The Basics of Travel Writing

Preparation + Execution = Success

Envision, if you will, the following predicament. You’re a freelance writer assigned to visit Snowshoe Lake, Alaska, to write a review of your experience there. Aside from being worried that you’ll freeze to death, it’s your first time writing a travel piece, and you’re unsure about how to get started. Seeking help, you ask two experienced travel writer friends to describe their usual writing routines, but their answers are diametrically different.
Dwayne Clutter says he spends his trips gathering stacks of information, scurrying back and forth to see as many attractions as possible and rapidly taking notes at all times. Edie Expedient, on the other hand, spends her trips visiting a pre-selected group of sites, casually taking notes and acting more like a vacationer than a travel expert.
It may surprise you – and will undoubtedly please you – that Edie’s more relaxed approach is the better way to treat a travel-writing excursion, and for good reason.
“Allow yourself to slow down and simply observe,” says Melissa Stampley, former travel editor for CitySearch.com in Los Angeles. “It’s important to convey the sights, smells and sounds of a destination, and you’ll always make the best observations when you sit back and just experience a place.”
But that’s not to say that travel writing should be all fun and games. In fact, the hard work and preparation before your trip will allow you to create a specific set of trip objectives, and at the same time let you enjoy yourself. Through a combination of research, scheduling and establishing a strict focus well in advance of the actual trip, travel writers can breathe easy while on the road, playing the dual-role of both a curious tourist and a reliable source of insight for other potential travelers.
According to Stampley, your time at a destination is almost always limited, due to the modest travel budgets and tight deadlines facing most publications. The more you can plan before you get where you’re going, the better off you’ll be when you’re actually there.
“Research, research, research,” Stampley says. “The Internet, books, articles and people who know about the destination are all wonderful resources.”
With that said, your mental preparation is still only one part of the battle. In the case of Snowshoe Lake, for instance, you could read every ounce of literature and reference material ever written on the place, but it wouldn’t help very much if you failed to pack a heavy winter coat and a pair of gloves. Basic travel necessities such as a map, cell phone, camera, cash and proper attire are obvious items to remember in your preparation. But what other materials, specific to writing, will avail a travel writer en route?
“A small notepad is a travel writer’s best friend,” says Stampley. “Something portable is ideal, so you can keep it nearby when inspiration strikes.” She also recommends a file folder for which to store menus, maps, brochures, receipts and other documentation obtained along the way. Plenty of pens, extra batteries and film are also key pieces to the preparation puzzle.
You are now mentally and physically ready to depart, and you’re eagerly looking forward to that relaxing, stress-free trip that will result in a paycheck once the writing is done. But the planning stage is not complete yet. There is one thing left to do, and Stampley indicates that it might be the single most important element of any good travel-writing story – you must develop an angle.
The angle does not have to be binding or restrictive to your creativity. You can adapt it or change it at any time during your trip. But regardless of what approach you choose, having a central focus will help you tie everything else together, saving you a lot of time and worry.
“From the research stage, a travel piece needs to have an angle to make it cohesive,” says Stampley. Because there are countless places to go and things to see on any trip, she adds, “You have to be able to narrow the scope of coverage and prioritize.”
Developing an angle will help you map out your itinerary so that you can fit everything you want to do into your schedule. Even if your assignment calls for a broad description, the story can still benefit from having one or a few prominent themes. West Texas golf courses, cuisine of Honduras and architecture in Pyongyang are all clear examples of travel writing with an angle.
Once you have finished your research, packed the right equipment and created a central theme to your piece, you’re officially ready to make the trek. Be sure to know where your writing materials and notes are at all times during the trip because if you lose them, you’ll be hard-pressed to write anything helpful or informative. Take plenty of photos, too, as pictures can help jog your memory of a place or event well after the fact. Finally, when you return from your journey, start writing immediately, so that the experience is still fresh on your mind.
Is there anything else that Stampley recommends as crucial to a successful travel piece? Actually, yes, but no how-to article in the world can help you with this part. You always need, in Stampley’s words, “Good writing that makes the destination come alive.” Then again, a few days in Snowshoe Lake, Alaska, can do some strange things to a traveler.

8 Helpful Tips to Selling Your Travel Writing

Writing your travel feature is one thing. Finding a use for it is a whole different bag of tricks. Some of us are not so lucky to already have an assignment with a contract, per diem, deadline and kill fee. Those among the less fortunate have to find a publication, or at least someone willing to pay for the writing, in order to forge ahead and put food on the table. The following tips give advice about how to make travel writing marketable.

1. Get to know as many travel editors and people in the hospitality industry as possible. More contacts mean better assignments and better resources.
2. Find a specialty in sports, restaurants, sailing, cooking, entertainment, technology, or another subject, and tie it to a particular piece. Having one or more specialties will help you build a track record of expertise.
3. Think outside the box when you decide what type of story to write. Editors will be more impressed with stories that analyze, criticize, rate and evaluate than they will be with stories that simply review a destination. Numerical ratings are good sellers, i.e. the 10 best steam baths in Iceland.
4. If an article doesn’t sell or if you haven’t signed away rights to an article, try to improve on it and resell it somewhere else. Update the information and change the marketplace, but don’t give up on a piece after one try.
5. Try to sell your work to publications with less competition, such as general interest consumer magazines, Websites and foreign publications. Avoid the most obvious markets, like travel magazines.
6. Submit only professional-looking manuscripts and photos. Also, be sure to follow submission guidelines closely. The appearance and condition of a story says a lot about the person who wrote it.
7. Make each trip you take a resource for multiple travel pieces, instead of just one. Take advantage of the research and work you put into a given piece and maximize the output.
8. Learn photography because good photos will increase the value and credibility of your story. Moreover, many publications won’t even consider a story without photos.

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