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The Most Important Rule in Travel Writing: "Show, Don't Sell."

by Matt Hershberger Jan 5, 2018

One of the most important tools in an editor’s toolkit is the rule, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s something we say to amateur writers who are having trouble building a story. You could write, for example, “I went to a party,” but that doesn’t really give the audience much — they are probably all imagining different types of parties. Was it a house party? Was it at a bar? Was it at a club? Was it a kid’s birthday party? Was it a barbecue? What type of people were there? Were there clowns? Ladies dancing on poles? Snacks? Instead, we ask, write as if the reader is in your shoes. Make them see the party as you saw it. Describe it. Go into detail. Bring them into the story by showing it to them — don’t leave them outside by just telling it to them.

It takes a lot of practice, but it’s a necessary trick for a writer to learn if they want to become a good storyteller. Travel writing, in particular, depends on the “show, don’t tell” rule: the main feature in travel writing, after all, is the setting. If you can’t paint a picture with your words, then you’re not succeeding at the primary function of travel writing.

But over the last few years, travel writing has become infected with a different problem: we’ve started to adopt the language of advertisers. We’re not even trying to tell our stories anymore. We’re trying to sell them.

Marketing speak and advertising creep

Tourism is an absurdly huge industry. It contributes over $7 trillion dollars to the global economy, which equals a little over 10% of the global GDP. And this is the case for a good reason — there’s a lot of cool stuff to see out in the world, and a lot of us want to see it. There are also a lot of us who travel for more practical reasons than simple sightseeing — because we have a business meeting in another country, because we’re emigrating to look for more work, because we want to study abroad, because we met a girl on holiday and want to see if this thing works out. Wandering is a natural and inevitable part of being a human being.

A lot of people have gotten rich off of the travel industry — some of America’s first titans of industry were the people who built the railroads (or rather, were the people who paid extremely poor immigrants very little to build the railroads). Today, those titans are the owners of apps like Uber, or sites like Airbnb (which was founded a mere 10 years ago, and which is now valued at $68 billion). After the financial crash of the late ’00s, countries like Iceland turned their flagging economies around by focusing on tourism.

Where there’s a lot of money to be made, there’s a lot of advertising. And advertisers use different language than straight writers do. It’s what our Editor-at-Large David Miller refers to as “marketing speak,” and you’ve heard it all a trillion times before — “sweeping vistas,” “a Mecca for ____ (cheese-lovers/crevasse-spelunkers/pescatarian foodies),” “pristine beaches,” and so on.

It’s language that is basically meaningless, and it ruins good travel writing. But travel writing outside the context of the advertising is basically a cottage industry. There’s not a ton of money in it unless you’re an established writer like Bill Bryson or Elizabeth Gilbert or Paul Theroux. So enterprising young travel writers inevitably find themselves writing not only for straight travel publications but also for marketers. And those two jobs demand very two different styles of language.

How to differentiate between the two languages

If you’re starting out as a travel writer and you need to make some quick money — it’s fine. Write some sponsored content for an advertiser. Get paid. There are people and places that will look down on you for doing so: the New York Times, for example, doesn’t generally hire travel writers who have taken money from destinations at any point out of a journalistic worry about conflict of interest. But if the only travel writers who we accepted as legit were the ones who could afford to never get paid, then we’d be pretty seriously limiting the diversity of our field.

If you have to write for advertisers, learn to differentiate the different types of language. The rule to follow is “show, don’t sell.” A good travel writer is not trying to convince her audience to go to a place — she is trying to take them there. If, after dipping into her article and looking around at what she has to show them, they decide to go, all the better. But that is not the main goal of travel writing. The main goal is to tell a story and to reveal a truth that the audience might not have yet known.

The main goal in marketing is to sell something. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the art of persuasion has less lofty motivations than “beauty” and “truth” behind it. Say, for example, you are trying to get your friend to come to a party with you. You know it’s going to be a trainwreck, but you want company, so you omit some knowledge (“I don’t know anyone and the drinks are going to be terrible”) and emphasize other knowledge (“the host is a lovely person and the venue has a beautiful view”). That, in essence, is a sales pitch. All of those statements can be true without being necessary to the service of your larger purpose. If you were to be telling the story of the terrible party to the friend after the fact, you would be more likely to include the former bits of knowledge than that latter.

Because travel media is so intimately intertwined with the massive global industry that profits off of it, it can be easy, as a writer, to let those lines blur. Advertisers will love it when you call their destination “a Mecca for artisanal, farm-to-table bread enthusiasts,” but your audiences won’t love it. So hang it on your wall, post-it on your computer, tattoo it on your writing hand: Show. Don’t sell.

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