A Guide to Better Travel Writing (Part 2): 20 Time-Tested Techniques and Essential Exercises
by Mike Richard | November, 2007
In A Guide to Better Travel Writing (Part 1), we discussed twenty-three foundational tips and habits of every good travel writer.
Our series continues with a list of writing techniques and exercises to help further streamline your writing process and curb writer’s block to keep the words flowing.
#1 – Keep a Swipe File
Not every bit of brilliant writing you craft needs to evolve into a great story or novel. I sometimes write a paragraph or two before realizing that I don’t have enough info to really say what I wanted to say. But if that brief excerpt is good quality stuff, why delete it?
Enter the swipe file:
A swipe file is simply a folder, real or electronic, containing examples of good copy. You might save a collection of killer headlines, several examples of powerful openings, a funny turn of phrase, a powerful call to action, and so on.
Never delete quality writing – it can always serve as a future springboard when you’re stuck or in a creative rut.
#2 – Six Word Fiction
Also called “Flash fiction”, such stories are characterized by extremely concise – and sometimes brilliantly witty – prose. Perhaps the best known “work” of six word fiction is from Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Read that again and focus on how much Hemingway was able to say with so few words.
Try Flash fiction if only to practice brevity and best understand how to keep your prose as “tight” as possible.
For inspiration, check out Wired magazine’s feature on this, titled Very Short Stories: 33 writers. 5 designers. 6-word science fiction.
#3 – Take Your Opponent’s Side
Master the dying art of debate by understanding your opponent’s point of view.
This is important for fiction and non-fiction writers as it provides a better understanding of all sides of an argument. You’re much more likely to understand the characters in your novel or the folks you meet on the street if you can comprehend why they think the way they think, particularly if their views differ from yours.
Watch political debates for any party but yours; read religious publications or blogs if you’re an atheist; request PETA literature if you’re a hunter. Really. Anything to step outside the echo chamber.
#4 – Lie About Someone
Cafés and other public settings where people are likely to linger are great for this. Find someone in a public setting and create an entire persona or story around them. Describe their clothing, their personality, their lifestyle, to where they’ve traveled and what they did while there.
#5 – Play Page Tennis
It’s like handing two artists two brushes and one canvas. Try it with two pens (or digital text documents) and a single sheet of paper. Every person writes a sentence and then passes it along.
This exercise of course scales well to allow multiple writers in a “sewing circle” to participate. The collaborative effort allows everyone to play off of the unexpected creativity of the others.
#6 – 5 Things I Remember About …
Pick one place you’ve visited and write five things you vividly remember about it. Don’t think too much, just focus on writing. This jogs your brain’s long term memory and helps conjure vivid imagery important for recollecting your travel tales.
#7 – Imagine You’re A Housefly …
… or any other creature or inanimate object and write from their/its point of view.
Professional photographers will tell you that the simplest way to mix things up with your photography is to look at your subject from a different or unexpected angle: look up at children; lie on the floor, staring eye-to-eye with pets; etc. The same rule applies to writing. If you’re writing a travel narrative, step outside the first person and try to imagine what the same experience is like from someone (or something) else’s point of view.
#8 – Object Correlative
Oftentimes simply suggesting a feeling, thought, or emotion is more powerful than explicitly spelling it out for the reader.
Object correlative is a technique whereby the author merely suggests something about a character by detailing that character’s interaction with mundane objects in the story.
Author David Miller explains:
One of the most noted examples of all time is the “bacon fat” scene in Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home.”
Harold Krebs, a young soldier back in Kansas after being wounded in WWI, is unable to return to work, to his mother’s ideal of “a normal life.” Now he must endure her questioning at the breakfast table:
“I’ve worried about you too much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.
#9 – Minor Character as Mirror
Try seeing your story through the eyes of someone who played only a very small part in your experience – a shop/inn keeper, a cab driver or the woman who sat next to you on the sixteen hour bus ride through Australia.
Another great technique from David Miller who explains:
… the way a main character interacts with a minor character can also be utilized like a mirror – reflecting emotions while driving the narrative forward.
Using a minor character as a mirror can be especially useful in travel writing, which is so often rich with minor characters—people on the streets, fishermen, merchants, fellow travelers, etc.
Side note: if you haven’t checked out Brave New Traveler’s great tips on travel writing, I highly recommend it.
#10 – Rewind Your Writing
Try writing your story in reverse. Start with the last event first and write backwards. Sometimes, if you know where the story’s going, it’s easier to figure out how to get there.
#11 – Total Recall
Grab one of your favorite travel photos and write down everything you remember about that exact moment. Use the most graphic and vivid detail you can muster: smells, taste, sounds, everything.
#12 – She Wants to Write in Third Person! No, I Don’t!
Writing in first person is only natural. After all, we experience life from (drum roll) our own personal point of view. Try rewriting one of your tales in third person.
Check out How To Start Writing in the Third Person for a few pointers.
#13 – Master Your Metaphors
Analogies, similes and metaphors work so well because they use an idea the reader already understands to help them comprehend one they don’t.
Great comedians are able to find similar patterns and structure in seemingly unrelated events and life experiences. It works in comedy and just as well in writing.
#14 – Chronicle Events
One way to write is to simply chronicle events. This sometimes constitutes a failure of imagination. The events will work themselves into a story if you think about them enough. It is like holding up a prism to the sun: turn it just the right way and a rainbow of light pours through. So, a word of advice: a person’s journal is the raw material. A story is made from these events. Use the journal to craft the story. Don’t submit a travel journal. Editors routinely toss articles that begin: “December 5, 2003: ‘The twin prop jet dropped down into a patchwork quilt of farmlands…’”
This is the hallmark of 99% of blogs today and the main reason why most are entirely unreadable. If you’re interested in creating more than just a journal, remember: nobody cares what you did. They only care how well you can tell the story.
#15 – Reverse Outline
My cousin’s a brilliant nurse, but in school she had great difficulty isolating key points in her school textbooks and her professors’ lectures. She’d go through highlighters as if she was getting paid to color her textbooks yellow.
Learn to focus only on the critical points in a story or event. Grab a favorite book and create a reverse outline. Summarize each paragraph in a single sentence. Read over the outline you’ve created. Do the ideas seem logical? Does each sentence flow well into the next?
#16 – Find Humor in Tragedy
Obviously this won’t work for every event, but some stories are better told in a humorous light versus a tragic one. And vice versa. If your story simply isn’t working, try a different angle.
#17 – Maybe It Needs … More Cowbell
Imagine you just scored a meeting in Hollywood to produce an autobiographical film from your travel memoirs. What’s missing?
Life events are infinitely more complex than we ever understand at first blush. You may know why something happened as it did in your story, but your reader won’t know unless you tell them.
Have an objective friend comb through your work and ask questions to help you fill in the gaps and pull out the dramatic moments you may be unknowingly overlooking: Why did he leave you just then? Why did you give up that WOOF work in Australia? If you were broke then, how did you catch that flight home?
#18 – Shut Up and Listen
Seasoned travelers will tell you that the journey is always about who they meet and not where they go. Travel and travel writing are both about people.
Mastering the art of dialogue in your writing is key. It’s not as easy as it sounds – it takes practice. Bad dialogue can ruin an otherwise great tale.
Check out Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue for a few pointers.
#19 – Start in the Middle / Kill the Back Story
Well-crafted action movies often jump into the middle of the story to instantly draw the viewer in. This follows from our very first point in part one of this series: “Pack your travel writing like you pack your luggage: load in everything you think you’ll need, then reduce it by half.”
Try “cutting to the chase” – skip the back story in your travel narratives if it’s not germane to the central plot. This forces you to focus only on the juiciest, most engaging bits.
#20 – Develop and Hone Your Own Style
Your writing style will evolve from many points – life experiences, travels, personality traits, family and friends, daily interactions with people, etc. Personally, my writing style has a tendency to vary widely with my moods. And as mentioned in part one, people have a tendency to mimic things they’ve read recently or even the style of their favorite authors.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but make a concerted effort to hone your own personal style. Be unique. This is particularly important for writers seeking publication. Be consistent and don’t disappoint your readers. They will expect a general tone, tenor, pace and structure in all your writing.
What techniques and exercises have helped you hone your craft and become a better travel writer? Let us know in the comments.
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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).