A Guide to Better Travel Writing (Part 3): Insight and Inspiration from the Pros
by Mike Richard | December, 2007
Our Guide to Better Travel Writing series continues with inspirational tips, quotes and insightful miscellany from some of the world’s best authors on how you can become a better, professional travel writer.
#1 – Advice to Travel Writers, Rolf Potts
Potts’ Advice to Travel Writers is timeless. In short:
- Travel a lot.
- Write a lot.
- Read a lot.
- Don’t quite your day job.
- Read up on the trade.
- Surf up on the trade.
- Research your destination.
- Research your markets.
- Be patient.
- Nurture your passion.
#2 – To Hell With Writing Classes, Stephen King
I’m often asked if writing classes are any help, and my immediate and enthusiastic answer is always, Yes! Writing classes are wonderful for the writers who teach them and can’t make ends meet without that supplementary income. They are also good places for unattached people to meet, talk about books and movies, have a few drinks and possibly hook up. But teach you to write? No. A writing class will not teach you to write. The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one’s muse. These are all activities one must pursue alone.
#3 – The 9 Commandments of Travel Writing, Pico Iyer
Written Road sums up Pico’s entire piece thusly:
- A travel book is a question never answered
- The travel writer is much less traveler than writer
- The travel book must teach you something
- The travel book, like the traveler, often travels incognito
- The travel writer’s place is on the threshold, one eye turned toward the reader, one toward the subject
- The travel writer need not go far at all
- The great travel writer takes in every aspect of what is happening and changing right now, the better to see what is changeless
- The true travel writer does not just listen to a place but talks back to it; he’s drawn to it by compulsion
- In the end, every great travel book is about a journey inside
Check out the entire piece via the Conde Nast website.
#4 – 10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer, Brian Clark
- Write more.
- Write even more.
- Write even more than that.
- Write when you don’t want to.
- Write when you do.
- Write when you have something to say.
- Write when you don’t.
- Write every day.
- Keep writing.
It doesn’t get much more concise than that.
#5 – The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer, Tim Leffel
- Myth #1: Travel writers make enough money to live on.
- Myth #2: Editors are hungry for travel stories from new writers.
- Myth #3: A destination is a story.
- Myth #4: Readers want to hear every detail about your personal experiences.
- Myth #5: Travel magazines love long stories.
- Myth #6: You write a story, you get paid, it soon gets published.
- Myth #7: All your expenses will be covered.
They may sound harsh and uninspiring, but hey: “Them’s the facts.” The most important tip of all is to be honest with yourself and know what you’re getting into. Check out Tim’s entire piece via Transitions Abroad.
Also be sure to check out Brave New Traveler’s recent interview, Tim Leffel On Travel Writing In The Internet Age.
#6 – On Testing a New Novel or Short Story Idea, Robert McKee
Your next great travel memoir or tall tale may be the most fascinating story in the world to you. But what will your readers think?
In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, McKee provides this smart, simple tip for test-driving your next great idea:
Next time you’re out with a friend, ask him or her if you can tell them your new story idea. Halfway through, make an excuse to leave the table. When you come back, start talking about something else, as though you’ve forgotten all about the story. If your friend interrupts to ask you to finish, you know you have a winner. If your friend instead seems relieved, definitely think twice about your story idea.
#7 – On the Biggest Reward of Life as a Travel Writer, Tim Cahill
In an interview with Rolf Potts, Cahill remarks:
I am living out my adolescent dream of travel and adventure. I do not mean this as a pejorative: adolescence is when we are the most idealistic, the most open to the new and the novel. I try to keep that almost childlike attitude; consequently, I am seldom as cynical as I might otherwise be. I think this is a good thing.
Finally, writing is what I do. The writing is why I am published. I am not a stronger climber than others, nor am I better with languages. But I do take care with my writing and feel that it is getting better and better. That is the biggest reward.
#8 – On Getting Started as a Travel Writer, Jeffrey Tayler
[M]y last point about getting started as a writer: do something first, good or bad, successful or not, and write it up before approaching an editor. The best introduction to an editor is your own written work, published or not. I traveled across Siberia on my own money before ever approaching an editor; I wrote my first book, Siberian Dawn, without knowing a single editor, with no idea of how to get it published. I had to risk my life on the Congo before selling my first magazine story. If the rebel spirit dwells within you, you won’t wait for an invitation, you’ll invade and take no hostages.
Read Tayler’s complete piece, Advice on making it the travel writing world.
#9 – On Writing Truth in Experience, Ernest Hemingway
Through travel, we may experience great things and find that fact is sometimes stranger and far more interesting than fiction. So why embellish when you can simply tell it like it is?
There are events which are so great that if a writer has participated in them his obligation is to write truly rather than assume the presumption of altering them with invention.
#10 – On Writing Truth in Experience, Erik Hansen on Steinbeck
Erik Hansen would second Hemingway’s words above, advising:
Write the truth of the experience. Exaggerations and fabrications cheat both the writer and the reader. My favorite quote about writing comes from John Steinbeck: “The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.”
#11 – On Motivation, Garth Nix
I never actually sit down in front of a blank screen or a piece of paper and tell myself I have to write a ninety or one hundred thousand word novel. I tell myself I have to write a chapter, which typically will be somewhere between two and five thousand words. That’s a much more achievable task. Then, when I’ve written a chapter, I put it aside for revision and tell myself I have to write the next one. Eventually, I discover that just by writing a chapter at a time, I’ve written a book.
For more on Garth, visit www.GarthNix.co.uk.
#12 – On Getting Paid, Bill Bryson
In a 2005 Washington Post interview, Bryson advises:
I always tell people there’s only one trick to writing: You have to write something that people are willing to pay money to read. It doesn’t have to be very good, necessarily, but somebody, somewhere, has got to be willing to pay money for it.
#13 – On Good vs. Bad Travel Writing, Stanley Stewart
In Don George’s Lonely Planet Guide To Travel Writing, Stewart advises:
Good travel writing is done by good writers who travel. It is not enough to have swum through piranha-infested waters to the source of the Amazon. You must be able to write well to convey that experience. When you have learned the craft of writing, you can make a stroll through your own suburban neighborhood seem interesting, even exciting. Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story – narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation. Make it personal. Let the reader know how the place and the experience are affecting you.
Good travel writing is just good writing. It must have literary merit. The most important journey you will make as a travel writer is the journey of a good sentence. Without that, your close encounter with the piranhas is wasted.
Bad travel writing is done by travelers, often good travelers, who mistakenly believe they can write. There seems to be an awful lot of them about. Their prose is littered with clichés, their sense of narrative timing is inept and their characters, whether themselves or people they encounter, are clumsily portrayed. Too many travel writers seem to believe that the journey ‘makes’ the story. It doesn’t. In the end, anyone can travel to Timbuktu, but only a few people will write about the journey well.
#14 – On Reading Often and Well, Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times columnist, Susan Spano, advises:
[A]spiring travel writers are only as good as what they read, which is why they need to do so widely and well. Foraging through literature and history provides themes and details beyond those rehearsed by every guidebook on the shelf. It suggests uncommon subjects for stories and magically makes your writing better.
#15 – On Embracing the “Hum of Possibility”, Rolf Potts
In a recent interview, Brave New Traveler’s Tim Patterson asked Potts to elaborate on his statement that travel carries an inherent, perpetual “hum of possibility”:
The “hum of possibility” is the feeling that anything can happen at any moment — a heady openness to the new and unexpected. It’s hard to experience this feeling at home, since home life is made more efficient and manageable by certain self-insulating patterns and routines.
It’s a somewhat intimidating, yet invariably intoxicating feeling that follows you as you travel.
Travel writers allow all five sense to remain alert and attuned to this possibility and the events that follow. Stepping outside your comfort zone and embracing new and unfamiliar circumstances is an important way to broaden your palate of life experiences as well as your travel writing skillset.
#16 – On Embracing the Mundane, Lin Yutang
Chinese writer, Lin Yutang, advises:
If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.
I would add that this “slowing down” brings you one step closer to appreciating the seemingly mundane happenings of everyday life. From this appreciation stems a better connection to the world – the people and places – around you and to communicating your own experiences.
#17 – On Bettering Yourself and Taking Risks, Frank Bures
In an interview with Rolf Potts, Bures advises:
Prepare to have your heart stomped on, broken and ripped apart over and over. Writing is a hellish business. You have to want it more than anything. You have to believe in yourself in spite of everything. You also have to constantly look for your weak spots and hammer them out. Take the long view — at least three years down the road. Where do you want to be and what will help you get there? They say it takes ten years (average) to become a fully self-supporting freelance writer. If you want it, keep beating your head against the door. Take risks and work your ass off. Besides, what else are you going to do? Work at Starbucks?
#18 – On Perseverance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The road to becoming a professional travel writer, like any creative endeavor, can be a long, hard slog. It requires a thick skin and learning to never take “no” for an answer. Longfellow advises:
Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.
Nearly every interview I’ve read with professional travel writers has carried some slight variation on this advice. Your writing will be rejected, perhaps a great deal, before you ever get published. If you truly wish to make it as a professional travel writer, you must absolutely, positively, never surrender.
#19 – On Travel and Writing Standing Up, Ernest Hemingway
A final gem from Hemingway, posted without comment:
Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.
What writers – travel or otherwise – have you drawn on for insight and inspiration? And what are some of the best motivational quotes that drive your professional and creative processes? Share your insight in the comments below!
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About the Author
Vagabondish founding editor, Mike Richard, is a Rhode Island native, professional web designer and travel junkie with an unhealthy addiction to backpacking, hiking and seeing the world. He enjoys knit hats, small, declarative sentences and speaking in the third person. His professional credits include "Woman's World magazine contributor" and having once been interviewed by Tyra Banks (seriously).