1. Don’t be vague in your opening sentence.
“We soaked up the warm sunlight.” Who? Where? Your reader is immediately irritated and bored.
Do be precise.
“The late morning sunlight melted across the parking lot of the quiet little motel in Yucca Valley, California. My best friend Ev and I took our coffee and sat on the back of the truck.” (More on why this sentence works in #3.)
2. Don’t address your reader directly.
“You’ll love it in Moab, Utah. Bikes, babes, and bars. Check it out, dude.” It was trendy for a while, but not anymore. It makes you sound like a college newspaper columnist. And, these days, it’s likely your slang is going to be out of date before the editor starts to read your piece.
Do keep it simple and in first person.
“I pulled into Moab, Utah just as the sun dropped behind a burnt orange ridgeline. I was headed for a solo trip through Stillwater Canyon on the Green River. My old buddy Chris had told me that Tex’s Riverways was the way to go — and that Eklecticafe had coffee that would rip your heart out.”
3. Don’t use only one sensory system to observe and report.
“The sky over the mountains was bright blue. Ravens flew above our heads. I could see trucks loaded with gear jammed up at the stoplight.”
Do use sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste to draw your reader in.
“Ev and I rolled up our windows. The exhaust reek from the gear-packed trucks idling at the stoplight made the street a deathzone. The roar of a phalanx of motorcycles just behind the trucks was deafening. The middle-aged bikers looked like well-groomed beetles.”
(Note: The example in #1 includes what we saw, heard, felt, and tasted.)
4. Don’t assume your reader is going to be fascinated by your trip to Santa Fe, Telluride, Costa Rica (the list of fashionable places to go is endless) just because you are.
“It was our first morning in Costa Rica. The air was fantastic and the natives really friendly.”
Do (even if you’re writing about a common tourist location) dig deep.
“Ev and I never expected to find a cheap place to camp outside of Telluride. After all, it was the weekend of the Telluride Mushroom Festival in the middle of a sweetly cool August. Ev saw the sign before I did. ‘Park here. $5. Breakfast $5.’ The owner of the little chartreuse house was an old woman in jeans and a flannel shirt.”
5. Don’t forget whatever you learned in basic English composition and DO NOT send in your first draft.
“Standing on the corner of some streets in Prescott, Arizona, my hat flew of my head in a strong wind. irritating.”
My earnest grammar and spell check program raced in to correct this before I could. This sentence would cause any self-respecting editor to not only trash your piece, but to put you on his or her Delete Immediately list. The writer has used passive voice (Yawn) and embellished it with spelling errors, a hat that is irritated, and a sentence fragment.
Do check out any of the good online sources for professional writing.
I like Super Teacher Worksheets and EnglishForEveryone.org. I never send out a piece that I haven’t edited at least five times — and sometimes had a friend look at.
6. Don’t gush.
“Blue Willow is the most charming and unique restaurant in the sun-drenched, up-scale, and fascinating Sunbelt city of Tucson.” Your piece could be a travel brochure, and while Blue Willow is indeed a great place to eat, there are plenty of unique restaurants in Tucson — which is anything but uniformly up-scale.
Do the hard work of writing the details.
“I was so bored with camp grub that I would have eaten fast food. I was spared. My Tucson pal, Shawnee, took us to the Blue Willow, an airy, soft-lit restaurant on Campbell. The first thing I noticed was the scent of spices.”
When you write details, rather than generalizations, the reader is right there with you — at the Blue Willow or anywhere else.
7. Don’t piss on the locals.
“The waiters and waitresses, even the bus drivers in (any little rural town or big city all over the world) seemed surly. I wondered if it was because of the filth in the streets and the fact that there didn’t seem to be an unbroken light bulb in any of the street lamps.”
Whoa, ‘scuse me. You went on your big brave world travels to experience something other than your nice safe world back home. Wherever you go, you are in someone’s home. Write with respect. (I live in a tourist town and have listened to visitors whining about how Flagstaff is not like back home.)
Do write differences without judgment.
“At first glance, the Mojave marine base town of 29 Palms looked like any other faded-out desert village. Ev and I were hungry after a long morning of climbing at Joshua Tree. We checked out the street. There seemed to be nothing but jar heads and their wives taking Saturday off to shop. I pulled next to a young couple and Ev leaned out the window. ‘Where’s a good place to grab breakfast?’ The Marine grinned. ‘Check out Andrea’s.’ He pointed. ‘Best home fries in California.’ We did. They were. Later we discovered not just the perfect dessert — a bag of donuts from Jelly Donut — but fifteen miles down the road in the town of Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree Outfitters, where the owner did an emergency fix on one of the zippers on Ev’s ancient backpack.”
Author’s note: If you are just beginning to travel write — or have been writing and find yourself blocked — check out the MatadorU Travel Writing program, or my Breakthroughwriting mentoring site.