How To Be a Professional Travel Writer

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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!

 

michelleheadshotMichelle 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.

Why Travel? Why Write?

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There is an intersection in writing genres between autobiography and travel. At this intersection is the travel writing genre which often includes equal parts biography and selling of a place. Two of the most prolific stories which meet appropriately at this aforementioned intersection are Travels by Michael Crichton and East Toward Dawnby Nan Watkins. These two pieces of travel writing marry well the true balance nomads inwardly observe as we outwardly wander through the world.

I discovered these two works while working and traveling through Australia in 2001. If I were to characterize a whole nation of people based on the stereotype of those I met while in Europe before my Australian escapade – Australians were fun, free, and easy-going, in it for the adventure which is why I decided to go to their country. The only concrete things I knew about the country, that is also a continent, was that it was home to kangaroos, koalas and the Great Barrier Reef – that was it. I decided that while I learned about Australia I would also learn just how much I was capable of. I was alone without a travel companion. The lack of planning or a travel companion was utterly terrifying but also amazingly liberating!

“I hadn’t traveled with the intention of learning about anything except myself. And the real point of all this travel was not what I had come to believe or disbelieve about the wider world, but what I had learned about myself. When I look back on my travels, I see an almost obsessive desire for experiences that would increase my self-awareness. I needed new experiences to keep shaking myself up. I don’t know why this should be true for me…the search for new experiences represents an appetite. It’s an acquired taste, in my case acquired early and invigorating, and not as frightening.”

- Michael Crichton, Travels

 

When I travel, I never really know exactly what I am looking for or really what I will find along the way, both within myself or the location I am exploring. There is only so much preparing for life that people can do after all. While in Australia, I traveled by multiple means, jumped out of perfectly good airplanes despite a minor fear of heights, learned to scuba dive even though I find the immensity of the ocean terrifying and never formally learned to swim. I also made amazing friends along the way and came across some amazing reading – that I think I was meant to discover at the time. I didn’t really know who I was then. I think I was grappling with who I thought I was or who I was supposed to be, but I was learning the truth, my truth, participating in my own transition.

Both Watkins and Crichton are in the midst of transitions too, seeking understanding of who they thought they were and who they wanted to be; seeking clarity, truth and to clear away both self-imposed and attached expectations. Crichton does this as a man just beginning to live a life he perhaps didn’t know he wanted, having realized that a life in medicine is not for him. While Watkins approach is from the other side of life, not near death herself by any means but having experienced it through the loss of her 23-year-old son as well as divorce. Both authors are seeking new frontiers: Watkins through a solo journey around the world as an already accomplished 60-year-old woman and Crichton through various travels globetrotting to movie sets and other places. Both Crichton and Watkins, intelligent successful people in their own right, write from an aware and reflective perspective; understanding the privilege of their education and upbringing, having the cultural deference to seek to understand the people and places they come across without using their privilege as glasses used to see the wider world.

“Travels is my favorite of my books. Starting around the early Eighties, I began to realize that people’s perceptions of me were very different from how I perceived myself. There was this sense that I was a kind of stainless steel, high-tech person, who would be really interested in lecturing on the subject of robots, or something. I found myself saying to people that I didn’t have those interests, and that caused a lot of surprise. I began to feel that what had happened, [...] perceptions of me were of some twenty-six-year-old techie whiz kid. Meanwhile, the experiences of my life had gone in another direction, had been going in that direction for many, many years. [...]

-The Travels of Michael Crichton by Janet Berliner (26.03.2010), Storytellersunplugged.com

 

Why Watkins and Crichton’s works spoke to me when I discovered them and continue to stick with me today is simple: the truth in their words. The truth in the vulnerability of extensive travel, of living abroad, of finding oneself while at the same time learning more about the world. As I travel attempting to make sense of the world and my place in it, I gain perspective on my problems, my failures, my successes and the distances between those points. At the same time that I read about these authors explorations, I am having explorations of my own which make my nomadic way of being that much more solidified in the legitimate.

I am not just wandering, I am a modern explorer. Not satisfied with how things are, settled and gathering dust, but interested in how things could be. Hopeful in the collection of awareness that comes with the collection stamps in my passport, intercultural understandings and perhaps even greater – misunderstandings. Perhaps the world isn’t such a daunting place, perhaps it can be better, that we can be better individuals and we can all learn from each other when we are not stuck in a place gathering dust like the pictures on the wall.

 

CNOG.headshotChristina is originally from Portland, Oregon but has been living, working and writing from Germany since 2010. Her blog, Living the American Dream in Europe is all about making sense of being an expat and still loving home, even though that now means two different locations on a globe.

What I Learned From Criticizing Russia

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There are times when, as a travel writer, you push the ‘publish’ button and you know. You just know. Fingernails are chewed nervously, stats are refreshed near constantly… Yes, you’ve just written a post about a negative aspect about your time abroad.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this topic, as I’ve been living in and writing about Russia for the past four years. While I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through my blog, I’ve also had my fair share of negative attention. Posts about my leftward-leaning politics, photoessays on the opposition protests that ran through the country, and even posts with a small comment about something being “strange” have been met with hostility. There is not much creepier than checking your stats and realize one of your posts is being passed around the ultra-nationalist Russian part of the web.

Gathering Against Adoption Ban

But none of that means that I stopped writing and that certainly doesn’t mean that anyone should stop posting about the less-than-stellar parts of their travels or life abroad. Instead, travel and expat writers should arm themselves with the right tools to cover these topics as gracefully and informative as possible. Here are some tips I find to be helpful:

1. Wait a minute

While it’s tempting to write a post as soon as you arrive to a new country or have some sort of jarring experience, hold back. If you’re traveling in the short-term, wait until you’ve gone home and had a chance to process your experiences. If you’re in a more permanent expat situation, make sure you take time to ease into your new culture. As a travel writer, you’re beholden neither to the strict deadlines nor objectivity that comes with working as a journalist. Take your time and keep your subjectivity to an acceptable level when you pen your travel experiences. The bottom line? Make certain you can make an informed decision, especially if your chosen subject has the potential to be particularly touchy.

2. Connect it all back home

It’s easy logic – people are more likely to be receptive to criticism if the critical person is also open to criticism. When opening the can of worms that is writing on a negative or divisive topic, always avoid placing all the bad press on the other culture. For example, if you’re talking about a weird habit that you noticed during your trip, mention something that would be similarly strange to someone visiting your home country. If you’re diving into the hairy, heavy world of politics, may God be with you. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Remember to remain as factual as possible without compromising what you believe in.

3. Just accept the haters

You’re not going to please everyone, no matter what you write, but particularly if you decide to tackle the less-than-positive aspects of travel. Even if you’ve written something totally factual and well-rounded about a negative facet of somewhere else, there will always be an indignant local who won’t respond to reason. The anonymity of the internet brings out some of the worst in people, regardless of nationality. Unfortunately, it’s just a fact of putting your work out there – just let it roll off your back as best you can and move on to the next great post!

pollyphotoPolly Barks is an American who, until recently, had been living in Russia, working as an ESL teacher and writing passionately about life in Moscow on her blog, A Girl and Her Travels. Polly’s writing has been featured on many expat sites and she is considered an expert on navigating the curious life of an expat in Russia. Now Polly and her husband (the Russky) are embarking on the next great adventure: they quit their jobs and are heading off on an indefinite trip to Central America. To follow along this journey, you can also find Polly on Twitter and Facebook.