It’s always fun telling people you’re a travel writer — the response is usually along the lines of “OH MY GOD, THAT’S MY DREAM JOB.” The reality, of course, is far less glamorous than the perception, but whenever people say this to me, I have to tell them — “You know it’s not that hard to be one, right?”
I’ve worked for years at becoming a travel writer, but it is not, to my mind, an insanely exclusive club that’s impossible to break into. It is like any other career — it requires work to get to a point where you can support yourself doing it. But the steps you have to take are fairly simple. Here they are:
1. Start traveling.
Obviously. All writers draw on a well of knowledge and experience, and to write about travel, first you must travel. It is best to do a lot of it at once — I am still pulling on experiences from trips I made nearly a decade ago when I was traveling more or less non-stop. But if you can only do short weekend trips, that works, too.
2. Read constantly.
You cannot be a good writer if you do not read. If you don’t like reading, that is fine — become a travel photographer instead. Travel writers are in a particularly good career for readers — you have to spend hours on planes, trains, and in automobiles. So bring a stack of books or buy an e-reader.
Even if it’s garbage — and a lot of it will be garbage — just keep writing. “Writer’s block” isn’t a real thing, unless there is something physically blocking you from writing. Hemingway beat writer’s block by writing “one true sentence” and then continuing there. Others beat it by asking themselves interesting questions, and then following those questions down the Socratic rabbit hole. Others beat it by just writing anything until the feeling of being “blocked” just slips away.
Simply put, if you want to be a writer, all you need to do is write. There’s not much more to it than that. Over time, you’ll hone your voice and craft, but for now, just put down thoughts and try writing stuff that you have fun writing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
4. Keep a journal.
Keep it on you at all times. Keep it next to your bed for those weird, middle of the night ideas. Most of them will be really weird or really bad when you read back on them later. That’s fine — you don’t need to publish the bad ones.
5. Start paying attention to sensory details.
Travel writing in particular is driven by setting. If you want to be a good travel writer, you have to develop a sense of place when you go somewhere — look for different sights, different smells, different tastes, and different sounds. Write down descriptions in a journal. Get as poetic and flowery as you like — this isn’t for publication, it’s to try and put words to a memory that you can pull from later.
6. Form opinions.
You should have strong opinions about things, and they should be well-informed. If you don’t have anything to say, why are you writing?
7. Start a blog.
When you start, the only people who are going to read it are your family and friends — and a lot of them might just skim it, or “Like” your posts without even clicking through. That’s fine. It puts you in the habit of publishing, of directing your writing towards a specific audience, and of being accountable for the stuff you put out there.
8. Stay constructively critical of your own work.
Being critical of your own work is tricky — you need to be able to recognize your bad habits in order to continuously improve, but it’s easy to get too down on yourself while picking apart your work. So try and distance yourself from it. Think, “Would an audience like this? Does this say what I want in the clearest way possible? Am I using 10 words where one will do?” Start learning the difference between passive and active voice. Start learning how to “show, don’t tell.” Identify what you like and don’t like in other people’s travel writing.
One of the biggest mistakes travel writers make is slipping into the pattern writing like a travel brochure. People tune out advertising or marketing copy because it’s toothless, bad writing. No one in real life says phrases like “scenic vistas” or “foodie Mecca.” I mean, there might be people who stay stuff like that, but those people are the worst. Be real. Be willing to be critical. Be willing to put yourself out there and even be wrong.
9. Start forming relationships with like-minded writers.
If there are living writers that you like, reach out to them and tell them you like their stuff. Don’t push your own product, don’t ask them for favors — just say, “Hey, I love this piece you did. Thanks.”
That type of comment is rare — normally, people only reach out to correct writers or tell them that they’re terrible. It’ll make that person’s day, and it’ll hopefully spark a relationship (“Let’s grab a drink if you’re ever in Jersey”). Fellow writers are where your future gigs will come from and they will be valuable sounding boards.
10. Learn how to make an editor love you.
Find a publication you like. Read it for a while. Familiarize yourself with its style. If there’s a resource online that explains to you what that publication looks for in writers, read it (Matador has a contributor’s guide that we ask all of our writers to read). If the piece you want to pitch doesn’t fit the publication you want to pitch it to, find another place to pitch it. It’ll just irritate the editor if they get an irrelevant pitch.
Once you’ve decided to pitch, find out what type of pitches they accept — many sites want a title and a brief explanation before they give you the green light, others only accept full drafts. Do not send them something in a different format. Follow whatever instructions they’ve given to a T. Then send the pitch.
Once it’s approved, write your draft, and send in polished, professional work. Editors are not your 8th grade English teacher. They are busy people who love nothing more than a contributor who sends them work that requires little to no editing on their part. Even if you’re not the world’s best writer, sending in clean, typo-free copy puts you light years ahead of 90% of the field. Sending in polished work on time means that they’re going to ask you to write for them again. Editors are very good friends to have.
That’s it! You’re a published travel writer.
Travel writing, like any other field, requires constant learning, growing, and self-improvement. Parts of it will be frustrating, parts of it will be exciting, and it will never quite be what you expected it to be. But it’s a job that, with a little work, a little talent, and a little love, is within your reach.