A Guide to Better Travel Writing (Part 1): 23 Essential Tips & Habits

This is part one of a multi-part series highlighting great writing habits, exercises, books, and inspirational quotes from experienced authors to help you become a better travel writer.

Today, we kick off this series with twenty three essential tips to streamline your travel writing process and bring out your inner muse.

Better Travel Writing Tools

#1 – Have a Point!

Steve Martin had a great line in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. After traveling for days with John Candy and politely listening to his inane story-telling, Martin snaps:

You know when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

For some, concise, engaging story-telling comes naturally; while others can’t help but bloat their tales with every unnecessary detail. Pack your travel writing like you pack your luggage: load in everything you think you’ll need, then reduce it by half.

#2 – Nobody Cares What You Did

This is especially important for budding travel writers seeking publication (and all the inevitable fortune and fame attendant to all published travel writers). It’s not about your own experience, but whether or not you can convey that experience in a way that’s interesting and engaging. A writer like Bill Bryson routinely takes the most mundane happenings and crafts narratives around them that will amuse even the most hardened, humorless reader. Remember that it’s about the story, not the actual event.

#3 – Sleep On It

I rarely publish anything without first sleeping on it. Oftentimes, I’ll “brain dump” whatever it is I have to say without editing, save it, and walk away.

Try it and come back to it later with a clearer head and you’ll be better prepared to distill your initial prose down to only its most essential parts.

#4 – Kick Yourself Around A Bit

No one likes a smartass or a know-it-all. Especially with travel narratives, know when to be self-deprecating and how not to take yourself too seriously. Practice humility and your readers will more easily relate to you as a real person and not as someone preaching to them about all the wonderful things you’ve done.

#5 – Read Everyday

Always be in the middle of at least one fiction book and one non-fiction book. This exercises all parts of your brain: the analytical and the more imaginative.

#6 – Diversify Your Portfolio With A Potpourri of Authors

People have a tendency – subconscious or otherwise – to mimic what they’ve recently seen, heard or read. While this can be a good thing, it can also quiet one’s own unique writer’s voice. Reading only travel guides and books by one great author can certainly educate you as to what works well, but I find it less than ideal to start writing my own travel memoirs after reading multiple books by, say, Tim Cahill. Step outside your comfort zone and mix up your influences a bit.

#7 – Beat Procrastination

But you don’t procrastinate, do you? Ah … denial – first sign! Like any addiction, the first step toward full productivity is admitting that you have a problem. Habitual procrastinators (and users of Firefox) may like to install a plugin like Mee Timer which tracks the amount of daily time that you waste at ICanHazCheezburger, The Daily Puppy, et. al. down to the second. If nothing else, this will at least make you conscious of all of the minutes, hours and days that you’re wasting when you could be writing! And of course the best way to beat procrastination is to …

#8 – Remove Distractions

Author Naomi Novik notes in a recent inspirational e-mail for the NaNoWriMo contest:

Remove distractions. The internet is a phenomenal research and community tool without which you might never have started the novel you’re working on right now. It is an equally phenomenal tool for procrastination and wasting time. Unplug your connection. While you’re at it, put down that book, turn off the TV, shut down the Wii. Make scrambled eggs and salad for dinner. The dishes can wait to be washed. Ideally, get out of your house filled with your stuff that you like and go somewhere where you have nothing better to do than write.

Sometimes I have the attention span of a gnat on PCP. It can be hard to focus, so it’s essential to find ways to purify your particular environment by removing all distractions.

#9 – Learn Something New Everyday

It’s easier than it sounds. I’m not suggesting learning a new language or how to cook like Anthony Bourdain overnight.

Baby steps: learn the French verb conjugations for “to be”; learn what species that bird is that merrily chirps at your window sill every morning; or memorize the seven wonders of the world.

Make it a point, every single day, to learn one small thing that you never knew before. You’ll be more well-rounded, and you’ll broaden your understanding and ability to better convey your thoughts on paper.

#10 – Join a Writer’s “Sewing Circle”

After signing up for NaNoWriMo last week, I was shocked by how many local authors in my tiny little speck of a state, Rhode Island, were looking to meet up to group write, swap tips, and critique their fellow writers’ work. The worldwide community of budding authors is much larger than you might think. Network and connect with other writers in your area and you’ll be surprised how much you can learn from them.

#11 – Find Your “Golden Hour”

Uncover that magical time of the day when you’re writing flows best. I personally find my inner brilliance to shine in the early morning. As the day drags on and I’ve answered e-mails, phone calls and generally flooded my brain with the day’s torrent of updated RSS feeds, it’s much more difficult to make the cranial connections necessary to craft a good story. Even better: find a day where you have no previous engagements and start writing in the morning then. You’re less likely to have anything pressing on your mind throughout the day.

#12 – Forget About Travel

All work and no play makes Jack a dull writer. Stop reading, writing, living and breathing travel long enough to delve into other interests. Go for a week-long hike in the woods; cook dinner for your friends or family; or step out to see a heart-wrenching film – anything non-travel related that will exercise your brain.

#13 – Grammar School Outlining

Remember drafting outlines in grammar school, complete with indented roman numerals and never-ending subheadings? It’s old school and cliché, but that’s because it usually works. For projects of any scale – whether it’s a 500-word blog post or a 50,000-word novel – try jotting down five or ten touchstone issues, turning points, or essential events of your piece. Oftentimes, this can kick start your inner muse enough to begin connecting all of the other ancillary elements of your story.

#14 – Always Be Prepared When Eureka Strikes

When was the last time you had a great idea when you were sitting down specifically trying to think of a great idea? Me neither. Eureka moments frequently happen in the shower or on our way to work as we zone out in traffic. Bottom line: your muse will usually strike when you least expect it. Be prepared and always have a small journal or notebook and two pens (one as backup) to record your brilliance.

#15 – Pressure Yourself (or Don’t)

Like any creative endeavor, writing flows from different people in different ways. Some folks relish the pressure and find that it summons their inner muse; some don’t.

Personally, if I sit down to write and nothing comes to me, I’ll walk away until the ideas start congealing in my subconscious enough for me to pick up where I left off.

On the other hand, some authors recommend setting aside, say, one hour to write. Grab an egg timer and sit down for sixty minutes to pressure yourself to craft something – anything.

Either way, determine which way works best for you and stick with it.

#16 – Read Your Work Aloud

A great way to determine the flow of your writing is to read it aloud. Even better is to find someone – a friend or honest critic – to whom you can read your work.

#17 – Do Absolutely Nothing

This is one of my favorites for obvious reasons. At some point during your daily routine – I relish the moment right after I get home from work – lie on the couch, staring at the ceiling and do absolutely nothing. No radio, no television, no internet. Nothing. Don’t take a nap, rather lie awake and collect your thoughts. We’re so bombarded everyday with information overload (and the myth of multitasking) that few people can or do take the time to just sit and quietly reflect.

#18 – Get in the Zone

Once you remove all external distractions, find whatever it is that helps you focus solely on the task of writing. This could be listening to classical music, keeping the television on for “white noise”, or plopping on some noise-canceling headphones simply to drown out every audible sound around you.

#19 – Write Daily

“Practice makes perfect …” and all that, right? Virtually every writer – travel or otherwise – recommends this as one of the best ways to hone your craft. A personal blog is a great, simple outlet to chronicle your thoughts. Keep it personal and don’t worry if it’s not Nobel Prize winning material. Use it for nothing more than a writing exercise if you like.

#20 – Write a Sh*tload

The National Novel Writing Month contest is a great inspiration for this and it ties in well with point #19 above. Try writing with a focus on quantity over quality. Think of it as a “brain dump” and just get the words out of your head. Focus only on what you’re trying to convey rather than on how well you’d like to convey it.

#21 – Talk to Yourself

… or anyone who’s willing to listen. Start a podcast and speak from the heart about anything about which you’re particularly knowledgeable. The ability to speak extemporaneously is a great skill not only for public speakers but writers as well. By training your brain to connect words in an unrehearsed and off-the-cuff manner, you’re laying the groundwork for a better understanding of language and how words relate to one another. This can go a long way towards breaking writer’s block and keeping the pen (or the keys) moving.

#22 – Get in the Mood

Try to step into the mood of your writing with appropriate music. If your work is about an angry character, get angry. Throw on your headphones and dial in some Korn.

If your prose of the moment is somber, toss on a little Coldplay or something to really bring the mood down. Anything to better connect you with your work.

#23 – Be Passionate, Soldier On

If you’re a blogger, the bad news is that I can tell you from personal experience that everyone starts as a small fish in a very, very large pond. The good news is that many of those fish give up and die off in the first three months. Be passionate and don’t grow discouraged. Push through that initial phase and you’ll already be ahead of a large majority of other bloggers.

If you’re a print writer or travel journalist, keep submitting your work. Listen to the constructive criticism of publishers and other writers in your field and use it to better yourself and your skills.

Above all else, if travel writing is truly your passion, never give up.

The bottom line is that great writing habits are personal. What works for someone else may not work for you. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a rut. Just experiment and “if it’s broke, fix it” by trying something new.

What are the best travel writing habits you’ve developed? Please share them in the comments below.

16 Responses

  1. Lea "LIP" Woodward

    Nice tips, Mike. Some of the things that I find help me are:

    1) Loosely outline and follow a structure for each piece I write. That way, I’m not tempted to ramble off track and make sure I have a point that I’m making for each section.

    2) I always read back my pieces with the question “what’s in it for me?” in mind…that is, to remind myself that I need to provide something to the reader (entertainment, useful info etc.)

    And my secret weapon in writing is…using “dark room” to write on my laptop – it removes all on-screen distractions and gives me a blank space to focus on!

    Reply
  2. lissie

    Thanks for these, very helpful. Its interesting that writing for the new medium, internet, seems to have exactly the same principles as I was taught back at uni a hundred years ago. I think the wonderful thing is that amateurs such as myself actually have the chance of getting feedback from readers immediately rather than having to go through the whole submit/reject cycle with publishers first. Yes it makes it harder to stand out in the crowd but at least someone sees you!

    Reply
  3. Traveling Mel

    I’d also add that you should put yourself in unusual or interesting situations when you travel so you have something to write about.

    Of course, interesting things (and people) can show up anywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to push the envelope a little.

    Reply
  4. Olivia Giovetti

    “shut down the Wii”
    Oh, but that’s how I get through writer’s block! And then probably give myself a relapse after I realize how I can improve my Wii-tennis serve.

    Incidentally, where in Rhode Island are you from?? I was raised in Cumberland (and just came back from there and Pawtucket where I spent the holidays). Small world!

    Reply
  5. brian from nodebtworldtravel.com

    #1 is so true. Have you been talking with a person and you want to scream at them, “Get to the point!” Same thing in writing. We have short attention spans and if the article isn’t compelling or useful, it will be skipped.

    Reply
  6. Rebecca

    Great tips…#12 and #14 are essential. I do write about other topics besides travel writing. Of course, I must have a “passion” for what I’m writing…I carry a pen and small notebook with me. I never know when inspiration will strike…

    Reply
  7. Jessica

    EXCELLENT advice, lots of good reminders in here. I’ve bookmarked this.

    One typo, though: “rather like awake”

    Reply
  8. Robyn

    I’m going to love this series. Some things you say remind me of William Zinsser, my hero of how to write non-fiction.
    I find that I’m more inspired and have better ideas after I go for a run. The discipline to write everyday is important. I find that something worthwhile (to me) materializes if I just start writing. I edit later.
    Looking forward to the next part in the series!

    Reply
  9. LUCKSON

    Thank you, Mike! I really want to improve my writing skills for the travel features I do for the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) and your tips are helpful.

    Reply
  10. Ken

    Thanks for the advice, Mike. Those points given by you is very beneficial specially to newbie like me.

    Reply
  11. Alwyn

    Great article mark. I actually found it through http://www.travel-writiers-exchange.com and I am glad I did.

    You hit a soft spot when you mentioned distractions. That is a main problem for me and i think that your recommendations will help me a lot.

    Also the point on consistent writing. As writers I think that we fail to do this and we just write when we feel like it but just like any skill, we need to practice.

    Reply
  12. Destination360

    Mike,

    Great points. We’re looking to hire some new talent and writing styles. I’ll have our shortlist read your tips,

    Thanks!
    Destination360

    Reply

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