Chapter One / Travel Writer’s Guide
got $500 and the whole summer free!” announced a young school teacher at
my travel writing seminar in
"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.
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.
standard, well known magazines, like Travel & Leisure and National
Geographic. Others are less known: Accent,
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.
these specialty magazines are easy enough to imagine: They are for people in
the travel trade, like Star Service (guide to accommodations and cruise
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.
a friend of mine normally covers Portuguese-speaking Africa, Diu, and Goa, she was given an
boarded the tour bus she found it full of architects fresh from a world
points worth noting. One, she had never read an architectural magazine before,
had trouble spelling
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.
second example is of an agriculture major from the
interested in the intensive form of farming in
he persuaded the Ministry of Agriculture in
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.
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"?
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
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.
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.
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.
explain by example. Suppose you live in or near
you have more time, you can jump in the car and head to
beg to be written in
there it's either up the "Valley of the Giants" (a road lined with
towering redwoods) to Arcata or
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!
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
want to stop in
could be any sector of
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)...]
Are you receiving Gordon’s free newsletter?
[ Back to the Travel Writer’s Guide ]