That all-important second commission can make or break a travel writer's career. Our seasoned expert shares his advice for a stellar pitch
Like musicians and novelists the world over, travel writers often face the daunting prospect of following up on their first taste of success. Most newbies think landing your first proper commission is the hard part – and it is, but it’s not necessarily the hardest bit of all. Securing that initial assignment doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing afterwards. In many ways, it’s precisely then that the real work begins.
How so? Consider this. You pitch an idea that an editor actually likes and they ask to see examples of your previously published work, which you dutifully send over but (and it’s a big but) who knows just how much those features have been rewritten before going to print. It’s not exactly unheard of for articles to be reworked so much that they bear little to no resemblance to the original.
So, filing feature number one will be the first time the editor has seen your raw copy. Mess it up and you’re unlikely to ever be given another shot.
I know a travel editor who simply never uses anyone beyond his stable of regular contributors (“It just isn’t worth the hassle”) and another who often does but admits it’s a risk. “A writer I had never heard of pitched an intriguing story idea,” the editor told me. “Her examples seemed decent so I gave her a go. She filed the piece and it was absolute mess.”
It was sent back but the second draft was no less horrendous, so it was left to the editor to salvage it – something no editor has the time or inclination to do. Nor should they.
Despite the printed version being completely overhauled, the ‘writer’ in question still walked away with a lovely byline in an established publication that she can go onto to show other editors.
You’re only as good as your last piece
That’s never happened to me (honest!) but if it did, I’d be mortified and would swiftly contact the editor to at least apologise for my shortcomings and hope they could spare a few minutes to discuss what went wrong.
Equally, if you do deliver on the first commission (and I’m sure you will) then you face a different sort of pressure. Yes, strike while the iron’s hot but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re home and dry. Many do and feel any real effort is no longer required. The result? They fade away, another ‘one hit wonder’ travel writer gone quicker than you can say, ‘Doors to automatic.’
These are challenging times and it’s never been harder to forge a career as a jobbing travel writer. Longevity is the name of the game and you’re only as good as your last piece.
I’ve suffered from second commission curse myself. After the publication of my first story for Wanderlust (trekking across Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia), I naively thought a stream of subsequent commissions would flow my way. How wrong I was.
I hastily fired off a sub-standard pitch that was quickly, and rightly, rebuffed. Several others followed but it was another year before one was accepted. Learn from my mistakes and never rest on your laurels. Follow Nick on Instagram: @Nick_Boulos
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