Expert advice to help you break into travel writing
Want to be a travel writer? Then prepare to be loathed. The idea that someone goes to exotic places for free – and then gets paid to write about them – is too much for many to take. “You’ll never convince friends you are going abroad to work,” explains freelance travel writer Liz Edwards. “They’ll make constant reference to your ‘holidays’.”
But while free trips, global travel and your name in print sound glamorous, there are down sides. It’s hard work, hugely competitive and – unless you are the second Bryson – you won’t earn much. Roving overseas with a notebook, a deadline and a pack of other journalists can also take the fun out of travelling altogether. Not put off? Read on to find out how you can get this dream job.
You can – but you need to be self-motivated and flexible. You need to have good ideas and be able to sell them. You need to manage living on a pittance and be willing to spend time away from home at short notice. You need to be writing a lot, for practice, not just for potential publication.
“Write to your passion,” says Don George, author of Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing guide. “Marry your own passion with a publication’s editorial interests and you’ll maximise your chances – knowledge and passion can sway an editor.”
“You need to be able to string two words together,” adds Jonathan Lorie, course leader of Travellers’ Tales, “but beyond that, what really matters is your attitude. Be persistent, reliable and believe in what you’re doing. Be prepared for rejections, and keep playing the numbers game until your number comes up.”
Travel writing comes in many forms: guidebooks, first-person features, practical articles, 500-page novels. You should be reading all types and taking notes, suggests Jonathan Lorie: “Read as much as you can to pick up tricks from the experts.”
Many immediately think of lengthy destination pieces, but this is the area where competition is most fierce. “Don’t necessarily begin with big features,” suggests Wanderlust editor Lyn Hughes. “Scour publications for spots where you could supply something with a travel spin. It could be a news piece, a contribution to a regular column or a quirky filler.”
“A basic error with travel writing is assuming everybody’s interested. You have to work from exactly the opposite assumption: nobody is interested. Even your wife is not interested. You have to somehow make it so that they become interested.” (Bill Bryson, in an interview with Don George)
No one wants to hear about your last holiday. It’s not enough that you had a good time – you need a focus and you need to tell the reader something new.
“Know what the point of your article is,” says Don George. “What exactly are you trying to convey to the reader?” You need an original angle and an interesting tone.
The first line is key. It should draw the reader in to an engaging opening, middle and equally good end. “A good travel feature transports you to the destination. You should be able to see it, hear it, smell it,” says Lyn Hughes.
Don’t underestimate accuracy. Writing beautiful prose is no good if the facts are wrong. “Double-check your text for accuracy, especially with foreign names and words,” says Jonathan Lorie. “And don’t make things up: you only embarrass an editor once.”
The UK has several dedicated travel magazines and newspaper supplements. But also think laterally – there are around 10,000 magazines in the UK. Many women’s titles have travel sections, or you could try Saga magazine, Which Caravan, Country Walking... the list goes on.
Familiarise yourself with each publication so you are pitching the right style of article on the right topic. “Know the publications you want to write for,” reiterates Don George. “Read each issue from cover to cover. Try to put yourself in the editor’s head.”
Before approaching any publication, read its contributor guidelines, usually on the website. Some may not accept any unsolicited articles, others may have strict rules about submissions.
Find out the name of the editor or relevant section editor so your submission hits the right desk/inbox. Addressing your letter to ‘The Editor’ (unless that’s the specified approach) shows a complete lack of effort.
Check whether your target publication prefers completed article submissions or proposals. If you’re sending an article, make sure it includes a cover sheet containing a synopsis of the piece, a word count, your contact information and details of any available photos. Include an SAE if you want a response. Proposals should be snappy and attention-grabbing.
“If you’re pitching an idea to an editor, keep it (just) long enough to give them an idea of your angle and style, but short enough so they don’t get bored,” advises Liz Edwards. A hundred words should do it.
Then you need patience. Most publications receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions every week. It could take months before you hear back; in the meantime, keep practising.
Award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray is a contributing editor for Wanderlust and a presenter on the upcoming series of BBC Holiday. So, how did he do it?
“I painted lots of peoples’ houses to save for my first big trip – eight weeks back-packing in Kenya. Nothing was published, but I did learn how to keep a journal. A year later (after a self-funded trip to Australia) I had one small feature accepted in Trailfinder’s free magazine. The trip probably cost me £3,000, but I was chuffed to bits with the £75 fee for the article. I began proposing features to regional papers and less well-known magazines. Then came a lucky break – a contract to write a book on coral reefs and islands. It helped me get my first travel commission in a national paper.
“You’ve got to treat travel-writing like a business. I may only travel for a few months each year – the rest of the time I’m pitching proposals, negotiating free travel with airlines and tour operators, writing copy and generally plugging away at PR.”
Top tip: “It’s like getting into a hot bath. Don’t jump straight in! Hold on to that full-time job while you build contacts and a portfolio of published work in your spare time.”
Ever been On Assignment with Wanderlust - you'll research, write or photograph in a professional environment on location, with some of the industry's leading experts, including Lyn Hughes, Waderlust's Editor-in-Chief. Look out for upcoming trips on Wanderlust Journeys.