Chapter One / Travel Writer’s Guide


 

 

 

TRAVEL WRITING: THE PROFESSIONAL WAY FOR PROFESSIONAL RESULTS

 

“I've got $500 and the whole summer free!” announced a young school teacher at my travel writing seminar in San Francisco when I asked if anybody was going to try their hand at some articles right away.

"I've only got $10 and a coupla hundred days left," retorted an oldtimer loudly to the laughing back row.  "What do I do?"

Write.  Make articles pay for your trips, reap a fat profit, and allow you to deduct the travel costs from your taxes.

Choose where you go, how long you stay, what you do. And when you return (or while you’re on-site), by sharing what you’ve seen, heard, and learned, you can develop a skill and sharpen a trade that can bring you more profits, more sights, and more new knowledge, until your days do run out or you put yourself out to pasture. With luck, an exotic pasture.

Who benefits the most? You and your readers. If you do your job well―if your writing is honest and balanced and embodies the full measure of life as you see it―readers learn about other people and places without taking a step. And beyond the other benefits of fun and profit to yourself, you perform a valuable function through good travel writing: You help bring all humanity closer together.

In a step-by-step process, this book shows you how professionals profit from travel in print, and how you can do the same. They are some basics: You must be literate. Clarity of expression is a plus. Curiosity is mandatory.  And some hard work is the order of the day. In addition, five points apply to the whole field of travel writing. Let's take a look at them.
 

1. TRAVEL WRITING SELLS
 

Great news: Nothing is easier to sell in the writing world than travel! It’s estimated that one million articles are published each year. Somebody writes them. They get paid. They could be you.

First, think magazines. They are the travel writer’s best market. They pay from several hundred to several thousand dollars per article, photos extra, and you only write for them when you know they are interested.  (More on that later.)

Divide the magazines into two categories: consumer (called “slicks") and specialty/trade. Consumer magazines are sold on the racks and by subscription.  Almost all of them use travel regularly.

Some are standard, well known magazines, like Travel & Leisure and National Geographic. Others are less known: Accent, Adventure Road, Cruise Travel Magazine, The Islands, Mature Traveler, and Touring America. Some are published by travel-related sponsors, like Amoco Traveler and Vista/USA (by petroleum companies).
 
Still others have a theme or purpose that involves travel. Those include RV/motorhome publications (RV Times Magazine, RV West Magazine, Western RV News), in-flight magazines (American West Airlines Magazine, American Way, Sky, Tradewind, USAir Magazine, Washington Flyer Magazine), and publications about automobiles, motorcycles, aviation, camping, cruises, food and drink, nature, photography, geographic locations, and many more.

Examples of the more obvious consumer magazines are easy to find. Libraries subscribe to them, supermarkets and newsstands sell them, dentists age them and leave them in their waiting rooms. However, a less obvious market, the specialty/trade magazines, may be hungrier, and sometimes, though rarely, pay better.

Some of these specialty magazines are easy enough to imagine: They are for people in the travel trade, like Star Service (guide to accommodations and cruise ships), Bus Tours Magazine, National Bus Trader, RV Business, and Travelage West (for travel agency sales counselors). But others take more creative thinking. For instance, let's imagine there's a magazine called The Plumber's Journal, and let’s say you want to go to Guatemala. While there you research the Guatemalan plumbing trade. Upon returning you write an article ("Plumbing in Guatemala"), which The Plumber’s Journal buys because its readers are interested in all facets of plumbing/plumbing trends, plumbing history, plumbing how-to, and even plumbing in exotic places. For them, yours is a plumbing piece; for you, an article that helps support your habit: traveling on a full stomach and a cooperative wallet.

If you know a field well―you're a teacher, architect, gardener, plumber, or whatever―you can provide those specialty/trade publications with solid articles from new or unusual sites. You have an advantage over the rest of us: In addition to the consumer markets open to all of us, you have access to those magazines that cater to your area of expertise. You know what the readers of those magazines would enjoy reading more about, the special vocabulary they use, and how they might benefit from that knowledge.

You needn't be a specialist to write for those pages, however. I've sold to horticulture publications (I can't get weeds to grow); stamp collecting newsletters (my collection is a roll of unused 29-centers); the Lions, Rotarians, Phi Tau, and Kiwanis publications (says Groucho, "I wouldn't join a club that would have me"), children's pages (though I haven’t been around small children for years), many academic journals (do they give doctorates in spelling?), and, yes, Modern Bride, repeatedly, though I'm a devoutly outdated and, in my near-dotage, single male.

Let me share two quick examples to sharpen your vision for spotting those harder-to-find trade and specialty markets.

Although a friend of mine normally covers Portuguese-speaking Africa, Diu, and Goa, she was given an assignment in Beirut (in the days when it was a glittering resort town). While in the area, she decided to visit Egypt to see the pyramids. Surprisingly―since she was a seasoned traveler who preferred going it alone―she signed on with a tour group.

When she boarded the tour bus she found it full of architects fresh from a world conference in Athens.  Whipping out her stenographer's notepad, she began interviewing. By the end of the tour she had spoken with them all, plus squeezed in three rolls of color slides. The result, some months later, was over $2,500 from sold freelance articles, almost all to architectural magazines!

Three points worth noting. One, she had never read an architectural magazine before, had trouble spelling Egypt, and hadn’t planned to write about her Egyptian side trip. She simply took advantage of a reportable situation.

Two, she gained her architectural expertise from the experts she interviewed and from follow-up research and magazine reading after the trip. (To write successfully for this or any expert group, the article must work. What you write about must be accurate as well as interesting to the reader.)

Three, she let the architects lead the interviews. Rather than trying to imagine what the editor would want, she asked the architects at the pyramids, "Why is this particularly interesting to you?" From their answers and related comments, she built (and sold) articles based on in-depth listening.

The second example is of an agriculture major from the University of Illinois who took his wife on a belated wedding trip to Japan some time after he had graduated. Although he'd never been in print before (nor to my knowledge has he since), he turned one day's digging into seven articles and about $1,500 (helping to pay for his trip!).

He became interested in the intensive form of farming in Japan, in contrast to the extensive system practiced in the Midwest. He wanted to share that with his college ag cronies now scattered around the country, so he decided to write an article.

Cleverly, he persuaded the Ministry of Agriculture in Tokyo to “lend” him an English-speaking employee. The two then spent a day visiting three model farms, where our writer toured, pinched, bowed, tasted, interviewed, and photographed. When he returned home he actually wrote two different articles and sent them to about 20 regional (mostly county) agricultural magazines, all outside each other's distribution range. Seven bought, six paid, all used photos, and knowledge was spread.

Anybody can write for architectural or agricultural magazines. The articles simply must work, the information must be correct, and it must meet the readers' needs.

The hardest part for beginners is to let their minds expand to see those less obvious markets, then dare to approach them with a good idea or article.

After consumer and specialty/trade magazines, newspapers are the third market for travel articles. Usually newspapers don't buy much from freelancers. They are largely staff written, with most of the rest picked up from syndicates and wire services. Freelancers are a headache for most editors, and they have enough headaches already.

Except for travel. It costs far less to buy a travel article and photos from a freelancer than to send a staffer half way around the world. So this is a particularly receptive market that responds quickly and pays promptly, though modestly, once the words have appeared in print. More about newspapers in Chapter 12.
 

2. THINK AND ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL
 

More than half the battle is thinking and acting like a professional, of wearing the suit while you grow into it. In fact, it's unlikely that unless you do―unless you sell, then write like a pro―you'll ever become one.

Although the world is full of people who can write well, editors just have trouble finding responsible, energetic, and accurate people who observe, listen, research―and then write well and deliver their product in a timely fashion. In other words, professionals who give what they promise when they promise in a reliable, usable form.

If you're going to compete with professionals like these, you must do it from the moment you get to the starting line. And keep doing it from then on.

If you aren't literate you just aren't in the race. That's not fatal. Millions of Americans, most of whom are literate, have no desire whatsoever to be in print and they still lead exciting, positive lives. Join them and do something else very well.

Just as important as being literate, is the ability to sell. That is something you can learn to do: it’s akin to wearing the right shoes, training the right way, and eating the right foods before you enter the race. Likewise, selling your travel writing has its own rules and methods.
 
This book will show you how to get in the race in the first place―and how to win every time. Professionals win with every article they put in print. Which takes us to our next step.
 

3. WRITING IS EASIER THAN SELLING
 

If you can make a place or an idea or a people come alive, wrap your prose around a central theme, keep the paragraphs short, write clearly in words the readers understand, be accurate, and help readers experience your experience with all their senses, you won't have much problem with the writing. And the more you do it, the faster and the sharper you’ll become. But that is only half the battle―selling is definitely the other half.

How do you sell your work? Begin by examining the magazine or newspaper in which you’d like to appear. What did the editor just buy? What was the topic? How was it treated? What was the ratio of fact, quote, and anecdote? What angle did the writer take? Any humor? How much? What kinds of photos accompanied the piece? Who took them? How many sentences per paragraph? What made the piece "work"?

Remember, you can be the greatest writer in captivity, bursting with electric text and sparkling dialogue, but unless you sell those words you're an outsider looking in, pockets hanging. The old adage (which I made up about a decade back!) that "amateurs write, then try to sell; professionals sell, then write" is true. But it took me, a kid in Illinois writing up a storm, a long time to learn it. I believed that editors wanted to see what they were buying before they actually bought it. Wrong! (And I’ve got the rejection slips to prove it.)

What I didn't know was that professionals promised an exciting piece before they took a trip. They got the editor's interest and tentative approval, gathered the information and photos on their travels, and tailored their piece to the magazine’s readers―they sent off customized prose and got back a customized check.

They then sold that same piece again and again! And they rewrote it into other articles. And they sold other items based on the same trip to newspapers. After spending $1,500 and a few weeks in some magic spot, they ended up with $4,500, a great trip, and lots of deductions. This makes for success, and selling is as much a key to it as writing.
 

4. DO M0ST OF THE WORK BEFORE YOU GO!
 

Although this may sound odd, it makes good sense. Get most of the work done before you reach the destination, then you'll have lots more time to enjoy the place!

How do you do this? By studying the writing of others. By combing encyclopedias, geography books, maps, press releases, the odd item in the library’s vertical file. By checking out videos or watching TV shows or travelogues. By talking with others who were there. By reviewing the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (or its computer equivalent) and the newspaper indexes, then reading the articles themselves.

In Chapter 2 I’ll show you how you can create a solid information base before you take the trip, so that you spend most of your time on-site adding to, correcting, and expanding that base. Plus gathering invaluable observations, taking photos (an important feature of travel articles), talking with locals, and blending left brain-right brain elements into a full-dimensional manuscript that includes facts, quotes, and anecdotes.

Every research hour well spent at home is another hour uncommitted once you're there.
 

5. DOUBLE OR TRIPLE YOUR INCOME BY TRAVELING SMART
 

Occasionally you’ll have time for only a short visit to one place. But if you have more time at your disposal, as a travel writer you could greatly increase the amount of articles  you write (and the money you can make). By planning well you can include many stops coming and going, with enough time to branch out locally from your destination. Not only is it far less expensive to do this than visit the same number of places separately, but each stop can be lucrative.

Let me explain by example. Suppose you live in or near Los Angeles and you want to write a piece about Reno, Nevada, some 470 miles north. If you have little time, you’ll fly directly there, gather what you need quickly, and fly back.

But if you have more time, you can jump in the car and head to Santa Barbara, "where the Westerns were born and the stars now hide." Check out La Purísima Mission near Lompoc, the best preserved and reconstructed in the chain; then stop at Solvang, the Danish village a few miles east. Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, or Morro Bay are travel havens along the way. Then head up Highway 1 to Hearst Castle, the San Antonio Mission (half-hidden behind Big Sur), and the "17-Mile Road" in Carmel.

Stories beg to be written in Monterey, once the state capitol. Santa Cruz and nearby seaside villages are throwbacks to beatnik days, and San Jose, in the throes of a massive downtown rebuilding, glistens with unwritten articles.

In San Francisco find tightly focused pieces on Brazilian restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inn tucked away in the city, ferry boating, or the fortifications near Lake Merced.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge for a matching article, "The Other Highway 1," from Marin to Leggett, a day or more of the wildest, snakiest, prettiest stretch of sea-hugging road imaginable. Write about it and the places along the way: Point Reyes, Fort Ross, Mendocino, and more.

From there it's either up the "Valley of the Giants" (a road lined with towering redwoods) to Arcata or Eureka, or back down to Highway , and the fabled Feather River. Why not swing north to Oroville and its magnificent dam, and a few miles more to Cherokee (a shard of a town but still full of earlier mining tailings, a museum, and a full cemetery?)  Some of America's only diamonds were found there.

The back roads will take you to Nevada City and Grass Valley, through Truckee (where, in 1846, the Donner Party became stranded and turned to cannibalism), then off to Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, and an hour later to Reno!

On the way back head a bit north to Highway 49 (the "Road of Gold") and Camptonville, with its magnificently preserved hydraulic mining remains. South then to record and photograph the remnants of the gilded age: Coloma, where gold was first found at Marshall's mill; to Hangtown (Placerville), Amador City, Jackson, Angel's Camp; to Columbia, where a gold town has been completely preserved.

You may want to stop in Sacramento, since the highway passes nearby, and later head to Yosemite. Go through the park to the highlands, continue on to Mono Lake, and snake skyward to Bodie, a silver ghost town that rings with authenticity and photographic charm. Then home to Los Angeles and a much deserved rest!

This could be any sector of America... or the world.  I've simply shown you how a straight-line trip could be bent and expanded to pick up another 20 articles coming and going. What I call "pocket-trip stories"―two to three hours of on-site work each (well researched in advance), most of the time spent interviewing, taking sharp photos, and capturing the impressions and sense of the place in your notebook, to be molded later into compelling copy for magazines and newspapers.

You start at the end, the purpose of your trip.  Determine how many days you need to do it properly, add another day or two, then pick up the other stories on both sides, determining what you can add coming and going by the time, money, and energy you have available.

[Chapter 1 continues to discuss the “Obligations of a Travel Writer,” “What Editors Want,” and “What Readers Want” (with a 16-point Readers’ Expectations List)...]

 

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Gordon Burgett

gordon@gordonburgett.com

(800) 563-1454