Travel Writing Expedition in Ecuador, Day 1: Are You Being Descriptive or Just Lazy?
“Nestled between the Andes, the quaint and charming town of Cotacachi, near Quito, boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. For those considering moving overseas, it is certainly one of Ecuador’s hidden gems and a picture perfect place to retire.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Not to your travel editor, it doesn’t.
Jackie Gray here, writing to you from our travel writing workshop in Cotacachi, Ecuador.
Freelance travel writer, Steenie Harvey is leading our travel writing sessions this week and offering attendees all types of advice on getting started as freelance writers. In today’s class, she warned us about lazy writing in our articles.
As Steenie put it “you’re a travel writer, not a hack churning out fluffy nonsense for a travel brochure.” In order to paint a real picture of a place, you have to use descriptive words, not just fluffy adjectives. So your readers can decide if they want to go there.
While my initial paragraph sounds nice, it doesn’t really tell you anything more about Cotacachi than that it’s surrounded by mountains, which you probably already assumed after I said it was nestled in between the Andes.
Plus, it includes fluffy adjectives like “quaint and charming” and cliché phrases like “nestled between,” “picture perfect,” and “hidden gem,” which are not only terribly over-used, but also not unique. What differentiates this quaint town from a quaint town in France or New Zealand or Alaska?
As a travel writer, it’s your job to be observant. You should train your mind to think like a camera so you can pick up every little detail about a place and share the full experience with others.
Go ahead and write down your initial assessment of the place, she said. But then think about your five senses and write those details down, too. What do you see? How’s the weather? What are the local people like? How did you get there? What did you eat? What can you smell?
And get specific. Count the mountains you can see from your hotel window. Note the range in prices on a local restaurant menu. Time how long it takes to get from the airport to the city center. Find out what days the church bells ring and at what time.
It’s specifics like these that lend your story authenticity and authority (and make it saleable).
Write everything down. You may not use it all, but at least you’ll have it when you sit down to start your story.
A more descriptive, specific paragraph might read:
“Located between the Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes, the small, colonial town of Cotacachi is about a two-hour drive north from Ecuador’s capital city of Quito and includes breathtaking views of the surrounding Andes. With a moderate climate, beautiful countryside, warm and friendly locals, and affordable property, it’s no wonder this little town is quickly becoming a popular retirement haven for North Americans looking to move south.”
With more rich descriptions about a place, we’re able to get the full picture. So we don’t just know that people want to retire in Cotacachi, but we know why.
Freelance travel writer Jennifer Stevens once said: “Your descriptions are like frosting on a cake. They offer a quick, sweet rush because they’re fun to write. But with no solid cake underneath, it’s just too much of a good thing. You wouldn’t want to eat an entire plate of frosting. Neither does your editor. And you certainly wouldn’t want to pay for a plate of frosting with no cake. Neither will they.”
[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.]