writers need to be aware of.

8. Constructing scenes

Scene-building is the central skill for writing strong narrative essays.

The easiest way to create scenes is to decide on a simple and single event to use as a narrative framework. This is the ongoing “story-line” to which you’ll add the facts, ideas, and information you want to convey.

The most obvious events already have a kind of inherent dramatic structure built in, like climbing a mountain or going on a date. Or, simply using the chronology of a day (“a day in the life”) or night, following the hours, the position of the sun / moon and other environmental factors, can be an easy and natural way to create scenes, especially for beginning writers.

9. Creating multi-level descriptions

Stories that seem real and alive contain multiple layers. Beginning travel writers, however, usually focus on one thing at a time. One way to add layers to your descriptions is to learn how to use object correlatives.

Object correlatives work by giving the reader an image that works to (a) advance the plot, while (b) creating a correlation between whatever object or scene is described and the emotions of a particular character.

10. Creating multi-level dialogues

In a similar way, the most convincing dialogue works on multiple levels or has multiple functions. In addition to just characters talking, dialogue may also:

  • portray action
  • describe the setting
  • tell backstory
  • express emotion

For an example of all four happening together at once, check this bit of dialogue from Raymond Carver’s “Vitamins”:

Patti said, “You don’t care if I take vitamins. That’s the point. You don’t care about anything. The windshield wiper quit this afternoon in the rain. I almost had a wreck. I came this close.”

11. Creating bilingual dialogue

Oftentimes you may need to write dialogue in more than one language. Here are 5 techniques.

12. Using anecdotes

Sometimes you have a minor character or incident that doesn’t fit well in the plot, but which, if included, would add a particularly rich detail or reinforce the story’s overall theme. This is when you need to use anecdotes.

13. Using quotes

Many travel writers use quotes in outdated ways.

14. Being aware of common usage errors

There are dozens of English language words commonly misused.

15. Finding original ways to express things

For some travel writers, this is just about learning to recognize and avoid cliches.

16. Knowing how to communicate with editors

Most of the time it comes down to not wasting time. Here are 3 things you should never do, and then, 3 more.

17. Writing attention-getting queries

This article has 2 examples of pitches that worked, and an analysis of why they did. Mainly it comes down to concision, connections, knowledge of and/or being a fan of (or best of all, on the radar screen of) whichever publication / editor you’re querying.

18-25. Developing a publishing mindset

The single biggest way you can increase your chances of getting published is to look at publication not as a single event but on ongoing process in which you’ll develop an entire mindset. This is involves a whole set of skills, including:

  • Visualizing what the editor will think when he / she receives your submission.
  • Ability to deal with rejection – The best way to deal with rejection is to submit stories and pitches on an ongoing basis. That way, whether a piece is rejected or accepted, you’re automatically sending a thank you note, then you’re moving on, ready to resubmit to a different publication or to send a new story.
  • Learning from each rejection – Another way of dealing with rejection is to look at each one as part of the learning process. You don’t need to dwell on it, but simply ask yourself: Was the story really an ideal fit for the publication? Was the story as good as it could be or could you have done further edits? Was your pitch / cover letter as good as it could have been?
  • Continuously researching new and relevant markets – The most obvious way is to search the links page at your favorite blog or magazine. Another way is to study the bios of the contributors at blogs and magazines where you’re submitting. What other publications do they mention?
  • Always bookmarking new blogs or magazines you find that seem like potential markets for submitting. Another trick is to email the urls of the publication to yourself, labeling those emails consistently or giving a consistent subject to the emails, such as “travel writing markets.”
  • Ability to stay organized so that you are continuously submitting pitches and multiple submissions – Previously we’ve written about using a submissions log or a submission manager, basically a simple spreadsheet that allows you to quickly view and organize potential markets, contacts, and submissions.
  • Understanding the hierarchy of getting published at different websites, magazines, and newspapers, and honestly assessing your position – The more you get published and the greater the readership of each blog, magazine, or newspaper that publishes your work, the higher up you move on the hierarchy, and the easier it will be for you to place work at bigger and better-paying markets.
26. Researching the writing market

What magazines, blogs, and journals do you subscribe to? Read? Wish to send work to? If you’re a US-based writer, have you considered sending work to markets outside the US?

27. Self-editing

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before submitting work to an editor.

28. Reading work aloud

Along with self-editing, learning to read your work aloud is a key skill to develop.

29. Knowing when to blog and when to pitch

Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to just publish a piece on your blog and when to pitch it to an editor. This article can help you learn to distinguish what is ‘pitchable.’

30. Crafting a writing resume

Writers often have divergent professional and academic backgrounds that are difficult to present in a cohesive way. Learning how to craft a writer’s resume can be key when applying for jobs and programs. * This post was originally published on October 21, 2010.

* Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

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