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How to Become a Travel Writer (Seriously)

by Julie Schwietert May 22, 2013
1. Read.

Start reading and don’t stop.

Read all the “greats,” but don’t skip the more obscure writers. Read magazines. Get yourself a library card if you don’t have one, and if you can’t do that, check Google Books and Google Magazines.

The idea isn’t to imitate, but to simply know what — what genres, what styles, what writers — came before you, as well as who your contemporaries are.

2. Redefine the genre of travel writing.

“Travel writing” includes hotel reviews and destination guides, published in guidebooks and in glossy travel magazines. But travel writing’s more than service pieces.

Check out this genre-busting, long-format narrative by Porter Fox. Or this blog post by multi-genre writer Elizabeth Eslami, which I’d categorize as “place-based writing.”

In a way, all movement and all settling is travel, and so the stories we tell about these experiences are “travel writing” in the broadest sense of the word. Even if some editors don’t see it that way.

3. Start a blog.

In the not-so-distant past, a writer had to have a decent portfolio of publication credits to be considered a “travel writer,” and certainly to be published in a glossy mag.

Not so anymore.

Thousands of writers have published their writing primarily or exclusively on their blogs. Some have gotten book deals. Some have gotten print gigs. Some get offers of free travel. And some get nothing more than the recognition that their writing means something to a random reader who stumbled across their blog doing a Google search.

Not sure how to get started? Check out Matador’s stockpile of blogging tips.

4. Develop your online presence.

Use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to connect with other writers, editors, and readers.

5. Build a network, online and off.

Start your blog, set up a Facebook and Twitter account, but make sure you get offline, too. Stories and relationships don’t develop best through a screen. That only happens at ground level.

MatadorU hosts frequent workshops and events around the world.

6. Travel. But not just to “exotic” places.

You’ve got a 9-5’er. You’ve got kids. You’ve got debt. You’ve got no money. You’ve got an expired passport.

What you’ve got are excuses. A walk beyond your front door is travel. The only thing you need for a trip is curiosity.

7. Look for stories everywhere.

Often, the most interesting stories aren’t waiting in some far-flung place for you to come along and unearth them. Instead, they’re right beside you, at ground level.

8. Avoid cliches.

If you’re not sure what cliches we’re talking about, you need to go back to step 1 (READ). You can also consult our articles, 10 words and phrases we never want to see in travel writing again and 5 more words we never want to see in travel writing again.

How many hidden gems and best kept secrets can there be in the world, anyway?

9. Learn when to break the writing rules you’ve been taught.

One of the challenges new travel writers often confront is unlearning rules of narrative they were taught in school: “Always write in the third person.” “Every paragraph must have three to five sentences.” “Every story must have an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.”

It’s not narrative that’s inflexible; it’s the writer. Don’t be afraid to play with forms or break rules.

10. Commit to the craft.

Tip #9 notwithstanding, there are some rules that shouldn’t be broken. Spelling and punctuation should be solid if you intend to submit your writing for publication, whether online or in print. Your syntax and word usage should be on point. Commit to the craft of writing. Simply telling a good story isn’t enough.

11. Get a writing partner.

Writing has some pretty solitary moments, and reviewing your work with a writing partner (especially if you have problems with spelling, grammar, etc.) can be invaluable. Participating in a writers’ group can be even more useful; you’ll have a support network of writers who can offer constructive feedback.

12. Prepare yourself for rejection.

Every writer experiences rejection. The sooner you learn how to handle it and move on, the happier and more successful you’ll be as a travel writer.

13. Be professional.

Learn how to pitch and query. Don’t make your problems an editor’s problems.

14. Invest in yourself.

If you want to pursue travel writing as a profession, consider making some investments in your professional development. The travel writing, travel photography, and travel filmmaking programs of MatadorU teach you the craft and business of this line of work.

15. Develop other relevant skills.

Assignments often go to writers who also have other relevant skills, especially in photography. If you can offer an editor a complete package of writing and photos, you’ll save him/her lots of time.

16. Use prompts if you have writers’ block.

MatadorU’s Dean of Education, Joshua Johnson, rounded up three websites that are full of prompts to get your pen moving again.

17. Don’t tell the reader how to feel or what to think.

Way too much travel writing is characterized by the author/narrator telling the reader how to feel or what to think. The ways in which we experience “the exotic” and treat it as precious and the ways, in particular, we see people, dramatically shape the ways we talk about them and the impressions our interpretations leave on the reader.

18. But don’t think you’re objective, either.

There’s no such thing as objectivity.

19. Practice “10 Possibilities.”

In order to test your own ways of seeing and your default interpretations, start practicing a game a friend of mine calls “10 Possibilities.” For every experience you’re inclined to classify as “strange,” “exotic,” “amazing,” or otherwise otherworldly, challenge yourself to come up with 10 possibilities that could explain why you’re seeing what you’re seeing.

20. Write.

It’s obvious enough, I suppose, but what distinguishes an “aspiring writer” from a “writer” is that the latter actually…writes. At Matador, we’ve taken to calling this “ass-to-chair” time.

21. Learn how to use an anecdote.

So much beginning travel writing is what I call “This is what I did on my summer vacation” essays: chronologically linear stories that detail every single activity, meal, and person the writer has encountered in his or her travels. 98% of that material isn’t relevant.

Learn how to use anecdotes and scenes in your storytelling.

22. Accept the fact that luck, timing, circumstance, and knowing people often play a big role in a writer’s life.

Don’t underestimate the ‘right place, right time’ scenario. While you might not have much control over that, you do have control over being ready, willing, and able to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way.
– Matador Managing Editor Carlo Alcos

In my own work, and among many of my freelance travel writing colleagues, luck, timing, circumstance, and knowing people have played as important a role as being a good writer. * This post was originally published on January 12, 2011.

* Learn more about how to be a travel writer — check out the MatadorU Travel Writing course

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