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.
Every travel writer has at least one tale no one else can tell: how she got into travel writing. Daydreaming about being a photojournalist led me down the rabbit hole. I’d bought my first SLR camera, film of course (this was 1989), in an old second-hand camera shop in London on my gap year. Six months later, after an overland trip across Africa in the back of a truck, I was back in Australia trying to get some of my photos published, when an editor gave me this fateful advice: photos are more publishable when they have words to go with them, and vice versa.
So I reluctantly wrote my first travel story, A Day in the Life of an Overlander, which was published soon after in a free employment magazine, though I was paid for the story. I was hooked. I didn’t know anything about the media (I’d studied psychology and zoology at university), but I knew this: I wanted to earn my living by writing and taking pictures.
The media landscape has changed massively since then, of course. For one thing, editors tend to source photos from image libraries now, not from their writers (more on this below). But travel is more popular than it’s ever been, with more people visiting more bits of the planet than ever before – which means there’s more demand for travel content, of all kinds, and not just in written form.
To shine a torch down the rabbit hole, a few tips for getting started:
1. Start writing
One of the best things about the rise of the interweb is that you can get your work out in the world without having to go through traditional gatekeepers such as editors, subeditors and publishers. And one way to do that is to start a blog and get writing. Along the way you’ll find your voice, develop a style and discover what you love writing and learning about, which brings us to tip #2…
2. Find your niche
It’s great to be able to write about anything, but it’s also handy to have a niche – and these things aren’t mutually exclusive. My niche is nature-based, sustainable travel, but I still write city guides, hotel reviews and all sorts of other stories to make a living.
A niche can be anything: a region, a country, a way of travelling (solo or as a couple, on foot or by sea, on a budget or in luxury), something you always do when you travel (shop, swim, run, eat…).
Why specialise? Because it’s easier to write well about something you’re interested in than about something you don’t know or care about. Being an expert also helps you stand out from the pack; editors love writers who have the inside track on a destination or insight into a particular aspect of travel.
So explore what interests you. What kinds of travel stories do you like reading? Which destinations and what kinds of trips interest you (and which ones don’t)? Do you love reading about nightlife, cruises, animals, food, other cultures, trains, luxury travel, travelling solo or with kids? What do you love telling other people about when you come back from a trip? Knowing yourself is a big advantage in this game.
3. Get photographic
Being able to provide photos with a story isn’t as essential as it once was, now that most publications use online image libraries and have access to images provided by tourism organisations, tour operators and other travel providers, but it can improve your chances of being published. Most publications also don’t pay for images from contributors any more either; if they do pay, it won’t be much.
But there’s another reason to provide images whenever you file a story, at least a link to images from the tour operator: it makes the editor’s job easier, saving her time and, in the process, making you more likely to be published than if you hadn’t gone to the trouble of sourcing images.
One final note on images: check first what kinds of images the publication needs (by checking the Contributors’ Guidelines, see #6 below, and reading the publication) and how the editor likes to receive them (for instance: via a link to a Google folder) so you don’t inadvertently create more work for the editor you’re trying to impress.
4. Zoom in
It’s tempting when you’re starting out to pitch ideas to as many publications as you can, to improve your chances of getting published. But you’ll have more success if you focus on one or two publications at first. Get to know them, their style, what kinds of travel and destinations they cover, what they’ve covered recently – and this will help you pitch the right ideas at the right time to them. Editors will feel more confident buying your stories or commissioning you to write, if you can show you know their publication and what its readers want.
Another important point to note: editors like to have exclusive rights to a story so it’s best to pitch your story ideas to one publication at a time. You can send multiple story ideas in one pitch email, but email only one publication at a time. Then wait a reasonable amount of time – which you’ll decide based on, say, how often this publication is published and whether it’s in print or online – before pitching these ideas to another publication.
5. Start small
Which publications to target? Your odds are better with small or niche travel publications at first; national or monthly publications tend to be swamped by submissions and have a stable of regular contributors, making them harder to break into.
Remember to think outside the travel media square: many non-travel magazines, such as industry magazines for doctors or other professionals, have travel sections they need to fill each issue; if a magazine has a healthy subscriber base, it might even pay more than a travel publication.
The other way to “start small” is to write short pieces, say 500-800 words. Don’t go for the big features straight out of the gate; they’re usually written by regular contributors. Some magazines even publish readers’ stories and images; there’s no pay for these usually, and I’d never suggest you write for nothing, but these sections can give you a foot in the door.
6. Get the guidelines
Most publications have Contributors or Submission Guidelines, which outline what they expect from contributors in terms of style and grammar, how long their stories usually are, what their regular sections are, who their readers are and so on. You might find these on the publication’s website, or email someone on the editorial team asking them to send them to you. If they don’t have guidelines, get familiar with the publication by reading a few issues instead.
7. Read, a lot
While you’re reading the publications you want to write for, pay attention. Notice the stories you like and those you don’t and why. One of the best books about all this is Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing by Don George. And don’t forget to read beyond travel, including the work of non-travel writers who write brilliantly about travel (John Steinbeck is one of my favourites) and other non-travel books and articles. It’s a good idea to read in the medium you want to write in; that is, read articles if you’re writing articles, books if you want to write books – they all have their rhythms. Most importantly: read whatever makes you want to write.
8. Practise travel
The next time you’re out and about in your neighbourhood or your hometown or on holiday, practise being more observant than usual. Try this: sit in one spot for 20 minutes and write about everything you can see, hear, smell and feel. Then think of one story you could pitch about the place, if you were on assignment. Perhaps a “10 things” list of things to do, see or eat there, or a short piece about a quirky café or tourist attraction. There’s a world of stories out there.
Want to practise travel on an Intrepid trip? Check out our full range of small group adventures for some inspiration!
Feature photo by Louise Southerden.