I have been a journalist for over 15 years, but I am new to the world of travel blogging. Thanks to the inspiration of some amazing fellow bloggers, I am starting to get the hang of this brave new world. In return for their incredible wisdom and support, I’d like to offer the story of how I got into professional travel writing, and perhaps inspire other budding bloggers and travel writers out there.
I got into travel writing almost by accident. I have degrees in journalism and anthropology, and after college, I was a beat reporter for a couple of news outlets. Then I took to the road, working as a contract archaeologist for five years around Israel and America. I finally got a combination writer/archaeologist position with the United States Forest Service in Mississippi. One of my duties was to write about recreation areas, hiking trails and other outdoor opportunities. An avid outdoors girl myself, I was happy to write press releases on the subject, as well as copy for brochures, maps and holiday guides. I got the opportunity to work for the Smithsonian Institution for a year, collecting oral histories on outdoor Mississippi culture and being a presenter at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. After writing about murders and car accidents, and then dry government documents (yawn!) I was able to write about something I loved-at least some of the time.
Meanwhile, I bought a derelict cotton field with a rundown house, and, in my spare time, with the help of family and friends, transformed it into a thriving organic farm. After a couple of years, I threw caution in the wind and quit my government job to run the farm full-time. But I still wanted to write professionally and needed the extra money, so I contacted the newspapers and magazines that I had sent Forest Service press releases. I pitched a few story ideas around, and right away I landed a paid bi-weekly outdoor recreation column for a local entertainment magazine. A stringer (contract writer) position with the local newspaper followed, and soon I was getting regular assignments from travel and leisure magazines around the state. And as a commercial, organic, farmer and advocate for the local food scene, I started getting requests for paid speaking engagements and articles on topics such as food, tourism, and gardening. Because I could rarely leave my farm for more than a couple of days at a time, my travel writing specialty was the “Daycation”- destinations for day or weekend road trips around the American South. I reviewed eateries, shared tales of funky little shops and awesome music festivals. I showcased cool local artists, and directed readers to the best hiking/biking/horse riding trails in the area. I wrote an annual fall colour report, in which I outlined the best dates and routes to see the South’s gorgeous autumn foliage display. Armed with a solid portfolio, when a food editor position at an international restaurant trade magazine opened up, I snapped it up.
I moved to the coastal Highlands of Scotland with my husband a year ago and started a blog called A Mississippi Expat in Scotland, Adventures in the Mother Country. I use my “new life in the old world” as a lens through which I share my travel and food explorations. I’m not limited to day trips anymore- I can travel all over Europe. Not that the daycation opportunities here are lacking- I can island hop, mountain climb, hill walk or snow ski all within 40 miles of my house. My husband and I have toured the entire length of the UK, from Orkney to Cornwall, and are planning a driving trip across France this summer. We take short trips all over the country, from city weekends in Edinburgh to remote hiking trips through the Highlands. I’ve a backlog of travel stories to write-up, and I plan to share them with the world through my blog. And just a few months after receiving my UK work permit, I am about to have my first article published here in a regional travel magazine.
As for my travel writing style, in my opinion, most people read a travel blog for one of two reasons: they want to travel to the place you are writing about, or they want to dream about it. Either way, this requires a certain amount of credibility on my part, as well as attention to detail. Anyone can write a rambling story about “My trip to…” but as an effective travel writer, my job is to include the golden Five W’s and H of journalism - Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. With that in mind, I’ve put together my own list of travel writing tips:
1. Write about what you know.
If you have a degree in biology, write with authority about eco-tourism. If you are a parent, share kid-friendly destinations. If you are a foodie, review restaurants and farmers markets. Your daycation is someone else’s exotic holiday, so take advantage of where you live and write about everything fun to do, see and eat there. Your readers want to benefit from your expertise and that’s what travel writing is all about, isn’t it?
2. Capitalise on your success.
If you dream of getting paid to gallivant around the world, or just your city, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Contact the editor of a publication you admire (whether it is your local newspaper or an international travel website) and introduce yourself. Don’t send a complete manuscript; rather, pitch some ideas by composing a few sentences about your topics and your angles, and emphasise why you are an “expert” on the subject (see number 1.) Offer to include high quality photographs. There are no promises, but you’ll never know unless you try.
3. Great adventures make great copy.
Be an intrepid traveler (and that doesn’t mean you have to bungee jump or hang glide, unless, of course, you are into that sort of thing!) Avoid the tourist traps - blaze a woodland trail, take the blue highway and mix with the locals. Immerse yourself in the landscape and culture. Expand your horizons, then tell the world about it.
4. Get your facts straight.
Make sure your spelling of place names is correct, your geography is on target, your details are spot on and your links work. Nothing like a glaring mistake to blow your credibility and open yourself up to negative comments.
5. Good deeds bring good karma.
A good way to build your resume is volunteering to write press releases and publicity material for a local nonprofit group in fields of art, entertainment or tourism- such as a festival, farmers market, theatre troupe or summer camp. Include your name and contact on each one, and soon, media outlets will get used to seeing your name. Best of all, you’ll help to make the world a better place.
Best of luck with your travel writing, I look forward to reading it!
Michelle McAnally is a journalist and anthropologist specialising in travel and food writing. Her blog, A Mississippi Expat in Scotland, Adventures in the Mother Country, is about her new life exploring the culture and landscape of the old world. You can also chat with her on Twitter.