Ask anyone what their dream job is and (right after Full-time Lottery Winner and Smooth-talking Billionaire Superhero) you’ll get Travel Writer. It’s probably because the profession conjures up images of tortured geniuses flying business class around the world, smoking aesthetically while sitting in cafes and scribbling things in a Moleskine.
We decided to go straight to the source and find out if this was true or not. Enter Louise Southerden.
Louise is one of Australia’s best travel writers, and she’s picked up the industry’s top award four times to prove it. She’s written for all the major publications and can be fairly said to have Made It in this much coveted industry. We sat down and basically asked her how we could Make It too (#shameless).
1. How did you become a travel writer?
I’d love to say I studied journalism and have a PhD in Travel Literature, but the truth is I fell into travel writing through a side-window: photography. After travelling across Africa as a backpacker, I wanted to get some of my photos published – only to learn that the best way to do that was to write words to go with them. Which was not the advice I wanted to hear at the time because I was terrified of writing. (I still am, to be honest, but have found a few techniques to tame the dragon – sometimes.)
2. It seems like a dream job. Is it as fabulous as people think?
It is fabulous – sometimes. I try to never take for granted that I’m, say, hiking in Mongolia or expedition cruising in Kamchatka, for work. But there are three big misconceptions many people have about travel writing.
One is that you’re paid to travel; you’re not. You’re paid to write about travel. The difference is subtle but vital: if we were paid to travel, travel writers would lose our independence and integrity (subsidised trips, by the way, come with the understanding that you’ll write what the readers needs to know, not what the publicist wants them to know). Another misconception is that you’re always on holiday. Sure, professional travel writers do get to do fun things in far-flung places – but we’re also taking notes and pictures and doing interviews and thinking of story angles and trying to fit as much into each day as possible to maximise our time in a destination. There’s nothing like having to produce five stories from a three-day trip to focus the mind.
The final misunderstanding is that being a good travel writer is about loving travel. You really have to love the writing part too. That’s something that no one really tells you when you’re starting out.
3. What advice would you give young writers looking to break into the industry?
I think the trick is to find an aspect of travel you’re passionate about and start writing about that. Start a blog, find the kind of travel writing you love reading, write as much as you can, develop your writing skills. Social media skills are important now, too; editors and publishers are increasingly looking for writers who already have a squillion readers/followers. In terms of pitching story ideas to editors: know their publication inside out before pitching ideas and keep pitches to just a few lines. Editors are busy but they need content (and people to write it) as much as we need them.
4. What qualities do you need to be a successful travel writer?
Curiosity is the big one, I think. It makes you pay attention and really see, hear and feel a place so you come back with details, which are all-important to vivid writing. It helps to be able to feel at home in foreign lands, to some extent, to be able to get along with different types of people and to meet travel’s ups and downs with good humour, humility and flexibility. A lot of travel writers are also word-nerds: we love words, care about them and want to write well. Great travel writing is just great writing, after all.
5. Big question. What’s the pay like?
Hmm, how to be honest about this and not to bite the hand that feeds me… The most challenging part of being a travel writer is without a doubt making a living out of it, mainly because word rates (set by publishers and their accountants, and usually non-negotiable) are pretty low. Having said that, quality content is always in demand and if you can find new and interesting angles and deliver great copy on time and to the commissioned word length, you’ll always find work.
It helps to apply some of your creativity to this aspect of the job: to hustle and look for outlets in new places. I’d also recommend joining a professional association such as the Australian Society of Travel Writers or the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance to network with other writers and travel PRs (public relations professionals, who host media trips), stay current and learn new ways to make this crazy life work.
6. What’s an average day on the job?
At home, I have a writing routine, like most writers, and divide my time between writing and the job of being self-employed: pitching story ideas, sorting photos, chasing invoices, planning trips. On the road, no two days are the same. If I’m on a press trip, I can be on the go from breakfast to bedtime doing a sped-up version of what most people on holiday would do there, while taking notes, asking questions and snapping pics – basically information-gathering, because you never know which details will make it into your stories, or spark a story idea when you get home. My favourite trips are the ones where you can settle into a place and forget about everything except what you’re experiencing for a week or two.
7. What do you never leave home without?
It’s old-fashioned, but: a notebook and a pen. You never know when you’re going to hear or see something interesting you might be able to use in a story or blog post (and I don’t trust my memory). I’ll also travel with my Canon DSLR camera, a waterproof compact camera and an iPhone. If I’m flying long-haul, I’ll take my Macbook Air too so I can do some writing in transit.
8. Any favourite destinations to write about?
I love writing about wild places that are a bit of an adventure to get to, like Madagascar or Greenland, because everything seems new and you can feel as if you’re exploring. I love Japan, for its people. I love writing about animal encounters for the sense of wonder they bring, whether you’re on safari in South Africa or swimming with minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef. And I really love writing about Australia, because it’s good to know at least a little about your own backyard.
9. What’s the best thing about being a travel writer?
Oh, there are so many “best” things! I love the freedom of freelancing, and travelling with a purpose (I often love the act of writing about a trip as much as the trip itself). I love the fact that my world view gets a shake up on a regular basis, and I’m constantly learning – about the world, people, life. And it’s completely engaging, on every level. It’s the most demanding and most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
10. What’s the one thing a travel writer should always remember?
Travel with an open mind and heart. The world is an amazing place; I see it as my job to remind people of that. It’s important to never get complacent or think you’ve seen and done it all. The more you travel, in fact, the bigger the world gets. And remember that you’re a visitor wherever you go; respect the people, places and animals you encounter on your travels and you just might help make the world a better place.