Last week, I headed off for a chat on the radio show The Ticket, hosted by Stef Burgon and Mark Lloyd on Dubai Eye 103.8, to talk about travel writing. I’ve had an awesome response from people who listened to the segment, which prompted me to write a three-part blog series about (drum roll) travel writing. You’re welcome! Keep an eye on Scribe’s blog every Tuesday over the next three weeks to read the full series. Happy travels! – Angela
Ever since we’ve been banging bones together and baking our brethren over bonfires, we’ve been travel writing. Well, sort of. You could say that travel writing kicked off when human beings started exploring the planet. First we shared our experiences on cave walls, then – as we became more sophisticated – on papyrus, and then came books. Early and well-known examples of travel literature include Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece in the 2nd century CE, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales – in 1191 and 1194 – by historian Gerald of Wales, and the travel journals of geographer, traveller and poet Ibn Jubayr and Muslim scholar and traveller, Ibn Battuta, both of whom documented their journeys in detail. Actually, it’s interesting to note (especially if you live in the Middle East) that the travel genre has been fairly common in Arabic literature across the ages.
Today, travel writing is much easier. Travel writers get to visit incredible destinations around the world and get there by plane – not boat, foot or on the back of a furious camel. Writers share their experiences through the written word – with photographs usually – in guidebooks, magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs and coffee table books. Travel writer Tom Miller describes travel writing best: “Great travel writing consists of equal parts curiosity, vulnerability and vocabulary. It is not a terrain for know-it-alls or the indecisive. The best of the genre can simply be an elegant natural history essay, a nicely writ sports piece, or a well-turned profile of a bar band and its music. A well-grounded sense of place is the challenge for the writer. We observe, we calculate, we inquire, we look for a link between what we already know and what we’re about to learn. The finest travel writing describes what’s going on when nobody’s looking.”
So, who can become a travel writer? Anyone really. You need to love travelling, writing and reading, and need to be able to string a sentence together – or hopefully a paragraph (or five). You also need to be self-motivated, have a thick skin when it comes to rejection (but you’ll develop that over time don’t worry!), be flexible, and have creative, fresh ideas for story angles. Even if your stories aren’t initially published (or ever published) you should write them anyway. The only way to improve as a writer is to keep writing. Continually hammering away at your keyboard will also help you craft your own, individual writing style.
If you’re a freelance or full-time journalist, it’s likely that there will be times that you’ll be travelling with a bunch of other journalists – which I think is actually pretty fun. If you’re not someone who enjoys travelling in a group, you might need to rethink the travel writing option.
You need to remember that travel writing is actually a job, so you have to treat it like one. Travel writers need to be switched on all the time, noticing the things an average traveller wouldn’t. You can’t switch off because you do or don’t like something. Remember: people aren’t reading your piece to learn about what you did or didn’t like; they’re reading to be inspired and entertained, and possibly to learn something. Always write from your reader’s perspective.
You need to be a good-natured person that can deal with getting up super early, traipsing around a city for the entire day – often with a crowd of other journalists in tow – and then turning your notes into something legible in the evening (or whenever you get a chance). Try to write things down as they happen or soon after so you don’t forget smaller details. Your initial draft doesn’t have to be perfect because you can edit it later, but the point of making your notes in the moment is just to stay on top of what is going on. If you can take half-decent photographs, that’s great. Ninety-nine per cent of travel stories need photographs. We’ll talk more about that when we touch on pitching your story, but good photographs will help you on the road to getting your piece published.
My first travel-writing venture was in South Africa when I was working as a full-time junior writer at a lifestyle magazine, around 2004. I was flown with a very good friend of mine – who happened to be the photographer – to three four- and five-star resorts for a week. It was such an incredible experience. We were up at 4am most days for game drives and viewings and only headed to bed really late at night after hanging out with the lodge management to catch up on the day’s events. Exhaustion was an understatement. All of that awake time did lead to me falling asleep while the guide was talking to me. Not a good look! Travel writing or travel journalism may look glamorous, and while it is fabulous, it is hard work. Take your vitamins and eat well, and don’t forget to sleep when you can.
It is important to talk about what travel writing is, but it’s also vital to touch on what it IS NOT. It’s not keeping a journal of your vacation and wanting to share that with a publication or website as-is. You need to adapt your pieces for the publication you want to be published in, which means doing your research and reading that magazine or guidebook or newspaper from cover to cover. Again, write for your reader, not yourself. Bill Bryson once said something along the lines of: “Everyone thinks everyone is interested, but you need to write your piece as though no one is interested.” You want to inspire your reader and give them a fresh new angle – especially on a place that’s been covered to death.
Travel writing is also definitely not about trying to get free trips around the world. While it is likely that you will get free flights and stays – especially if you work as a full-time travel writer – if you’re a freelancer, you should never promise a hotel, airline or anyone else any kind of coverage unless you have confirmation in writing from the editor. If you don’t have confirmation, you might run the risk of the editor changing their mind about printing the story, leaving you stuck with a furious hotel or airline expecting coverage for the free stay they gave you. Bottom line: Never promise anyone anything, and get everything in writing.
Your stories don’t have to be long and rambling. Don’t forget that there might be a great piece in your backyard in the form of a food truck brunch, hiking through wadis, or dune bashing in the desert. If you dive, you might write a piece about diving along the east coast of the UAE, or even in Oman. Travel writing is about sharing an experience you’ve had and inspiring people to do the same, while also revealing mistakes you may have made so that they can avoid them. Just to give you an example of a shorter story, a few years ago I wrote a piece for a men’s lifestyle magazine in Dubai about a one-day diving trip I took to Musandam in Oman. The piece was short and was more of a review if I’m honest, but it did touch on the area, what to expect while travelling on a dhow, as well as the sites that we dived – (which were Lima Rock and Ras Lima, in case you’re interested) as well as the animals we saw (two plump seahorses that you might be surprised to hear are actually pretty rare).
Some people think that funding your own trip (or having the magazine pay for everything) is preferable because it’s more objective in that the people or companies you come into contact won’t put on as many bells and whistles. In many cases, when things are being paid for, the journalist might opt out of even telling the hotel, airline or tour company that they’re writing a piece as they don’t feel obligated too. If you’re on your own buck, you can still pitch your story in the same way as you would if you were a full-time or freelance writer. Whatever you do, there’s never a guarantee your story will be picked up, but write it anyway and use it for your blog or portfolio if you need to. Whatever you do, just keep writing…
Take a look at our blog again next Tuesday for the second part of Scribe’s travel writing blog series. Chat soon!
Want to get in touch for more tips on travel writing, or any other writing for that matter? Or would you like Scribe’s team to write something for you? Shoot Angela an email on firstname.lastname@example.org