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When I started out as a travel writer I knew nothing about travel writing as a career. I didn’t even know travel writing could be a career. And based on the amount of emails I get from people asking how to become a travel writer (and how to get free trips) it’s a something that most people don’t much know about.
But travel writing also pops up regularly in surveys of dream jobs. So here’s my story of travel writing and how I got started. Read it and avoid my mistakes. Oh, wait, I’m not going to tell you about my mistakes. That will make me look bad. I’ll save those for another day.
How to become a travel writer Rule #1: Improve your writing at workshops
I started out wanting to write novels. Actually I’ve written two, both bad. Both sitting on my closet shelf. To become a better writer, and just to have fun, I signed up for two back-to-back two-week writing workshops at the New York Summer Writers Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York. The second fiction workshop was full, so I had to join the nonfiction group and wrote about my travels – the good and the bad. Mostly the bad, because I thought that was funnier.
How to become a travel writer Rule #2: Get good teachers and learn what you can and become a travel writer by accident
James Miller was my grumpy brilliant teacher and to this day I haven’t had a more insightful workshop leader, except maybe Philip Lopate, who I studied with at a workshop in Prague. Miller’s class changed my world. From being a crappy fiction writer, I was now writing something that got people laughing. A couple of class members asked for copies of my travel articles and travel essays to show their friends.
The odd thing was, I was writing the same things I’d been writing in fiction. Stories about my travels, my travel disasters and the crazy wonderful and sometimes dangerous world that is out there. Once people knew my travel stories were true (I’m strict about sticking to what really happened and you should be too if you want to become a travel writer) people liked them better. Go figure. For the first time I wondered if travel writing could be a career. And then I wondered where I could learn how to become a travel writer.
How to become a travel writer Rule #3: Learn the nuts and bolts of travel writing
Travel writing is a specialized genre. To learn more about it I found a travel writing workshop in Marin County near San Francisco, the Book Passage Travel Writing Workshop and signed up. This taught me the basics of travel writing. I listened to lectures by the then-editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, John Flynn, and by the then-editor of the Dallas Morning Post, Larry Bleiberg, and went home and wrote two articles.
How to become a travel writer Rule #4: Write what you know
One travel article was about rock climbing in Thailand, which I had done the year before, and one was about a state-run German spa, where I had gone that fall. A local weekly rag, Now Magazine, bought the first one. The second travel article I sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. Eight months later John Flynn was no longer the editor but his successor picked it out of the slush pile, ran it and my career as a travel writer had begun. It truly makes me wonder if some things are just out there waiting to happen.
How to become a travel writer Rule #5: Accept that not everyone is going to like your writing – it sucks but it’s true.
As an interesting aside, at least I think it’s interesting … when I had a one-on-one meeting with an editor at the Book Passages workshop, I showed him the same piece that had gone over so well in my nonfiction class, the one about my travel disasters, the one I was so puffed up over, and he burst my balloon fast, saying something like, “If you have this many problems when you travel, why do you bother?” Oomph, talk about a blow to my newly-minted travel writing ego. But it just goes to show, you’re never going to please everyone, so don’t take rejection too seriously.
How to become a travel writer Rule #6: Work work work work work
If you want to become a travel writer you have to put the time in. Travel writing is hard work, especially when you’re a plodder like I am. It takes me much longer to write travel articles than most people. (For example, I just spend stupid minutes wondering whether to use ‘way longer’ or ‘much longer’ in the above sentence.) If you don’t take that extra step, though, you might not get published. There is a lot of competition out there.
How to become a travel writer Rule #7: Market market market
When I started travel writing, I’d write an article and send it out to about 60 newspapers, by snail mail (yes, those were the days of yore), and maybe one would pick it up. I think three sales for one article was my record. (Yes, you can sometimes resell newspaper articles, but every paper has different rules). These days I’m lazy and don’t market much at all, so lucky for me I have a couple of regular gigs. And now, obviously, if I try to sell a travel article I do it by email.
How to become a travel writer Rule #8: Sometimes you have to write the whole thing
Yes, I would write the entire article before I sold it. This sounds like a lot of work with no guarantee of a payoff. Look at it this way – it’s one way to improve your writing. It’s called writing on spec. If the editor reads and likes it, he might buy it. This works for newspapers but not for magazines.
How to become a travel writer Rule #9: Learn how to pitch articles
For magazines you need to pitch your idea first. You need to send the editor a query letter telling them what you’re going to write about and why you’re the person who can do the job. Make sure it has a great snappy opening line, and try to write it in the style that you would do the entire article. Don’t make it longer than a page. Sending your travel pitch to the right person will go a long way, so forget ‘Dear Editor’ and either look at the masthead in the magazine you’re pitching or call the magazine and ask who to send pitches to.
How to become a travel writer Rule #10: Free trips? What? You can get free trips? Yes, but write for passion, not for free trips
Now I take free trips all the time. These are called press trips, or fam (familiarization) trips, and they’re usually hosted by a tourist board or a hotel or a resort. When I started out as a travel writer, however, I didn’t worry about getting free trips. I didn’t even know about free trips. I just loved travelling and that’s where all my money went. I also loved writing.
Hopefully it’s that way for you as well, because if you don’t love it, you’ll give up fast. But yes, sometimes the free trips are pretty cool. Only, you’re not likely to get them until you’ve built up a track record with some published articles.
How to become a travel writer Rule #11: Start small. Think big, No! Forget starting small!
Actually, I don’t really want you to start small. When I started out everyone said that you should begin with community newspapers, or write for free. I wrote for one local weekly paper, which paid a small amount, but at the same time I sent my stories out to the biggest papers in North America and found that my work sold just as well to places like the Chicago Tribune, the Toronto Star and the San Francisco Chronicle. So start at the top! Think big! If you’re completely intimidated, don’t worry. You’ll never actually have to see these people in person!
How to become a travel writer Rule #12: Travel small
When I say travel small, I mean that to become a travel writer you don’t need to go to France to write an article – although that’s very fun. You can do a day trip from your town. Or you can even write about your town itself. Anything can be a travel article and that’s the beauty of it. The key is to just do it, don’t take rejection seriously (okay you can cry, but then forge ahead). Because if I can do it, anyone can.
Want more? Check out my post on How to become a travel columnist.
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