Turning a Bad Hotel into a Good Travel Article
In yesterday’s newsletter we answered this question from one of our readers:
“If you’re sent to do a piece on a specific location, such as a hotel, and it turns out to be terrible, do you still have to write the article as promised? If so, what do you say? If you don’t feel you can in good conscience write an article about it do you have to reimburse the value of the trip and expenses?”
If you missed that issue, you’ll find it in our archives, here: Eating Guinea Pig
Today, scroll down below to find out how freelance travel writer and editor Jennifer Stevens recommends you incorporate your negative experiences into travel articles so the “downside” won’t undermine your stories’ selability.
Director, Great Escape Publishing
THOSE PESKY NEGATIVES: HOW TO BE HONEST AND STILL SELL YOUR STORY
By Jennifer Stevens in Colorado Springs, CO
I’ll be straight with you: Editors aren’t going to give up pages and pages of copy to an article that discourages readers from going to a place.
First, the advertisers wouldn’t go for it. (Why, for example, would the Tanzanian Tourist Board fork over thousands of dollars for an ad that faces an article whose premise is: Don’t go to Tanzania, it’s a hole-in-the-wall? They wouldn’t.)
Second, people read travel articles to find out where to go. They read to “live” a little in the story-telling, to learn about the world, to escape. They do not read to find out how wretched a place is. They can get their fill of that in Section A of any daily paper.
Travel publications are in the business of keeping their advertisers and their readers happy. That’s how they stay in business.
So does that mean you’re to paint a rosy picture of every place you venture? No… and yes. Here’s what I mean:
*** 1) Find the right publication for your story and turn your negatives into positives.
Say, for example, you want to write about a 5-day winter backpacking trip you took in Holy Cross Wilderness in Colorado. You dug an igloo to sleep in, and you didn’t see another human the whole time you were away.
If you wanted to pitch this article to Travel & Leisure, you’d have your work cut out for you. You’d have to find a way to make your igloo and isolation story appeal to an audience whose idea of an ideal Colorado escape is a week at a luxury spa in Aspen.
Your entire article would be full of negatives as far as that reader is concerned.
Those same negatives, however, turn to positives the instant you switch audiences. Avid backpackers, for example, might find this story fascinating — the perfect back-country trip for an avid backpacker in search of a real escape (for this type of audience, that is.) So if you’re writing for Backpacker Magazine, then you’re all set. That audience will eat it up.
My point: Target your audience correctly, and your negatives will mostly disappear.
*** 2) They won’t — or shouldn’t — disappear entirely. Your reader deserves your honest assessment of a place. So include the negatives as caveats and, when possible, offer solutions and give those negatives a positive spin. You’ll build credibility, and your reader will appreciate your candor.
For example, let’s say you decide to write about your Holy Cross Wilderness trip for Backpacker Magazine. Your audience is well-targeted, so you won’t have too many negatives. But there are still a few downsides to this destination: It’s really high up and it’s hard to get to.
Now, the fact that the elevations range from 8,000 to 13,000 feet might not be an issue if you live in Colorado and you’re used to hiking at those altitudes. But somebody coming from a lower elevation might experience nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and shortness of breath.
You might say, for instance: “Hiking at 8,000-13,000 feet can be grueling, even for somebody used to those altitudes. But if you’re coming from a lower elevation, be warned: altitude sickness can bring with it nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and shortness of breath. Nothing you can’t avoid, though, by arriving a few days before your trip so your body has time to acclimate. Plus you’ll want to be sure you take a bottle of Tylenol and some Tums on the trail.” Problem solved (and negative counteracted).
As for it being hard to get to… again, that’s OK as long as you give your reader fair warning. You’re doing him a disservice if you neglect to mention the harrowing drive over snowy passes. Wouldn’t you want to know?
You could say: “Make sure you rent a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for your trip as it can be treacherous at times getting from Denver to the park’s entrance. It’s worth the effort, though. The views are glorious, and because few travelers want to be bothered battling the snow on those narrow, curvy roads, the trails in the park are, as a result, virtually empty. It’s like having the whole of the West to yourself.”
Now you’ve not only offered a solution to the problem of getting there, but you’ve turned the negative around and presented a real plus, a payoff. There’s nothing a die-hard backpacker likes better than deserted trails.
*** 3) Further downplay the negative by giving it relatively few words.
A reader once asked me how he could talk about San Antonio neighborhoods that are great for Day of the Dead celebrations in the daytime but might be unsafe for tourists at night.
My response? Just say as much. If you’ve targeted your audience correctly, and you’ve painted an enticing-enough picture of these celebrations, then your reader won’t care. He’ll simply make sure he’s out of those neighborhoods by night fall.
Just be sure to spend more time talking about the “upside” and less about the “downside.”
Don’t say: “Make sure you’re out of neighborhood x by nightfall. The place is known for its violent crimes, and you won’t want to be caught off-guard.”
Instead, say: “Plan your visit to neighborhood x during the day, when it’s perfectly safe there. Then head for the evening to neighborhood y for dinner at restaurant z. There you’ll find the best Mexican food in town.”
Now you’ve made your point subtly and quickly, giving relatively few words to your negative point and, really, casting it in a positive light. And your suggestion for an evening activity focuses your reader’s attention on another positive aspect of your story.
*** Three More Examples
I’m including here three more passages. In each, the writer handles the negative well.
** From an article written by a reader of The Right Way to Travel, about the Seychelles: Instead of “the wine is awful,” the writer says…
Don’t expect much in the way of a wine list, though. Good wine is hard to come by anywhere in the Seychelles and in this way only, The Mahek is no different. The beer however, a local brew called ‘Eku’, is second to none.
** From a restaurant review in the New York Times: Instead of “everything is overcooked,” the writer says…
…If I wanted a great skirt steak or roasted pork in Washington Heights at 2 a.m. after a night of dancing, there would be no better place than El Presidente, on Broadway near 165th Street. But if I wanted a meal before the party in a place with low lights and a warm atmosphere, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Bohio….
…In fact, many dishes are cooked a little bit more than I would choose, not surprisingly. One night I took my friend Raphael, who is part Dominican and has made a close personal study of Dominican cuisine. ”Dominicans like everything well done,” he said, as we cut into a piece of flank steak ($16) that had been ordered medium rare but was just a bit pink. Nonetheless, the chewy beef had plenty of flavor.
** From a Washington Post article on a visit to Sarasota: Instead of “the shops are very expensive,” the writer says…
Our visit takes about four hours, and that’s rushing it. But shops in both downtown Lido Key and Sarasota had caught our attention during a drive-through, and they beckon. If you come to Sarasota either bring a lot of cash or decide to window-shop with abandon. The stores tend toward the high end, offering paintings, sculptures, glass, furniture and clothing made by fine artists and craftspeople both locally and from around the world.
[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.]