Four Things I Thought I Knew About Travel Writing
I went to the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in Portland last July to see what I could do with a journal full (six months’ worth) of travel stories and thousands of photos.
I desperately wanted to be a travel writer but I didn’t know where to start. I thought about it and read about it every day. I bought books and magazines and read through them, highlighting things, which made me feel very productive.
Except… well, I wasn’t getting anything published.
That is, until I met freelance writers Jennifer Stevens, Steenie Harvey, and Stan Sinberg in Portland, and they spelled it all out for me. The way they presented it, it looked easy. And turns out, it was.
See, after reading books on travel writing, Internet articles, and this e-letter, I already knew a lot about how travel writing works in theory. But it took going to the workshop to find out how to realistically do it. Today, I’d like to share with you a few of the things I learned at the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop last year that I hope will help you get published, too.
If you’re thinking about attending this year’s event (you can register here). Hopefully these tips will give you a leg up and you’ll see even more success than I did after attending…
Four things I thought I knew but didn’t:
1. READ MORE THAN JUST THE WRITER’S GUIDELINES
** What I already knew: Everywhere – in this e-letter, in books on travel writing, all over online travel writing forums – everyone who knows what they’re talking about will tell you that the most important thing you can do as a writer is follow the writer’s guidelines. I knew that, and you probably do, too.
** What I learned: In Portland, Jen shared a secret with us… you can find out even more about a magazine’s readers – and thus what kinds of articles it’ll publish – by clicking on the “advertise” link on most magazine websites. There, you’ll usually find the median age of readers, the ratio of male-to-female, statistics on their education level, and sometimes much more. With these little gems of knowledge, you’ll be able to tailor your story to the readers and better please the editors. Don’t forget to read plenty of issues of that magazine, too.
2. BE A PROFESSIONAL WRITER – CLIPS OR NOT
** What I already knew: It’s tricky to get published if you’ve a newbie. But it’s not impossible.
** What I learned: If you know you’ve got a great story idea and you want to pitch it — even if you don’t have any clips — you can. But Jen suggests that you don’t tell the editor you’ve never been published. If you follow all of the writer’s guidelines and approach the editor in a professional way — plus, you write an irresistible pitch — there’s no need to say it’s your first time. And doing so might compromise your credibility.
When I wrote my first query letter to the editor of Oregon.com, I took Jen’s advice and resisted telling him I was new to travel writing. Instead, I said I was a freelance writer (I am) and included a few links to free articles I’d had published online. And it worked!
He offered me my first assignment “on spec” and, since then, he’s taken everything I’ve pitched him.
3. IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE
** What I already knew: Magazines want articles with fresh ideas, so you should read plenty of back-issues of the publications you want to be published in. Otherwise, you might send them an article on something they’ve already covered. And that’s a sure way not to get published.
** What I learned: It’s true. You have to come up with original subject matter for your article. But you can still find article structures and ideas by reading other travel articles. For example, this month’s National Geographic Adventure Magazine ran an article called “Black Magic,” about road trips through South Dakota’s Black Hills, which detailed what to do on days one through four of the trip.
You could easily scout out a few scenic road trips in your own state and write a similar article for a different magazine. And you’ll have an article structure to follow when you write it up (this many words about the drive there… this many about the first stop, etc). Or, you could apply that article structure to a completely different idea… like a long-distance bike trip, or backpacking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
4. WRITE ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE – NOT ABOUT YOU
** What I already knew: Honestly? I didn’t really get this. I thought that including my deep thoughts and feelings meant that I was writing the next great American travel novel. But now, when I go back and read the articles I wanted to publish before last summer’s workshop, I cringe at all of those personal details.
** What I learned: No one wants to hear you go on and on about your life in your travel articles. They want to know what the experience will be like for them.
Now when I write a story, I go back through and read for places where I’ve talked about myself too much. I can change my stories from “This is what I saw and how I felt and what I did,” to “This is what you’ll see and how it feels and what you’ll do.”
I learned that you can still use “I,” but try not to include too many details that could derail the reader.
It’s a good thing I knew these tips before trying to get paid bylines. Otherwise, I’m afraid I might have been discouraged and given up.
It’s true that going to the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in Portland was convenient… I lived just a few minutes away. But had I known that it would literally change my life in such a big, positive way, I would have made the trip, no matter where it was in the country.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]