How do you measure success? What is a travel writer? Baja, Mexico.. Photo by Laura Bernhein.
How do you become a successful travel writer? What is the most important step?
I recently posed those question to the Matador Community forum.
The responses reinforced a notion that applies, I believe, to most successful travel writers: they don’t think of themselves as travel writers at all. In fact, the few successful travel writers I know are too busy to sit around thinking about themselves as anything at all.
There’s a fundamental lesson here, one that should preface everything else: people who are truly doing something professionally—whether it’s travel writing, surfing, or whatever—have no illusions about it. They just understand what needs to be done and do it.
With that in mind, if your dream is to become a travel writer, stop dreaming. Make it happen today, right now. Follow these steps below and you’ll get there.
1. Dedicate yourself to becoming a writer.
This was Tim Patterson’s response to my question:
I think it’s most important to become a writer first, and then start to write about travel. Stuart Emmrich, editor of the NY Times travel section, put it well in a Q+A with readers last week:
“As the editor of the Travel section, I am not looking for good “travel writers” but instead good writers and — more important — good reporters with wide and varied backgrounds, who can bring their knowledge of such specific topics as history, art, music, literature, the environment, and world events to the subject of travel.”
Emmrich’s full Q+A is here.
2. Either go to school or train yourself as a journalist.
So how to fulfill Emmrich’s call for good reporters? You can try your hand at freelancing right off the bat, but an easier way is either going to school for journalism (where you’ll get experience at the school paper) or getting an internship at a magazine or newspaper.
This was a key move for me: a neighbor who also happened to be the publisher of a small town Colorado weekly needed someone to cover the local town meetings. I told her I’d give it a shot. There was one catch: the paper went to press the following day after the meetings, which meant I had to have copy turned in by 8:00 am the next morning. Oftentimes the meetings ran till after 11 PM.
After doing that for more than a year I’d learned how to take notes as quickly as possible, how to pare down a story to the important facts, how to insert quotes correctly, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, how to get it all done under a tight deadline.
For more on the importance of interning, check this interview with Outside’s Eric Hansen.
3. Consider starting with interviews and profiles.
Many people are drawn to writing—for good or bad—because of a need to satisfy their egos or to tell their stories. The irony however, is that writing well about yourself takes, in most cases, a much higher skill-level than other types of writing.
As Jacob Bielanski pointed out, “I honestly think my absolute worst writing came about through the belief that I had done something special, something that–in and of itself, regardless of my abilities–was worth reading about.”
So, all this being said, interviews and/or profiles are good first challenges for young writers. Make no mistake: crafting a good interview, like all writing, can take years to do well. But beginning with a subject that isn’t yourself or your adventures often makes it easier to identify the overall story theme and add supporting evidence without getting sidetracked.
4. Dedicate time to learning your craft.
Writing is a single endless progression from notes to story ideas to stories to better stories, then back to notes. For me the underlying questions are always: how can I describe this scene, reveal this character, express this idea, etc., more truthfully and clearly?
Numerous authors have expressed that writing is an extension of one’s love for reading. So that said, read all you can in the styles and genres you wish to write in.
Studying literary masters such as Hemingway (or take your pick) is always a good place to start.
5. Learn that writing is rewriting.
A common error of beginning writers is the notion that revision ruins the purity and spontaneity of their work. As Eric Hansen mentioned, most professional writers go through dozens of revisions and rewrites before publication.
If you’re new to the process of self-editing, go through a finished work and review it, asking yourself line by line: “is this what I was really trying to say here?” and “Is this really part of the story?”
Any places where you even hesitate should be cut or changed.
Go through this complete process again and again until the answer is 100% yes. You’ll find that most of the time you only needed half the number of words you used originally.
6. After editing, reassess your writing skills, identifying places for improvement.
Like beginning snowboarders getting down the mountain by scraping along or forcing crude turns, novice writing—no matter how well-intentioned—usually contains obvious mistakes such as overblown language, ineffective descriptions, oversimplified or unclear characters / ideas / conclusions, and rough transitions from exposition to description to dialogue.
Once you begin to recognize when you make these mistakes (and how to fix them), you’re well on your way to the next level of writing skills, which include making words and sentences serve multiple functions, and creating verisimilitude through convincing scene description and dialogue.
Keep in mind that for the best writers, this process of continuously learning and relearning new techniques and ways of expressing ideas, emotions, character, etc. goes on for their entire careers.
7. Learn how to pitch a story
Once you’re confident you can deliver the goods to an editor, learn how to pitch your story. I’ve explored this topic extensively here.
The main point is that you realize there’s no magic to pitching. It comes down to researching the magazine and realizing the editor is human, (with his or her own tastes, styles, and content needs), and understanding that if your story idea doesn’t fit—don’t take it personally. Wind up and pitch something new or somewhere with a better fit.
8. Cultivate a network of contacts.
Eric Hansen noted another key aspect of interning at a magazine was that you began to make contacts instantly. Through the internet, making contacts is easier than ever, as explained by Eva Holland: “Every break I’ve gotten has resulted from personal contact of some sort. . . .For me personally, the two most important steps have been: joining Matador, and days later, attending Book Passage.”
For simplicity’s sake I’ve broken this advice down into numerated items when in reality all of it is one interconnected flow. For example, getting an internship helps with making contacts, which helps with pitching, which helps with editing your work, which helps with writing, and so on.
In a sense then, the one step which powers all the others is your own energy and perseverance. How bad do you really want it?
10. Choose empathy, compassion, and appreciation
It’s worth mentioning that one last way you can create a more successful path is to remember compassion and appreciation in your writing.
The very fact you have the health, time, money, resources, etc to be here reading this instead of somewhere else (choose your own adventure here—Darfur? Palestine? Guantanamo? The cancer ward?), count yourself lucky.
There are plenty of people out there writing self-congratulatory and / or derisive crap that will be forgotten tomorrow.
But your writing can become a chance to care for others, to shine light on otherwise hidden stories. To point out similarities rather than differences.To spread awareness. To educate. To see how all of us are really in this together.
What is the story you really need to tell?
Write it down.