Confessions of a travel writer: How to get your first big breakthrough

If you can't handle rejection, travel writing isn't for you. But perseverance pays off: here's how one professional writer got his first big break

7 mins
'No'. That's all the email said. No ‘hello’, no ‘best wishes’ or ‘thanks’; not even the sender's name or initial flippantly placed at the bottom in a cold and dismissive sign off. Just two small letters that felt like a big beating.

I had opened the message feeling assured and excited – but my hopes were dashed in an instant. I was, until that moment, completely convinced that this would be my big moment: my first commission from a travel editor of a national newspaper.

I had painstakingly researched a water-tight feature idea and agonised over the perfect pitch for hours, but even that wasn't enough. I felt like giving up there and then.

This took place back in 2007, as I began embarking on the perilous road to becoming a fully-fledged travel writer. At many times along the way – more than I care to remember or admit – it felt overwhelmingly impossible. Emails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. Idea after idea was rejected, or worse, ignored.

Editors wouldn't commission me because I had no experience or examples of published pieces, but how was I to achieve either if nobody would give me a chance?

I quickly learnt that travel writing, like life, is full of bitter rejection. A different approach was needed. Instead of pitching to the big boys, the newspapers and magazines I loved as a reader and longed to write for, I targeted smaller and more specialist titles. I pitched a guide to Tokyo to a running magazine ahead of the city's inaugural marathon and secured a commission within minutes. Similarly, I placed a piece on family holidays in a parenting magazine.

The tide slowly started to shift and soon I had a decent portfolio of work under my belt. After a year of pitching stories to Wanderlust, I landed my first assignment (a new trek across Fish River Canyon in Namibia) but only after a lengthy interrogation by the then editor on my credentials, how I had come upon this new hike and why I had been researching Namibia to begin with.

These days the ratio of stories accepted and declined has shifted considerably, but many are still regularly turned down. It remains a frustrating and disheartening reality of the job. And it’s not necessarily because they are poor concepts. There are countless reasons why a proposal may be knocked back: perhaps the title has just run a similar story or already has three pieces on that destination waiting to be published, perhaps there are commercial interests or ethical and political situations to consider.

Around the same time as I secured my first Wanderlust commission, I began to make some headway in the equally tumultuous world of newspaper journalism. Again, after countless pitches, one was finally accepted. Sweden’s Ice Hotel beckoned but the tight deadline meant I had to stay on its opening night in order to file the following day for publication that weekend. Assured by the then PR that this wouldn't be a problem, I advised my new editor that I could deliver the feature as agreed. Then, a spanner. A major one.

"I'm afraid the Ice Hotel is completely full that night," said the PR. "But I can arrange for you to have a look around and enjoy a drink at the bar. Then, in the morning, you can interview someone who spent the night and pretend it was you who stayed over. Who would ever know?"

I could barely believe my ears. It wouldn't be the first (or last) time a travel writer has fudged the truth – I recently heard a tale about one who filed an entire first-person story on a place she had never visited – but for me it simply was not an option. And, so, I suddenly faced the very real possibility of losing my first ever newspaper assignment and making an excruciating phone call to the editor, who, I imagined, would be unlikely to ever commission such an unreliable amateur again.

Before I had the chance, however, the phone rang. It was the PR. "Good news. The trip is back on," she enthused. But how? "The Ice Hotel have decided to build an extra room especially for you."

More Confessions of a Travel Writer blogs...

Is travel writing the best job in the world? | Nick reveals some less-glamorous moments

The story behind the article
| Nick reveals the truth behind a recent Wanderlust feature

How to work while you're on the road
| Could you write a 1,600-word feature on your iPhone?

Main image: Ice Hotel, Sweden (Supplied)

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