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The World's Most Famous Travel Writers Give Their Advice on Writing Well

by Matt Hershberger Jul 3, 2015

PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE WANTS TO BE a travel writer. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to travel around the world, do awesome things, and then write about those awesome things? But as anyone who has tried writing of any kind knows, it is not as simple as merely putting thoughts onto paper: writing is a craft as well as an art, and the skills required to become competent in the craft have to be strong before you can start making art worth reading.

The good news for the aspiring writers among us is that the masters have been more than happy to offer their advice as to how to become a great writer. Here’s what some of the world’s greatest travel writers have had to say about the craft of writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert

“Keeping in mind that this is all very ephemeral and personal,” begins Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame on her website, “I will try to explain here everything that I believe about writing.” Writing advice, by it’s nature, is contradictory — methods that work for some do not work for others, and that’s what Gilbert can’t stress enough. But her advice can be distilled into two main points, the first about how to start as a writer:

”I believe that – if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns. I made a vow to writing, very young. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever become a writer. I had no, as they say, connections. I had no clues. I just began.

Her second point is about how to survive as a writer:

As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.

Obviously, she more than fulfilled her promise. Read the rest of what she had to say at her blog.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is possibly the English language’s best living comic travel writer: he’s written best-selling books like A Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island, and In a Sunburned Country. In an interview with the E-zine belonging to the St Christopher’s Inn hostel chain, Bryson gives his simple, direct advice on how to become a writer:

I think the main thing is to just write. There are an awful lot of people that just talk about a book they are going to write, but they never get round to writing it. I think that unless you just get on with the writing, there’s no way to tell whether you’re a good writer or not.

Also, I get an awful lot of people writing to me asking for advice on how to write a book. Instead of doing that they should just write the book. People just seem to put it off. Also don’t be afraid of rejection. There are all kinds of reasons why articles and books don’t get accepted. You shouldn’t take it personally.

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is probably the most highly-respected travel writer alive. In an interview with The Atlantic, Theroux was asked if there were any shortcuts travel writers should take:

Yes: The main shortcut is to leave out boring things. People write about getting sick, they write about tummy trouble, they write about having to wait for a bus. They write about waiting. They write three pages about how long it took them to get a visa. I’m not interested in the boring parts. Everyone has tummy trouble. Everyone waits in line. I don’t want to hear about it.

Ernest Hemingway

While you could hardly contain the immensity of Ernest Hemingway’s work within the label of “travel writing,” Hemingway’s work tended to focus on foreign or expatriate life, and often contained many of the elements of travel writing. He mercifully left us many of his opinions on the craft of writing. In his book A Movable Feast, he wrote about how to get over writer’s block:

“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

Pico Iyer

Rather than doling out his own advice, renowned travel writer Pico Iyer generously gave us the best advice he’d ever been given on writing: “The reader wants to travel beside you,” his editor at Knopf, Charles Elliott, told him, “looking over your shoulder.”

Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts was probably one of the first truly great travel bloggers, earning himself a column at Salon and coining the term “vagabonding.” He now teaches classes on travel writing, and he posted some of his most basic tips on his website. Here are some of them:

1. Travel a lot.
2. Write a lot.
3. Read a lot.
4. Don’t quit your day job.

You can get more in-depth with his tips (and get a few more of them) at his website.

Hunter S. Thompson

The gonzo journalist who wrote possibly the greatest travel novel of all time, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had some blunt things to say about whether you have the mind of a writer. In a letter to a friend, he wrote,
“Frankly, I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left me.”

In his book The Great Shark Hunt, which may be his best collection of essays, he expanded on the idea that writing is a “fun” life, and not one that one simply must do:

“The only other important thing to be said about “Fear & Loathing” at this time is that it was fun to write, and that’s rare—for me, at least, because I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking—which is fun only for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling. Nothing is fun when you have to do it—over and over, again and again—or else you’ll be evicted, and that gets old.

You may simply need to have a certain mind to write for a living. But the overarching theme of the advice of the greats is this: just do it. Do it often. Don’t give up. Consider your audience. Work at it. And leave it at that.

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