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5 Bigass Travel Writing Concepts

by David Miller May 30, 2012
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OVER THE LAST MONTH we’ve been expanding the curricula at MatadorU. Among the first new lessons we’ve added are studies in rhetoric vs. transparent language, as well as travel “porn” and plight writing. The following are a few different excerpts that we wanted to publish here at the network.

1. Temporality and starting with what you know

Intuitively, many people associate travel writing with being on the road, moving from place to place, writing about one’s journeys. And while on some level this may become the end goal, there’s an important lesson in starting right at home, writing about where you’re from, or the place you know best.

Consider for a minute that everyone is a local somewhere, and a traveler everywhere else. Thus, a few simple descriptions about someone else’s hometown is effectively travel writing to you, just as a simple description of your hometown is travel writing for others.

When you start with what you know well, your points of reference draw instinctively from specific names and details while simultaneously taking into consideration the history of the place, how it’s changed (or remained the same) over time, and how your experiences there are affected by the time of year, the season, and various factors unique to that particular place and culture.

When applied to writing, this multi-layered perspective can lead to a sense of “life unfolding” or the place “being alive.” We refer to this as writing which has a specific temporal sense, or temporality.

Consider this example:

That afternoon, Cullen and I drove out to Harlowe, in marsh country, to bring his friend a battery for his truck. The only store in Harlowe is Nadine’s Stop-and-Shop. Zach lived in a trailer at the end of a dirt road. There was a beer keg in the side yard, and a garbage pail out front. Beyond that, past the pancake-tired lawn mower, was a million-dollar view of the sound.

Notice how specific the details and descriptions are, how in five simple sentences we’re given not only:

  • a sense of the terrain (“marsh country”)
  • the size / feel of the place (a single store, named “Nadine’s Stop-and-Shop”)
  • hints of tough economic realities (Zach lives in a trailer with a keg, a worn-out lawnmower, a garbage pail out front; this is contrasted by the “million-dollar view”),

but also an additional layer just under the surface: a sense of time occurring.

This paragraph comes from a larger narrative work by Matador editor Noah Pelletier about the small towns where he grew up. Note the familiarity demonstrated in the writing, and how it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to write about this place with the same level of detail.

2. Discerning rhetoric

Rhetoric is the use of linguistic elements to exploit emotional triggers or take advantage of social relationships between people. These linguistic elements are usually “tactical,” deliberately crafted as pretext or for persuading readers.

While rhetoric is nearly universal in marketing / advertising language, as well as political speech and punditry, it often simply appears in people’s writing without them realizing what it is or how it affects the reader.

Because it can occur in any part of the sentence, in any scale, and also because it’s ubiquitous in media both online and print, on TV and on the radio, rhetoric can be difficult to discern from non-rhetorical speech.

It’s fairly easy to spot when it’s fully overblown, such as:


But it can also be wrapped in messages that make it nearly imperceptible to most readers. For example:

We tourists provide jobs and, more than that, keep centuries-old traditions alive.

Natural aversion to rhetoric in real life

One helpful way to think about rhetoric is to picture it in real life. Imagine you’re walking down the street, and someone approaches you carrying a stack of glossy flyers. In this situation, there’s often an instinct, a kind of alarm that goes off, letting you know ahead of time: “This person is about to sell me something.”

When this happens, typically our defenses go up; we become naturally skeptical. We often wonder, “Who is this person, and why are they talking to me?” There’s often a feeling of being vaguely cheated somehow even by listening to them. That it’s all “an act,” which typically it is.

Now compare this to how you feel when you talk with friends or family in a natural, relaxed way, a way in which there’s no pretext, no agenda, no sense of anyone trying to convince or persuade the other, but simply communicating. In this case, you as a listener are naturally “disarmed,” ready to converse about whatever information, ideas, or stories are communicated.

Rhetoric in written form

In many ways, rhetoric in written form is identical to a salesperson approaching you on the street, only because it’s on a page / screen instead of occurring in real life, it’s less offensive, easily dismissed. And yet as we’re exposed to it over and over, we grow accustomed to it. It has a normative effect on what we read.

This is particularly true with travel writing. Over the last several decades, newspapers, magazines, and travel media of all kinds have helped “legitimize” a kind of codification of travel language which essentially “dresses up” outright marketing in advertorials. It works by packaging elements of place, culture, and travel, breaking them out of context so that instead of a writer’s original experience being recounted, he or she “positions” the experience to sound a certain way.

3. Recognizing rhetoric: Lack of temporality

As we discussed above, when descriptions of place flow naturally from what you know well — when they’re built on specific concrete details — the writing tends to have a sense of temporality, a feel of the place actually existing in time. Example:

May 20, 2001, Logan Airport, Boston

I have blagged my way into the British Airways lounge by complimenting the check-in lady on her silver-dollar-sized earrings. They’re hideous.

First Class lounges often find me buzzed on odd combinations of cheese, water crackers, Kahlua, Campari and any other kind of odd liquor/liqueur that it never strikes me to try at home. Today is no exception.

The guy across from me is wearing a cardigan and reading Yacht World. I want to put him in front of a speaker and blare Ramones and shake him from his necktie existence, to give him a tour of a world where he doesn’t have to gingerly cross one leg over the other.

Although this example contains imaginative and even speculative kinds of writing (“I want to put him in front of a speaker…”), there’s a sense of temporality throughout the entire passage. You can picture the narrator there in the British Airways lounge and perceive a sense of time passing in the story.

By contrast, rhetoric typically removes any sense of temporality. In other words, descriptions kind of float without being attached to any particular time:

“Hawaii has breathtaking views.”


“This is the true Costa Rica.”


The hostel gives you an insider’s guide to the best nightlife the Paraguayan capital has to offer.


“Zip lines take your travel to new heights.”


4. Transparency and the spectrum of experience

Some argue (rightly, in my opinion) that there’s no writing completely free of rhetoric. That effectively all written language is in some way attempting to persuade.

But instead of looking at rhetoric only in binary, black and white terms, it’s helpful to consider written language as a spectrum. Where each word / sentence / paragraph falls on this spectrum depends on how closely it reflects or conveys what was experienced by the writer in real life.

One term for this is transparency: The more closely writing reflects the author’s experience in real life, the more “transparent” the narration is.

Consider the level of transparency of the following passage:

There’s nothing like grilled chicken right off the volcano. What? You have yet to experience volcano-grilled meat and fish? Well, it’s time for you to hop on the next flight to the Spanish island of Lanzarote and make a bee-line for the restaurant El Diablo.

That’s because architect and chef Cesar Manrique has been using a large grill that sits atop a volcano on the island. Sure, it’s not an active volcano, but there is still plenty of heat coming up from out of the Earth. Pretty cool, right?

What might the writer of the above paragraph have written had he been more transparent about his experience? For example, what if he really thought the whole “volcano-grilled chicken” thing was a gimmicky tourist trap, and that after talking to the chef more about his cooking, he learned that the chef too felt mildly ridiculous and much preferred cooking at home? Or that his favorite meal in Lanzarote wasn’t at El Diablo, but one of the local family’s houses?

Of course, the truth might actually have been that he felt the meal was indeed “cool,” but because it’s all presented rhetorically rather than transparently, it’s impossible for the reader to be sure. Rhetoric works by exploiting, rather than expressing emotions. Instead of saying “I thought it was cool,” the narrator uses “Pretty cool, right?” suggesting that if you don’t agree, somehow you’re not “cool.” And so we have no real way of knowing what the narrator felt.

5. Unintended effects of rhetoric in narration: Packaging

When narrating transparently, each detail simply is. Here’s an example:

We spent a summer on the road between your home and mine. I was living with my parents in Denver, and you were living with your parents in Oak Creek. You had just graduated, and we would never again live five minutes apart in Boulder. That was the summer I fell in love with you to Mason Jennings and long mountain drives.

Each detail, each line, is simply declared or stated. Each line reveals a little more of the narrator’s identity and his or her relationships to others in the story, hence the descriptor “transparent.”

But when narration isn’t transparent, relationships between people remain unclear (or as they’re sometimes called, “opaque.”) Characters other than the narrator may be reduced into a kind of scenery or abstraction, serving as a backdrop for the narrator, particularly in the context of how much a place or people fulfills the narrator’s expectations. In this way, travel writing becomes a means of packaging place, culture, and / or people, portraying them as a kind of “product” or commodity:

During our around the world trek, my wife, three teenage sons and I had many unforgettable experiences. They included living with Mayans in a remote Guatemalan village, hearing firsthand accounts from survivors of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and listening to the guttural sound of lions staking out their territory in the early morning near Kruger National Park. However, none of them compared to a brief stop in a remote mountain town in one of the world’s smallest countries.

While the narrator of this paragraph is obviously “well-traveled” and has had “many unforgettable experiences,” what exactly is his relationship to “Mayans in a remote Guatemalan village,” or “survivors of the Killing Fields”?

One would hope that further along in the piece he would make this clear, and yet the subtle (and probably unintended) effect of the way he’s introduced all of these characters is already effectively “packaging” them as referents or comparisons, then using a rhetorical construction to “force” the reader to accept how even in their “extremity” (remote village, survivors of Killing Fields, lions growling), they still don’t “compare” to the narrator’s “brief stop in a remote mountain town.”

This is the structural equivalent of an infomercial for some kind of product — say, a steam cleaner. Picture someone on TV demonstrating the steam cleaner by pouring different things onto a patch of carpet:

Red wine stains, mustard, ketchup: nothing can stand up to the cleaning power of the Steam-Master 2000!

Again, the typical byproduct of a narrator “packaging” culture / place / people is to make them seem product-like:

Mayans in a remote Guatemalan village, survivors of the Killing Fields, lions staking out their territory: none of it compares to a brief stop in a remote mountain town.

We’ll continue next week with several more concepts that flow out of rhetoric / transparency, such as travel “porn” and “plight writing.” You can also learn more at MatadorU. *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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