By freelance travel writer and photographer, David Morgan
Back in the days when I worked in the editorial offices at International Living, it was my job to rewrite articles to make them publishable. In those times, information on living abroad was sparse. We’d take poorly written articles and rework them – so long as the information they contained was good.
Those days are long gone. With the proliferation of information on the Internet, and with living overseas more common now than it was way back when, editors can be much more picky about what they print.
(A quick aside: IL publishes many articles written by graduates of the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course — articles which, the editors report with pleasure, rarely need rewriting. The course author, Jen Stevens, used to be IL’s editor (and my boss), and she’s got an inside track there. As a graduate of the course, so do you.)
That said, back to my story: When I was in the throes of it, sweating in a hot, stuffy Baltimore office, I resented rewriting those articles. But looking back, I realize that it was an exercise that taught me a great deal about crafting sellable pages.
Most of what I learned came from copying a particular writer’s articles word-for-word (merely retyping so we’d have the text in the computer for layout). Though much of what we received in the mail was barely readable, often we’d receive a gem. And from this writer, always.
I’m referring to the work of Steenie Harvey, who I met for the first time face-to-face at Great Escape Publishing’s last travel writing workshop in New York.
Steenie is a master of the written word. She is also one of the most sought-after writers in the travel business. (And she never finished high school, I should tell you in the interest of making an important point: If she can learn to do this, so can you.)
Anyway, Steenie gave two extremely helpful tips, which I jotted down in my notes in New York. They have stuck in my head ever since then and proved remarkably helpful. I hope they’ll serve you just as well…
STEENIE TIP #1: Be Happy.
Don’t write about how terrible your last vacation was. No one wants to read about where not to go. People pick up a travel magazine to read about where they should go instead.
Try, then, to stay upbeat. Stick to recommending the things that will make a trip to your chosen destination a positive experience should a reader try to duplicate the activities you cover in your article.
Just because you got bed bugs in Bangladesh doesn’t mean the next person will. We certainly don’t want to hear about where you were bitten. Instead, make a recommendation of a better place to stay. Or tell your readers to bring their own sheets so they can rest up for the next day’s rickshaw ride through colonial Dakka.
STEENIE TIP #2: Write Strong Leads.
While you’re studying the articles in your favorite travel magazines, pay attention to the first few lines.
You’ll notice that the editors at different publications prefer different types of leads. Some prefer serious and complex leads. Others like light and whimsical leads. Still others prefer human-interest leads, even starting out with quotations.
Be sure that the lead you write for your article is in line with the leads already in print in your target publication. Don’t try to dazzle them with a lead you think is brilliant and “never been done” before. Stick to what works.
You may also find that you can “recycle” your same article by putting different leads up top for different publications — and thus, boost your profits.
Here’s my advice to new writers…
Study some travel publications. Notice how they stay positive in their recommendations. See how each magazine or website prefers certain types of leads over others.
Now take an article you’ve been working on. Are there any ways you can rework it to make better recommendations for your readers? How might you make your lead stronger, based on the articles you’ve read in those publications?
You can always do what I did: Copy strong travel articles word for word, until you get the hang of it. Psychologists call this “flow.” Take that article and start plugging your own information into it. Slowly change the other writer’s words into your own. This is a great exercise. But never pass off someone else’s work as your own.
[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.]