Travel Writing: How to Stop Wasting Time and Get Started
By John Forde in Paris, France
In 1984, England closed Libya’s embassy in London. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was so mad, according to the Associated Press, he had England deleted from every map printed in Libya. The maps showed the North Sea covering the territory between Scotland and Wales. Well, I guess that’s one way to make sure you never get invited to Buckingham Palace again.
Who would have thought that, in 2004, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair would be visiting Libya, shaking hands with Qaddafi, and sharing chick peas and yogurt dip with the dictator and children’s book author while they talked about old times?
Bottom line: things CAN change.
Qaddafi changed his stars by dropping his nuclear program and renouncing terrorism. Now, I’m not asking you to identify with Muammar el-Qadaffi. (Though you’re welcome to if you want to.)
NEW ENDINGS: DUMPING BAGGAGE THAT HOLDS YOU BACK
Why do I tell that story? Because the biggest burdens we face when we set out on a new venture are often the baggage we insist on dragging behind us.
What’s your baggage?
In my regular profession, copywriting, one of the major burdens is that of ego. When we write ads, we poison them sometimes by trying to be too clever and cute, at the expense of the persuasive power of the ad.
The same is very true in travel writing. It doesn’t pay to try to be cute. At least, not when that cuteness or cleverness makes your travel article less useful, less clear, and less alluring to the reader.
And you’d be surprised how much this is true.
Think about it. How many times have you been tempted to throw a pun in the headline? How often have you worked hard to find a place to squeeze in a joke or personal anecdote that wasn’t relevant to your article? How often do you find yourself loading up your travel writing with details because you feel certain they’ll make YOU, the writer, look good?
We all do it. The ego is the last thing that should be a guiding light to a truly good travel writer. Much more important are a benefit-driven headline or hook… details that make a destination tempting… and clear, direct “how-to” information that lets a reader actually try what your article is recommending.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: See issue #14 in our e-letter archives for advice on writing the type of headlines editors want, click here.]
What else can hold a travel writer back?
Procrastination. Writing is a lonely art sometimes. It’s just you, the beads of sweat on your forehead, your notes, and the computer screen. So what happens when you sit down to work in the morning?
If the first thing you do is answer your email, that’s bad. If the second thing you do is make a trip to the fridge, that’s worse.
Here’s a productivity secret. And it works for anything, not just travel writing: Try inverting your agenda. Put the big projects in front and the small stuff in back, instead of the other way around. You’ll find you get a LOT more done.
Here’s another bag you want to drop: Lazy writing. Have you ever found yourself lacking in a detail and, instead of seeking it out, just written over the hole with a patch of generalized fluff or empty description? If you’re like every other writer, I’m sure you have. But it’s time we put a stop to that too.
It’s the detail work that separates you from the amateurs. The research. The methodical accuracy. The care. Budget double the time this year to researching the articles you’re going to write. You’ll see how it pays off in the end — with faster writing times and much higher quality.
OLD BEGINNINGS: FINISHING WHAT YOU STARTED
The other half of the success coin as a writer is not just leaving behind the things you should NOT be doing, but taking up those things you should.
One more anecdote: During the year, I give teach at a few travel writing seminars. I’m always surprised in two ways.
First, I’m impressed by the students. I’ve met some sharp people at these things, including people who lead lives I envy (and I live a pretty good one myself). And people who are chock full of brilliant ideas.
That’s the upside.
On the downside, I’m shocked by how many tell me “I’m going to start doing this soon… I’m just waiting until…” Until whatever. Or “I’ve ordered that course on travel writing… but I haven’t had a chance to open the binder.” Or “I’ll submit an article one of these days, but I’m not ready yet…”
I call this the “exercise bike phenomenon.”
As in, you may have spent a lot for that exercise bike in your bedroom because you meant to get in shape. But somehow, it’s transformed into the most expensive towel rack in your house.
In 2005, let’s make it the year to finish what we’ve started.
There’s a saying, “Don’t say you don’t have time. You have the same number of hours in the day as Michelangelo, Einstein, and Marie Curie.”
My friend Michael Masterson ( www.earlytorise.com ) has a goal-setting technique he likes to share: First, make your goal more detailed. For instance, ‘this year I’ll write and submit 15 travel articles by December.’
Next, break your goal down into steps, including a time schedule. Such as, ‘I’ll take the drive up to that antique spot by next Sunday, I’ll have my notes 50% revised by Monday at 4 pm, and 100% by Tuesday at 3 pm, my article will be finished, spell-checked, and in the mail by Friday.’
Last, all you need to do is have a consistent and frequent schedule for checking to see if you’ve completed the steps you’ve set for yourself. The best interval? Every day at exactly the same time, say 5 pm, take 15 minutes to touch every paper on your desk and cross of the things you’ve completed that day on your list.
Personally, I’ve got a lot planned for the year ahead. I’ve got a 500+ page course on writing copy for the internet that I’ve finished creating. It comes out in February. Plus several flattering and unsolicited offers to write copy for major clients that I may have to turn down… and an exclusive that will keep me busy for most of the year.
However, in March, I’ll be teaching at a small, private writing seminar in South Africa. And at the end of the same month, I’ll also be teaching — along with Lori Appling, Jennifer Stevens, and Steenie Harvey — at a much larger travel writing seminar in Buenos Aires.
Until then, best wishes for 2005! Be sure to stick with what you’ve got planned. And stay around for more great stuff in The Write Way to Travel.
[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.]