For advice about travel writing, look to web sites aimed at travel writers? Yes, but you’ll often discover inspirational tips in other places, too.
For instance, I came across an article on a copywriting web site. It was titled “The 12 Most Popular Headlines of All Time.”
An attention-grabbing, must-read article? For a professional writer, you bet it is.
In fact, why are you reading this piece? Although the heading doesn’t make any promises (and sadly it’s not about me), most writers would find it irresistible. We all want to be well paid for what we do.
It won’t work with every story, but think how you could modify and adapt killer advertising campaigns into something more travel-writing related.
Here are seven of the top 12 that you could easily adapt to a travel piece:
** Headline 1: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano — but when I started to play!”
Dating from 1925, this was one of the most successful direct mail headlines of all time. It makes use of curiosity and anticipation. The reader wants to know why “they” laughed in the first place — and also what happened when the guy (the underdog) started tinkling the ivories.
You could write something like, “Friends mocked when I said you can have 3 days in the Caribbean for under $150 — here’s how to do it.”
Or: “They laughed when I took up golf — but I got to play Tiger Woods.”
Or: “They giggled at my dreams of Hollywood — but now I’m up there on the silver screen!” (Could you get a part as an extra in a movie — and then write about it? In New Zealand, I met a jeep driver who played an orc in Lord of the Rings.)
** Headline 2: “They grinned when the waiter spoke to me in French — but their laughter changed to amazement at my reply.”
Again, this was designed to pique curiosity. Like with the first example, “they” signifies people who think the writer can’t do something. And then he or she blows them away with a certain achievement.
So imagine you’re writing a piece about learning a foreign language. You could say: “Don’t Laugh — You Can Learn To Speak Greek In Just Two Hours.”
Or: “Friends scoffed when I said Sicily was the best place on earth — but they stopped when my Mafia boyfriend gunned them down and buried their bodies under concrete pillars.” (On reflection, this second one may prove fairly difficult to get published…)
** Headline 3: “Do you make these mistakes in English?”
Whatever the subject or the product, most readers will always ask: “what mistakes?” They’ll read on to discover if they’re doing something idiotic, embarrassing, or just plain wrong.
For instance, maybe you’re writing about the best ways to get a flight upgrade. Your subhead could say: “Do You Make These Mistakes At Check-In?”
Or maybe your story is about shopping in a North African souk. Turn the “Do” into a “Don’t” and you could write: “Don’t Make These 7 Mistakes When Buying A Moroccan Carpet.”
And most sensitive travelers would read an article asking: “Do You Commit These Cultural Blunders When You Travel?”
** Headline 4: “Can You Spot These 10 Decorating Sins?”
Personally, I have few qualms about committing any sins. So I’m unlikely to get all hot and bothered about a stint in Purgatory through what I’ve done with a paint brush.
But I’ll bet most novice writers would read articles titled: “Can You Spot These 5 Query Letter Sins?” Or: “Can You Spot These 6 Assignment Letter Sins?”
By using “Can You…?”, there’s the subliminal suggestion that other people know how to spot query letter sins (or whatever). You’ll read on to ensure you’re not missing out on some vital knowledge that could help your business, career — or even your travel plans.
But let’s drop the sins. Flipping it into a travel/shopping story about the Far East, you could write: “Can You Spot Real Jade From Fake Jade?”
** Headline 5: “How a strange accident saved me from baldness”
This ad was obviously aimed at guys worrying about thinning locks and shiny pates. But the title sounds like a drinking buddy story. Even if you don’t care about baldness, you’re probably wondering what accident this guy had. Plus it’s intriguing how it could possibly tie in with the subject of hair loss.
You could write: “How A Camel Saved The Family Vacation.” Or: “How A Bus Ride With A Spanish Nun Led To A Heavenly Dinner.”
Or: “How A Strange Encounter With Naked Midgets Saved Me From Jail in Las Vegas.” (Keep this one for the Brits, though. I doubt you’ll get away with it in a U.S. publication.)
** Headline 6: “Who else wants a screen star figure?”
This is clever. The “who else wants…” creates the impression of something desirable… something that certain people already have. And, of course, it hints that the reader can have it too.
So…”Who Else Wants To Know Steenie’s Travel Writing Secrets?” (Sub-heading: “Pay Me One Million Dollars and I’ll Rush Them to You Immediately!”)
Or: “Who Else Wants To Join The French Foreign Legion?”
But seriously, let’s say you’re writing a restaurant review about a new Italian place. You could write: “Who Else Wants the Perfect Pizza?”
Or for a round-up story about 10 places to go to escape squealing brats: “Who Else Wants A Child-Free Hotel?”
** Headline 7: “Who else wants a lighter cake — in half the mixing time?”
Same as with the previous, this generates desirability. After all, who prefers cakes like leaden weights? Here, though, there’s an added benefit — you can have one in half the mixing time.
Thinking about British readers and their ideas of a fun trip, this would probably go down well: “Who Else Wants A Barrel Of Beer And A Night With A Medieval Lesbian — All For Less Than 10 Quid?”
Please. Before venting your outrage, note that the UK Times ran a travel story in June 2007 titled “Tallinn’s Medieval Lesbians.”
Estonia’s capital is a favorite destination for British stag parties. The author was there to join some “lads,” drink copious amounts of alcohol, and investigate the strip clubs — including one where the strippers really do bill themselves as “medieval lesbians.”
When I tell workshop attendees about British travel editors and their readers’ appetite for raunchy stories, I am not kidding.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Steenie Harvey is International Living’s roving Euro-editor and a freelancer whose by-line has appeared in The Washington Post, The World & I, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and The World of Hibernia among many others in the States, Ireland, Britain, Australia, and Germany.
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.]