Travel notebook (Dreamstime)
Advice Words : Phoebe Smith | 05 February

How to become a travel writer

Ever wanted to travel, write and be paid for it? Travel writer Phoebe Smith shares some tips on how you can make it happen…

Travel writing certainly is a fantastic way to make a living. It can be rewarding, fulfilling and take you to corners of the globe that you might otherwise never have seen. You can meet some fascinating characters, learn about the local culture and have days when you truly have no idea what will happen next.

But, and it’s a big but, it’s not always like that. And it’s certainly not as glamorous as many believe. It takes hard work, determination and – honestly – a great deal of luck to make it. But while success is certainly not guaranteed for everyone, someone’s got to do it and there’s no reason why it can’t be you. Every journey starts with a single step, so let’s talk basics on how you can get a head start.

Idea is key

Just got back from a round the world trip? Been on an amazing backpacking adventure through Europe? Had a life-changing two weeks volunteering in Africa? Well, join the queue. As truly unique and exciting as your experience has undoubtedly been for you, it’s unlikely that you’re the only one who has ever done it. And if someone’s already done it then chances are the magazine editor will have been pitched it before too. So you’ve got to think of a way to present your trip in a way that will grab their attention. This means a great idea beyond just stating the particulars of your trip.

Woman writing in notebook (Dreamstime)

Woman writing in notebook (Dreamstime)

Pitch perfect

So where to start? Well first off it’s thinking in terms of an angle. Every story needs one. So ‘two weeks exploring Portugal’ is not a story but ‘walking its newly opened coastal path’ is.

A pitch about you spending two weeks on safari in Kruger National Park is unlikely to secure any commissions, but ‘seeking out a South African reserve that even the locals don’t know about’ might. A piece on luxury resorts in Oman might not peak an editor’s interest, but a promise of discovering the adventurous side of the desert should at least get them to open the email.

Think carefully about what you’re offering and who you’re offering it to, then write a sentence that can sum it up. It should be sharp, simple and to the point, requiring very little explanation. Editors are busy and get hundreds of pitches every day. If yours requires a lot of thought or re-reading to understand, then it is unlikely to hold their attention.

Why you?

When you do pitch your idea it’s a good idea to point out why you should be the one to write it – and it can’t just be because you want to.

Perhaps it’s because you have some expertise in the subject. Maybe you managed to get an exclusive insight into a place or culture that normally isn’t allowed. Or possibly you managed to get a once in a lifetime photograph that will make your words come alive. Whatever the reason, spell it out in your pitch.

Start small, think big

There’s no getting away from the fact that travel writing is very competitive so you need to be realistic about who might take your article – at least in the beginning.

If you’ve never had any work published before then it’s unlikely you’ll get given a 12-page destination feature to write in a national magazine. You need to think of other ways to build up a portfolio of work. That way you’ll have samples to show editors so that they can get a sense of your style. Thanks to the internet, there’s now a whole host of ways to get your writing seen by people. So consider one of these options to kick-start your career.

A woman writing in a notepad (Dreamstime)

A woman writing in a notepad (Dreamstime)

How to develop as a travel writer

Contribute to websites:

Travel magazines such as Wanderlust often have an online community where you can post pictures, share stories and  talk about your trips. And the best thing is that editors often keep an eye on what is posted there, so it’s a place you can really make an impact.

Start a blog:

Free and easy to set up, blogs are a good way of getting into the habit of writing regularly and concisely, sharpening your skills and showing off your ‘voice’ and style. People can follow yours and comment on it so – if you do it right – you can build up a good reputation for knowing your subject.

Join a writing club:

There’s so much you can learn from asking other people’s opinion – and that applies doubly if you ask them in the right place. In a writer’s group you not only get feedback from passionate people on how to improve, but you will also pick up tips by reading and commenting on their work too.

Think beyond travel magazines:

Everyone will be pitching to the national dedicated travel mags – including established writers – so chances there are definitely more limited, especially if you’re starting out. So think a little smaller. Look for specialist magazines with travel sections, or local newspapers who often carry small overseas articles. Also consider entering travel writing competitions. Every piece you get published, no matter how small, will be another bit of proof that you’re worth commissioning.

Join a travel writing workshop:

A relatively inexpensive way to pick up tips, have your work critiqued and learn from those in the business. There’s a number of organisations that who hold one-day and weekend courses to teach you the tips of the trade, including pitching ideas and the nitty-gritty of actually writing an article.

A group of young adults exchanging ideas (Dreamstime)

A group of young adults exchanging ideas (Dreamstime)

Meet the travel writers

William Gray

With over 20 years' experience both travel writing and editing William Gray is one of Wanderlust’s contributing editors. But cracking his way into the industry started with a small step...

“I’d always been passionate about wildlife and wild places. When I was given a copy of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth for my 10th birthday I dreamed of being able to travel around the world in the great man’s footsteps! But it wasn’t all daydreaming about exotic destinations, though. I love writing. Using words to transport readers into the heart of the Amazon or make them accomplices to a tiger tracking safari seemed like a great job description. And if it could inspire empathy for those places and creatures – well, that would be the most rewarding job of all.

“When I married in 1990 we took a long honeymoon (a month backpacking across Borneo, six weeks trekking to Everest and back). Returning home I pitched an article about our trek to Trailfinders’ free magazine. To my amazement they published it – the fee was a princely £75 for words and pics. It was the first all-important tear sheet for my portfolio.”

Success: “I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and write for publications ranging from National Geographic and The Sun to Condé Nast and The Times. I’ve written guidebooks on wildlife and adventure travel, plus a series of family travel guides. I was delighted (and surprised) to be voted 4th in the UK’s top 50 travel journalists and I’ve also received various writing and photography awards, including AITO Travel Writer of the Year and 12 awards from the British Guild of Travel Writers. In recent years, my work has diversified to include magazine editing, design and website work.”

No.1 top tip: "Get used to spinning lots of plates and not flinching when the odd one crashes to the floor! Times are changing and you need to keep up with new media and the opportunities they offer. In addition to my traditional writing and photography work, I self-publish my own mini travel e-guides."

Rosie Casburn

After signing up for a travel writing course in Seville, run by Jonathan Lorie’s Travellers’ Tales and Wanderlust, Rosie had her piece chosen to feature in our magazine. Since then, she hasn’t looked back…

“While having dinner with the group on the first night, sat in a warm, jasmine-scented courtyard in Seville, I just knew this was what I was meant to be doing. To finally be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts was so stimulating and exciting. On our first ‘assignment’, we were sent off to find ‘the essence’ of Seville, to leave our comfort zone and poke our noses into shops and bars.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I spent the next few hours scurrying around the warren of cobbled streets, looking for something interesting to write about. When the time came to read out our first attempts I was amazed at the variety of writing that came from us all doing the same thing on that first morning. Our writing was gently discussed and suggestions made for improvements – no-one was given lines or made to sit on the naughty chair. I had the most wonderful few days, and at the end of course, submitted my work to Wanderlust. It was the first thing I’d ever submitted and I was amazed to be told that my entry had been chosen and it was to be published, along with some of my travel photographs!

“This success had me jumping up and down in excitement, and most certainly gave me the impetus to send out more work. Most importantly, it gave me some much needed self-belief.”

Success: “I’ve since had my writing featured in numerous publications. I’ve written a monthly travel series about Andalucia, Spain, and had articles in newspapers, travel supplements and magazines in the UK, Spain, USA and New Zealand.

“My biggest triumph was winning a travel writing competition, this time the prize, as well as publication, was two Round the World Tickets with Air New Zealand. During my 50-day trip around the world, I was contacted out of the blue by the editor of a health magazine in Canada, who had somehow heard that I was going to Hong Kong and she commissioned me to write an article while I was there. I think that’s when I really began to think of myself as a true travel writer.”

No.1 top tip: "Keep your camera glued to your hip wherever you go – I went on a photography course too, which taught me the skills needed to become a travel photographer; I’ve found it to be advantage if you can offer both words and pics to editors."

Liz Cleere

Liz attended a creative writing group and learned the value of peer feedback. While living on a boat in Turkey she dreamt up the idea of a “virtual” travel association. She now posts on followtheboat.com - a travelogue run by herself, photographer Jamie Furlong, and rescue cat Millie.

“Being in a writing group helps you learn the discipline of writing a piece to a deadline while having a maximum word count concentrates the mind. The feedback is almost more important than the monthly assignment. We each critique all the other essays (which can be time consuming, but once immersed is always illuminating). You learn a lot from analysing another piece of writing, trying to work out why it works/doesn’t work, looking at the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation, spotting clichés and over-used words. We try to be encouraging, honest and constructive, never rude or hurtful.

“In 2014, I set our monthly assignment as answering the Writers Abroad call for entries. Out of 231 submissions for their annual anthology, Writers Abroad selected 95, of which five came from the Itinerant Writers Club. All proceeds from the book, which can be bought online from Lulu.com, will be going to Books Abroad, the charity that helps educate children worldwide.”

Success: “Winning the Telegraph weekly prize twice; coming second in the Walkopedia writing competition; being short-listed in the Bradt 2012 Travel Writing competition; winning the monthly My World First competition; regularly appearing in Readers’ Tips in The Guardian newspaper; winning the myWanderlust ‘Best Experience, 2011’ award. I’ve also been approached by a couple of publishers to write a book... but haven’t had time yet!”

No.1 top tip: "Keep a notebook with you at all times. Practice your writing every day – you don’t have to write about exotic destinations, a walk in the countryside, a visit to a park, local sight-seeing, a train or bus journey, all are material for writing. Then enter travel writing competitions, as many as you can. Also add your tips, experiences and views to on-line travel forums (but only choose those established, like Wanderlust or the national newspapers). Build up a name for yourself; start your own blog. With all this behind you, editors may be prepared to open your email... and if there is no local group, join mine!"