How can I be a better travel writer? You’ve worked hard at the art of storytelling, and are a master of location-driven narrative. What’s next?
Here are five tips. I encourage you to take them and apply in two ways: as a writer and as a businessperson. There’s an element of working as a writer that falls more in line with entrepreneurship than any traditional type of employment or contracting. The more you’re able to think outside the box and keep the big picture in mind, the more success will become part of your routine.
1. Accept the constant evolution.
There’s no set guidebook for working in media these days. The business changes fast. Luring readers to click a well-crafted headline is far more productive than putting together a seductive cover shot to convince them to buy a mag off the rack. For better or worse, the listicle has in many ways become the go-to for many publications. Long-form print pieces are fewer and harder to come by, and often don’t pay enough to even cover the cost of producing them, let alone allow for a writer to profit.
To stay ahead, writers must tirelessly read. They must stay on top of what’s viral, what destinations are on the rise, and where travelers are heading this year to “get off the beaten path.” Earning a living as a writer has never been easy, and it’s only getting tougher. Bloggers compete with seasoned journalists for press trip spots, and it’s often the writer willing to work for less or rewrite their story to satisfy a specific angle, keyword, or sponsor that gets their pitch accepted.
It’s a challenging field. But like many modern industries, there’s a layer beyond the bullshit that rewards hard work, talent, and loyalty. It’s still possible to string your way into a job — how do you think I landed a gig as an editor at Matador? There’s an intrinsic value in studying a publication so closely that you master how to optimize your voice for their audience. When you’ve tattooed an outlet’s brand into your submissions, guess who’s going to get the call for bigger and better assignments?
2. Network. Network. Network.
Travel writing, like most professions these days, is all about who you know. Find happy hour meetups, online forums, and conferences related to your subject matter and get out and meet people! You never know who will be there and who they might be or might be able to plug you into. I credit my entire career to networking. Shaking hands and exchanging business cards is more effective now than it was in the pre-digital days because the interaction is easily followed up by an email. Never be afraid to reach out, follow up, or send that friend request.
3. Write copy.
You’re probably thinking, “Duh.” But I’m not talking about a listicle documenting the street food scene in the last town you stopped in or a narrative of the inner-growth that occurred while volunteering for an NGO in the Philippines. I’m talking about the non-sexy stuff. Sales copy, SEO-optimized web copy, maybe some news rewrites for the local paper.
Gigs like this pay, and often a lot more than travel writing. More importantly, though, they make you a better writer. They take you out of your comfort zone and get you thinking. They force you to try techniques that aren’t always employed in travel writing and help you to get better at keeping the reader in mind when plugging away at the keyboard. I suggest getting on freelance job boards and applying for some random gigs that you might normally overlook. Trust me — years down the line, you’ll still be implementing the stuff you learned into your work. Always remember: Kurt Vonnegut started out writing sales copy.
4. Do what you say you’re going to do.
Equally important to networking is understanding the benefits that come with follow-through. Many people fancy calling themselves a freelance writer, but how many of them actually get published? Or paid? The percentage is small, because many of said “freelance writers” lack one of the most critical elements of self-motivated work: drive.
Ideas come forth but aren’t followed up on. Contacts are made, then lost. Don’t let these things happen – it’s incredible how successful one can be when extreme dedication is put into not letting stuff fall through the cracks.
5. Put in the time.
I’ll close on this point because it really needs to stick. Making a career out of travel writing isn’t going to happen in one year. Or two years. Or three years. Being successful and earning a living takes the ability to think long-term and develop goals.
It’s kind of like playing in a rock band. You work your way up, pay your dues, and hustle for multiple years. Grind it out, and celebrate small successes. Maintain your contacts. Observe what those having success around you are doing, then adapt and implement.
Take criticism seriously but lightly — don’t ever get down on yourself because a piece wasn’t accepted or an editor asked you to go back to the drawing board. These things happen to every writer, and like the non-sexy stuff I noted earlier, make you better in the long run.
Years ago, I read a quote from a famous musician in Rolling Stone that went something like this: “You can’t honestly say that something is what you do if it doesn’t pay the bills.” This resonated deep within me, like a cut that takes forever to heal. At the time, I was working as a bartender a few days per week in addition to freelancing because I wasn’t yet making enough money solely as a writer. I wanted so badly to be able to answer the inevitable “what do you do?” line without having to add, “but I also do this.” It took roughly six years before that came to fruition, but damn does it feel good.
Get out there and work it!