Photo by Ryan Libre
Anyone who maintains a travel blog knows how hard it can be to stay motivated about making updates, especially while still on the road. When you finally stop in a busy internet cafe, it seems like half the things you wanted to write about have disappeared. You’ll find however, that by taking better notes, the time you spend actually writing your blogs becomes much more productive and creative.
1. Invest in a digital voice recorder
Everyone seems to take a camera, but what about recording the exciting sounds of a frantic market, a street performance, or someone pronouncing words for you in a foreign language? A digital recorder is discreet enough to keep in a pocket, and great for recording thoughts, sounds, conversations, etc., especially at times when writing is difficult or impossible, such as bumping along on a bicycle or even walking down a crowded street. The recorder is also invaluable for interviewing.
Tip: Use headphones for clearer / more discrete playback of your recordings.
2. The pocket notebook
Being a little shy about dictating in front of people, I also carry a small notebook with a waterproof cover. A rubber band helps keep it together and protected while it slides into one of my pockets with a small pen or half pencil. A kit like this is easy to use, whereas pulling out a special handcrafted journal, spiral notebook, or legal pad may be difficult, such as when you’re on a crowded bus.
3. Create a template for your travel notes
As a reminder to myself when I write, I mark down the following on the cover of my notepad for every trip:
* Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin
When I write, the main two goals are to transport a person to the place I’m describing, and to tell them how to get there. As you take notes, look beyond what you see or how it makes you feel inside – your readers have four other senses just waiting to be stimulated! Do you smell exhaust, wet leaves, or oil cooking in a wok? Can you taste the sweet incense burning in a temple? Is the sun warm on your back? When talking about objects, don’t forget to describe the texture and temperature, rather than just the shape and color.
4. Pay special attention to interactions between people–locals, other travelers, and yourself
It always seems to be the small things that make a trip so special. The smile on an old woman’s face when she sees that you are enjoying a local dish, the scrappy dog that loyally followed you around town, or maybe the flock of uniformed schoolchildren that overran you on the sidewalk. It’s these small, seemingly insignificant things that capture the spirit of a place. Getting these details right (especially about the people) and recording them truthfully separates your writing from the millions of other travel blogs that are out there.
5. Learn to listen
Hearing sounds from the past on your voice recorder will transport you vividly back to the moment and allow you to share that experience through your writing. With a little practice, you’ll be able to help your readers hear the sputtering of an engine, or a heated negotiation in a market. Try recording sounds in ordinary places such as restaurants, sidewalks, and your conversations with taxi drivers. Struggling with writer’s block? Listening to the background sounds of a busy airport will have your heart beating faster.
6. Get your names and details right
Taking note of the correct terms for the local landscape, plants, animals, geology, architecture, weather, and names for common, everyday things will help place the readers more precisely in your story. Sometimes a single word–even if left untranslated–can make all the difference. For example, much of Patagonia is an arid steppe, referred to as the meseta.
The only way to become a better writer is to write a lot. The same goes for becoming more tuned in to the small universe of details around you in any given instant. The next time you get stuck on a bus or standing in a queue, don’t just zone out – get busy, your readers will thank you!
For some examples of extraordinary travel blogs, check out Julie Schwietert’s work, which focuses on Latin America, or Tim Patterson’s blog, which covers everything from the US Economy to Patagonian trout.