5 Common Mistakes of Beginning Travel Writers

by Julie Schwietert Mar 11, 2011
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AS THE LEAD faculty member of MatadorU’s travel writing program, I work with students from all sorts of backgrounds to help them achieve their goals as travel writers.

Here are five common mistakes I see in their writing (and which are all too common in mainstream travel writing as well):

1. They craft their stories like their experiences: linearly.

I call this the “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” style of travel writing.

When I was in elementary school, the first assignment of each new school year inevitably involved writing an essay about what I did on my summer vacation. Whether it was Mrs. Lemon, Ms. Moore, Mrs. Cannon, or Mrs. McKinney (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers, respectively) who tasked students with this writing project, the directives were always the same, their instructions about logical, ordinal beginnings, middles, and ends chalked neatly on the blackboard.

I distinctly recall that these essays were painfully boring. “My dad packed the car. We drove to Myrtle Beach. We stopped to eat sandwiches. We stayed at a nice hotel. We went to a good restaurant. During the day, I made sand castles on the beach with my brother and then we played mini-golf. It was a good summer vacation.”

As a travel writer, you have to learn to separate details which were only relevant to you from the details which will be relevant to the reader…At the same time you need to learn that narratives, unlike real life, do not always have to occur linearly.

One of the earliest lessons students learn in MatadorU’s travel writing course is that the art of a compelling story does lie in developing details, but not every detail of an experience is important to the story.

As a travel writer, you have to learn to separate details which were relevant to you from the details which will be relevant to the reader. Often, these details are not the same. At the same time you need to learn that narratives, unlike real life, do not always have to occur linearly. In recent months we’ve published nonlinear narratives on everything from making chai to life in a warzone.

2. They use flat adjectives or value judgments.

Many of the pieces written for the first assignment in the MatadorU travel writing course are characterized by the use of flat adjectives or value judgments: “good,” “great,” “amazing,” “incredible,” and “awesome,” to name a few of the most common ones.

Subjective judgments of something’s “value” often mean little or nothing to a reader. They do nothing to put a reader in the place the writer wants to tell them about. What’s the difference between a “great” meal in Mexico and a “great” meal in Botswana?

It takes time to learn how to develop the right words to convey our experiences of a place in a voice that’s both faithful to our experience and true to our own voices. Taking that time, though, is critical to developing your craft as a travel writer and avoiding these common mistakes.

3. They make everything superlative.

This mistake is as common among travel writers and editors with impressive publication credits as it is with beginning writers, and is perpetuated by the belief that a reader won’t be interested in a place if it’s not the “best” or “most” or “biggest” this or that.

As MatadorU alumnus Joshua Debner has said, though, there’s a significant audience of readers who aren’t interested in superlatives; rather, they’re interested in what he calls “quiet stories” about people and places who are allowed to be exactly what they are: both fascinating and flawed.

4. They force comparisons.
“Bahia Bustamante: Argentina’s Secret (and Private) Answer to the Galapagos”
–headline in recent New York Times travel article

Another of these common mistakes is forcing comparisons between things that may or may not be related or comparable at all.

Comparisons can be facile ways of creating senses of scale or place, however they are often artificial and untrue. Very few things — whether people, places, or experiences — are actually like anything else (or in the example above, “answers to” anything else.) Allow things to be what they are, and push yourself to master your craft so skillfully that you can do this without a forced comparison.

5. They don’t tell the truth.

I mean this in a couple ways, though I don’t mean to say that travel writers are lying — not consciously or intentionally, anyway.

A disappointing amount of travel writing tries to “sell” the reader on a place or experience, insinuating that you, too, can have the same experience that the travel writer enjoyed. There’s something about this that’s both absurdly insulting and, quite simply, false.

There’s another type of lying, too, the kind in which a thought or experience is played up to heighten the dramatic or narrative effect of a piece to the extent that it obscures or denies another part of the experience. Matador’s senior editor David Miller explored this idea a bit in a recent post on his blog:

I was trying to write something about the way people use sentences like “I arrived in Mexico thinking of only one thing: Tacos” and how that couldn’t be true. Nobody ever thinks of one thing.

It’s not necessarily “wrong” to construct a narrative with this kind of lie (the kind of lie that Catholics would call a sin of omission– not an active lie, but one that doesn’t acknowledge the full truth). What’s important, though, is knowing why you’re doing it and to what effect, as well as knowing the implications of playing with the truth in this way.

* The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you avoid these common mistakes and build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

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