Photo: Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock

How to Make Your Travel Writing Less Terrible

by Matt Hershberger Mar 18, 2016

THE BEAUTY OF THE INTERNET is that anyone can be a travel writer. A few clicks of a button and you’ve got a travel blog which you can immediately start posting on and which, theoretically, can then be viewed by millions of people. But most online travel writers never progress past the amateur stage, and never get to a point where their audience is significantly larger than their family and friends. This, to some extent, has to do with the quality of their writing: there are few things less fun to read than bad travel writing.

Fortunately, the ability to write isn’t merely a matter of talent. The best writers know that writing’s much more of a craft than an innate skill, and as such, can be improved with practice. Here are some of the most common ways amateur travel writers can improve their writing.

Be respectful of your audience’s time.

Vacation slideshows aren’t as much of a thing anymore, but before the internet, people used to invite neighbors over in order to bore them to death with slides of their latest family vacation. It was like posting a Facebook photo album, but forcing your friends to minutely examine every picture while giving them the insanely boring story that went along with the image.

Unfortunately, this is how a lot of travel blogs read: like breathless retellings of stories that no one else finds particularly interesting. The internet is nearly infinite, and as such, your readers have the impossible task of deciding what, out of that infinite selection, they’re going to read. You have to compete with YouTube. You have to compete with Wikipedia. You have to compete with porn.

You have no chance of gaining a readership that doesn’t consist exclusively of your family and friends unless you’re respectful of your audience’s time. The best (and possibly the crassest) writing advice I ever received was “No one wants to watch you masturbate.” Save navel gazing and self-indulgence for diaries. Write for an audience, not yourself, and write as if you would be embarrassed for wasting your audience’s time.

Stop sounding like a travel brochure.

Have you ever, even once in your life, used the word “azure” in regular conversation? What about “verdant”? Have you ever told anyone that they’re “quaint” and not immediately been punched in your stupid condescending face?

A lot of travel writing is poisoned by the fact that the travel writing industry is so incestuously intertwined with the travel marketing world. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with writing marketing copy, and it’s a good way to make a decent buck as a travel writer. But advertisements aren’t known for being nuanced, critical, or contemplative, and this is an absolute requirement of good travel writing (and writing in general). You can never, ever, ever sound fake.

Have something to say.

The best travel writers meander. Their attention moves from place to place, seemingly without purpose, and the writing itself manages to somehow feel like a journey. You shouldn’t try to write like this. At least not for now. Meandering travelogues are one of the hardest forms of travel writing, and are very rarely as fun to read as narratives or polemics.

Before you start writing, ask yourself: What’s the point of the story I want to tell? By identifying your point, you’re doing a few things: first, you’re giving yourself something to structure your piece around. Second, you’re making editing easier: does this sentence serve the point? No? Cut it. Third, you’re promising a purpose to your audience. If you tell the audience that they’ll get something out of reading your piece and then you deliver, you’ve succeeded as a writer.

Be hard on yourself.

Your main character as a travel writer is you. Yes, you may be putting the emphasis of your piece on the setting or the characters you’ve met, but really, the person at the center of the story is always going to be you yourself.

Don’t be a boring character. Pick at your flaws, expose your embarrassments and humiliations, display yourself at worst, and then let your audience learn through you. This may make you feel vulnerable, but that’s okay. Writing is about honesty, and people appreciate it when you’re honest about yourself.

Have fun.

A lot of the travel writing I read as an editor is trying terribly hard to be taken seriously. This can be frustrating to read, because it feels forced, and it doesn’t feel like the writer enjoyed writing it. Stuff you had fun writing is almost always more fun to read, even if it’s silly, and travel is particularly fertile ground for fun, humor, and general absurdity. Relax. Being a travel writer is the dream, remember? You’re living the dream. Enjoy it.

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