MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the dos and don’ts of pitching a publication. Know who you’re pitching, know the style, be thorough and be patient. Problem is, as I quickly found out, following the rules doesn’t necessarily make for a sustainable career: For all the research you do on a pitch, there’s never any guarantee that it’s enough, or that you’ll even reach the right editor.
After about a year of electronically begging editors to let me write for them, I decided I needed to do more with my time if I wanted to see a more noticeable advancement in my career. Prior to travel journalism, I came from a political comedy world where I was building a YouTube channel. That YouTube channel had a brand that viewers remembered.
Why not do the same thing as a travel writer?
The word “brand” tends to make me shiver in horror a bit. “I’m a person,” I tell myself. “Not a logo on laundry detergent.”
There’s definitely some negative connotations to unpack from the word. If you like, you can tell yourself you need to be a recognizable writer who readers turn to in order to gain your perspective. For the purposes of brevity, we’re going with “building a brand.”
First thing’s first.
1. Have a professional website.
You wrote a brilliant article. People are sharing it across social media. It’s gone viral. Reading your piece, people feel like they were traveling with you every step of the way — save the hasty bathroom escape after some street food catches up with you, of course. Now readers want more of your work, and editors want to share your perspective. But you’re nowhere to be found; someone searching your name on Google can only find some dentist from Oregon with the same name, or an empty LinkedIn page. Being busy people, we all move on.
Having a professional website will give people something to follow up on after they find a piece of your work that left an impression. Even back when my website only served as a glorified portfolio, I would occasionally have editors and tourism folks reach out to me to pursue new stories or regular work. Had I not had a website, they would’ve had to go on some creepy ex-high school lover search to find my contact information.
2. Highlight a diverse skill set.
More often than not, I’m expected to provide high-resolution photos to accompany a piece even though my primary craft is writing. Basically, it’s easier and cheaper for editors if they can turn to one person for all of the material that will accompany a piece. Though I never thought of myself as a photographer, I started taking stills in between filming video, learned some basic photoshop tips, and started updating my website with photo-driven pieces. My proof that this has proven successful is that my photos accompanied my recent BBC Travel piece on cycling the Berlin Wall. It was worth the effort — now I can point to at least that article when I’m asked if I’ve had my photography published before.
3. Pick up a new skill.
I’m terrible at small talk. Something about forcing conversation disinterests me, especially when the topic inevitably revolves around how bad the traffic or weather is. That’s a skill I need to work on. Meantime, I’ve found a way to improve upon this on my own terms and benefit my career. I’ve started a travel podcast.
Yes, just what the world was clamoring for. Another podcast.
Truth be told, I created the podcast for my own betterment. See, I may not be a master of making the rounds at an event and pretending I’m interested in seeing photos of your new kid, but I can talk about travel, writing, life — things that generally interest me. So with the Without A Path travel podcast, I merely feature folks who have interesting travel stories to share, or are involved in a similar career path. Now lest this seem like shameless plugging, allow me to connect it with the overarching theme.
Recently, I updated the spiel I give to new contacts to include my podcast. My thought process being, “People like talking about how awesome they are or their service is, so I’ll allow them to do that under my terms as a bonus to having me cover a destination.” To my own amazement, one public relations firm ended up being most interested in using the podcast to tell the story that originally connected us. Now I’m able to tell potential partners that I can cover them editorially, photographically, on video and on a podcast. It truly seems “the more the merrier” when it comes to offering additional coverage.
4. Compile a media kit for your brand and services.
Just as having a professional website allows people to know that you’re taking this seriously, so too does a media kit.
What’s a media kit? You might better recognize it as the PDF link you accidentally clicked on some company or publication’s website. The media kit details your services, your background, demographics — all that fun stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with actually telling the stories you want to tell. Me, I start with a bio before moving onto my website’s monthly page views and social media numbers. Then I finish by talking about my passions in travel writing, my skills (speaking, video, stills), organizations I’ve worked with before, and how we can work together.
I honestly don’t know how great my own media kit is. I like to think it looks professional. But at the very least I know it shows my contacts that I’m thinking about these things. It also serves as a more formal introduction. In fact, I’m writing this from a destination that resulted from having sent out my media kit at the start of the year. It also introduced me to a sponsored review opportunity for a product I really believe in and is actively making me a better traveler and writer.
So as much as branding and thinking about demographics might turn off your storytelling brain, the saving grace is that it very much does lead to more opportunities to tell interesting stories.
5. Pick up another new skill.
You should also be diversifying and adding new skills to your repertoire. For me most recently, it was starting the podcast. What is it for you? It doesn’t necessarily need to be something as time intensive as learning to take photos worthy of accompanying an article — though that’s certainly important. It can be learning enough of a language that you can tell an editor that you can get by in said country better than another writer. It can be that you’re a master of social media who’s on the forefront of what’s new out there, like what in the world this Periscope thing is.
Find what interests you, or what can at least be an avenue to things that interest you and your career goals, and pursue it with the same tenacity and eagerness you would your dream story.
6. Continue evolving and being open minded.
I don’t profess to have some foolproof solution to being a successful travel writer in the 21st century. But what I do know is that my relative success has ultimately been due to an open mind and a willingness to try new things. Before this starts sounding like an article for a very different website, allow me to clarify.
I often see inexperienced writers slam down anything and everything that they don’t agree with when it comes to writing. And not just a simple, “Eh, not my thing.” There’s a lot of anger out there. Listicles tend to meet the wrath of many, for example. But what’s wrong with a listicle if that’s what readers enjoy? Rather than cursing the world in which we live, find a way to make listicles work for what you’re passionate about. It’s not like you need to give up feature writing if you try something different. You’ll find a much more fruitful career — and life — if you show a willingness to evolve and try out new ideas.