Travel writing is one of the most misunderstood, and romanticised, jobs on the planet. That’s where this three-part Masterclass series comes in. To shine a light into its dimly lit corners, correct a few misconceptions about travel writing (and writers) and hopefully inspire you to write about your travels.
My very first travel writing assignment – to Tamworth in northern NSW – was nothing to write home about, which was a pity because of course I did have to write about it. But those three days were a masterclass in how to travel as a travel writer.
My “colleagues” were all experienced travel writers; I was a neophyte with a day job. I had no idea what I was doing. So I watched what they wrote down, snapped what they took photos of, listened to the questions they asked, tried to emulate their confidence. It was a great way to learn, but it’s not often a newbie gets the chance to travel with professional travel writers.
So let’s take a brief trip now and I’ll show you a few shortcuts.
Rule #1: This is not a holiday
One of the biggest misconceptions about travel writing is that you go on holiday and write about it. While that can work in the beginning, to make a living from travel writing you’re going to have to travel a little differently.
Before you go
Before you write a word, before you even leave home, your work begins: with some pre-trip research. This helps you line up story-worthy things to see and do when you’re away and ensures you don’t waste precious travel hours in your hotel room planning your schedule.
The other main thing to do before a trip is to get a few story commissions. This can be tricky, if not impossible, when you’re starting out, but one thing you can do is at least have in mind one or two publications you’d like to write for, so you know what kinds of things to research while you’re away. There’s a big difference between travelling for, say, a luxury travel website and a bushwalking magazine.
What to take
Every travel writer has her own “must have” travel kit. Mine looks like this: a small notebook I can fit in a pocket, a few pens, my Canon DSLR camera, my phone (to record interviews, check emails, post on social media as well as take photos) and my laptop (unless I’m going to be far from a power outlet, say trekking in Nepal or sea kayaking in the Philippines, in which case the laptop stays home). A lot of travel writers I know no longer travel with cameras; they just use their phones to take pictures. Others use DSLR cameras and download their images onto portable hard drives and/or their laptops every night on the road. The bottom line is: find what works for you and the kind of travel you do.
While you’re there
The more effort you put in while you’re away – getting up early to take photos, seeing one more city sight when you’d rather relax with a beer, arranging to meet local experts when you’re tired – the easier it will be to write about the trip later.
The trick is to do more (sightseeing) with less (time) while also being discerning about how you spend your time. Devoting half a day to one modern art museum might not be the best use of your time if you have only two days in that city – unless it’s so offbeat or interesting it deserves its own story.
You don’t have to see everything; if you can get a sense of the place and the main things to see and do there, you can fill in the gaps with online research when you get home.
Seven more quick tips:
- Be observant: This is more than half the job of being a travel writer: noticing details, using all your senses and recording everything you think might be important later.
- Take lots of notes. I use a notebook and pen; other travel writers use their phones to take notes or record observations. Use whatever you’re most comfortable with and can access quickly and without thinking.
- Take lots of photos. Not just for publication, but to help remind yourself of details and record information you don’t have time to read (in museums, for instance). When taking pics for publication, try to get a variety of shots – close ups, landscapes and plenty of people shots – but avoid “happy snaps” of your fellow travellers looking at the camera.
- Listen well. Sounds are often, er, overlooked, but they can add so much to a story. Keep your ears open and you might also hear someone say something you can use in your story.
- Be curious. Travel is one of the best ways to learn about how the world works, about people, about life, about yourself – all of which will make you a better writer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Be there. As well as looking, listening and recording all you see and hear, try to experience where you are. Get hot and sweaty and rained on and lost and always, always talk to strangers. First-hand experiences bring your travel stories to life.
- Be multi-talented. Travel writing is no longer just about writing. It’s also about taking great photos, shooting video, posting on social media, doing podcasts and whatever else you can offer. The more skills you develop, the more work you’ll get.
When you get home
Every writer has a process and you’ll soon develop yours. Some write their stories direct from their notebooks. I like to write up my scribbled, semi-decipherable notes into a master document as soon as I get home – or in transit on the way home – which helps me process and organise what I’ve seen and experienced; this then becomes a sort of mega-draft for several stories.
You might not be on holiday, but travelling as a travel writer can be so enriching and rewarding; plus you often get access to places and people most other people don’t get access to. And you can always take a holiday later, to unwind.
Need some story inspiration? Get it on an Intrepid small group adventure! Check out our full range of trips now.
Feature photo by Louise Southerden.