If you love to travel and love to write, this free travel writing course will get you one step closer.
You don't have to be a brilliant writer, nor do you need to know everything about putting a story together. You do need passion, a desire to succeed, decent technique and an understanding of what editors want.
I can't give you the passion or the drive - but I can help you develop the technique and get into an editor's mind.
Where should you start?
Right here. A few years ago I wrote a six-part primer called The Travel Writing Magician to walk through some of the basics of becoming a money-earning travel writer. The course was distributed via email for years and eventually turned into an e-book. Now it's available in a single (meaty) article that covers all the basics of Writing Travel Articles that Sell - and it's all yours for the reading.
This piece combines my own 30 years of journalism experience with great travel writing practice. I've written more than 2000 articles in my life as a journalist, and I now apply these techniques to my travel writing.
I'll show you how to...
I’ve worked my way across Africa by writing.
And the Caribbean.
I’ve worked from palm-fronded beaches, desert oases, icy mountaintops and tropical rainforests.
I swam with stingrays off the coast of Eritrea, got lost in the Amazon, fetched my own water and built my own cooking fire in the heart of Zimbabwe.
I have been privileged to see the world at my pace, combining my love of travel with my love of writing.
And you will too if you’re serious about writing stories that sell.
Now don’t get me wrong – it was a bit like roses: beautiful, but with plenty of thorns along the way. It’s not easy to make a living as a freelance writer, travel or otherwise: it takes hard work, a reasonable command of the English language and a helping hand from those who have done this before you.
So if you’ve always dreamed of travel writing and thought you couldn’t – think again. During these six lessons I’m going to share my hard-earned arsenal of tricks with you.
If you apply them and work (really hard) at learning your craft from the ground up, you’ll be getting closer to writing – and selling – your travel stories.
You'll have the freedom to travel and see the world, in a way you never dreamed.
Are you ready for the first lesson on how to be a professional travel writer?
Lets get started on the magic ingredients essential for a saleable story, one that an editor will be happy to pay you for.
Getting the angle or the peg is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make when you write a story.
Without an angle, you have no story. You know what you’re seeing and what you want to write about. Now you have to figure out how to slant it.
Let me explain.
That's a destination.
“Paris is a big city.”
That’s a description.
“Even though Paris isn’t the world’s biggest city, it looms large in the heart of romantics everywhere.”
Not a great sentence, but it tells the beginning of a story – it has an angle, an idea, a perspective, an approach.
Writing a travel story isn’t about delirious descriptions or lists of must-see sights.
Editors can find these on any website or guidebook. Your job is to provide a little extra, a twist that will make something old seem new, or something common seem exceptional.
Do you know how few travel writers actually realize this?
Many writers think a good description, well-written, with plenty of colorful adjectives makes a great travel story (I know this because I too have been guilty of this kind of writing). Most editors, on the other hand, are looking for something more.
One technique I use to find new story angles when I’m writing about a place is to insert a word right after my destination.
Let me show you how.
We’re writing about Paris, right? So why not try:
Another technique I use is to ask these questions:
These are the things that will sell your writing.
Editors want to learn something from your piece: if they learn something, so will the reader. They want to feel excited and inspired by looking at a place through a different lens. You can provide that difference.
I hope this makes sense! In case it doesn’t yet, let me give you another example from my own experience.
On a trip to Thailand I didn’t write about my itinerary, nor did I provide a long list of tourist attractions. Here’s what I explored instead:
#1. Scrumptious Thai food – what it is, how to prepare it, how to shop for it, best restaurants, eating utensils, etiquette, unusual food specialties, the difference between Royal cuisine and common cuisine
#2. Relaxing beaches – where to bliss out, visiting The Beach film set, massages on the beach, best beaches, living cheaply on the beach, and the safety of beaches after the tsunami
#3. Shopping in Thailand – amazing Chattuchak Market, antique shops, tailored clothes at Thai prices, the history of Thai silk, Jim Thompson’s story, the ins and outs of bargaining
#4. Spiritual Thailand – best meditation retreats, reflexology on every street corner, Thai temples and what they mean
#5. Poverty – child beggars, refugees from Burma, deforestation in the North, trafficking of women and children (these aren’t technically travel stories, but I care about these issues so I wrote them – and sold them)
When you set out to write a travel story, remember – it’s not one story, it’s many. Imagine writing your own stories from each of these angles, and selling each to a different paper, magazine or site…
I pretty much did and I’ll show you how you can too.
So when you’re thinking of writing your travel story, ask yourself: can I find multiple angles?
If not, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You’ll have fewers stories to write and to sell, so you’ll make less money. Imagine all that research about Paris just to sell one or two stories on the city as a destination. Not really worth it, is it?
I’ve given you plenty of ideas: now it’s time to come up with some of your own!
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #1: Practice finding angles
Choose a destination you can get to easily or that you know well - your own city, for example. Make a list of possible story angles. Don’t stop until you come up with at least 20. Then choose another destination and start again. And again. Once you’re confident about finding angles, challenge yourself: choose difficult destinations. The more ‘unexciting’ your choice, the harder you’ll have to work to find a great story angle. Remember, you’re laying important groundwork by doing this.
Do you ever ask yourself how to get all the facts you need?
It happens to travel writers all the time. We travel to a destination, take copious notes, then come home to write, only to find huge gaps in our knowledge.
There’s only one way to avoid that: do your research before you go.
That’s right. Find out everything you can about your destination before you ever step on the plane.
And don’t worry, your ‘spontaneity’ won’t be ruined, on the contrary. By knowing as much as you can beforehand, you’re leaving yourself free to observe and absorb rather than trying to write every little detail down.
So how would I get started on my research?
Say my destination is Montreal. In winter. (Yes, people do visit then.) Here’s what my research path might look like.
The first thing I would do is go to a local library (or online, if I don't have a library nearby, which happens to be the case where I live in the French countryside) and check out a few history books to get the feel of the place – history of Canada, of Quebec, Indian and colonial times.
Tales of everyday life in times past, especially in winter, are great tidbits you’ll want to sprinkle through your story. What did people use for fuel? What did they wear? Eat? How did they spend the winter?
I then read some literature written by Montrealers or about Montrealers – authors like Mordecai Richler, for example – modern fiction but also historical novels, something that will tell me why things are the way they are.
What’s the story behind the Jacques Cartier bridge? What was the historical role of Old Montreal? Why is ice hockey so popular?
I then move to more general information. I’ll first buy or borrow a recent guidebook or two and read through to get the big picture.
Then, I’ll follow with a lengthy search online: official tourist office sites, Wikipedia (if you haven't stopped by yet), the CIA Factbook, BBC archives, blogs by Montrealers… any useful source of general information.
A word of warning though: by relying too much on the Internet, you’ll come up with the same information everyone else has – including mistakes.
This is lazy writing and can be dangerously inaccurate.
I read the news, papers like the Montreal Gazette, magazines with websites, and national publications with Montreal content.
I need to get a sense of what a community thinks is important – not to mention the practical value of news. Will there be a strike during my stay? An election? Is there a crime wave? And of special importance in winter – what’s the weather like?
I always want lots of maps – not the Google printout kind, either.
I want the hard, foldable ones that crunch in my hand, so I write to the Tourist Office – they often have free maps of the area, especially if you tell them you’re a travel writer.
While I’m at it I also ask for any brochures to make sure I haven’t overlooked any obvious points of interest. You’d be surprised at how many tourist brochures actually contain offbeat information you won’t easily find elsewhere.
I may even set up an appointment to interview the head of the tourist office if I think it’s useful to my story.
Too much work? Not if you want to sell.
And now, the best for last…
You’ll have to get over it because some of your most memorable words will come from other people’s mouths. You’ll never know where a story will lead you if you’re not open to sharing yourself with others and vice versa.
And anyway, it makes travel so much more fun when the resident becomes the storyteller!
But who should you talk to?
First I look around my own networks, online and in person. Then I approach helpful travel forums like BootsNAll or Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. I usually find hundreds of helpful posts and if I don’t, I just post my own questions there.
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #2: Learn to research
Choose a destination near you, one you don’t know intimately. Choose a story angle. Map out what your research would look like: What questions would you need to answer? What would you read? Who would you contact? What else would you do? Be as specific as you can because when you get your first assignment, this is exactly what you’ll have to do. And then do it for another story. And another, until this becomes second nature.
The research is essential.
Once you’re on the road, you’ll be able to concentrate on what’s around you. You’ll be free to let your creativity take over, safe in the knowledge that many of the facts you need are already neatly tucked away.
A final word on research: get it organized. It won’t be of much use if it’s scattered all over the house. Choose a system, manual or electronic, and be disciplined with your filing.
The best travel destination in the world won’t help you write and sell a story if you don’t have an angle (remember Lesson 1?).
And like it or not, one of the best ways to get an angle – not to mention authenticity and credibility – is by interviewing people. People like talking, sharing information and being taken seriously.
If you want to become a travel writer, you’ve got to learn to interview people.
It isn’t enough to do all the research and describe it beautifully – you need someone who ‘knows’ the destination.
This can be an expert – or just someone who has experienced what you are about to describe.
I’m about to share with you some of the ways you can…
1. Decide whom to interview.
2. Actually arrange the interview.
3. Conduct the interview.
4. Write it up once you have it.
We have but one goal here: to get your story written and preferably sold, turning you into a successful travel writer with a travel writing career you are passionate about.
And here’s how you can use interviews to reach that goal…
Remember the Montreal in winter piece? You’ve found several potential angles (Lesson 1), done your research (Lesson 2), and now you need to bring it all to life and ‘make it real’ by getting the real story from the ‘experts’ (Lesson 3).
In other words, you’ll talk to people in the know – people who will tell you what they know about your chosen destination. And both of you will have fun doing it.
Here are some potential interviewees for your story:
And when you return home… are there any famous Montrealers living in your city? What do they miss most? (If there are no famous expatriates, any Montrealer will do!)
Interviews will make your story that much more ‘real’. You don’t need many – for some short pieces, a single interview with a two-sentence quote will be enough. For longer stories, you may need two or three interviews.
You should get your potential interviewees to WANT the interview, to desire it.
What? WANT to do the interview?
Absolutely. You’d be surprised how many people love being quoted.
Lets go back to our list of potential interviewees:
Will they talk to you?
Not always, but more often than you think.
The good thing about interviewees is that if one person says No, you simply move on to the next on your list until you get a “yes”.
Persistence is part of the job.
Interviewing is part art, part skill. The good news is that the skill part can easily be learned.
An interview is… a conversation, led by someone curious (that would be you!)
Imagine you’ve just met someone and you want to get to know all about them. What do you do? You ask questions.
Prepare a few beforehand – just enough to get the ball rolling.
Just be curious, and the rest should naturally flow.
As for recording the words of wisdom you’ll pluck during an interview, there are three ways I can think of:
Each has its advantage but the more elaborate you get, the more intimidated your subject will feel.
Unless I’m actually producing a piece for radio or television, I take notes, often backed up by a recording on my iPhone.
Write down your quotes accurately. Get the person’s exact title. Spell his or her name properly. And always, always get a contact email or number so you can check things later. You’ll need to… there’s no such thing as getting everything right, all of the time, especially the first time.
The biggest problem in writing up your interviews will be what to leave out, not what to use.
You may interview someone for half an hour and only use two sentences. In fact, this is more the rule than the exception.
Let me give you an example.
You’re interviewing the head of the Montreal Tourist Board. You’ll be asking all sorts of questions… how many people visit the city in winter, why, what are the selling points, what clothes to bring, what to avoid.
You might extract a few facts and figures from the interview and sprinkle them throughout your story, not as quotes but as background information. For example, you may tell your readers what clothes to bring, what temperature to expect, and how to get around despite the cold and snow, all of it based on information from your interview.
You’ll follow those facts with the interview segment itself, which might run something like this:
Few people think of visiting Montreal in winter, and that’s a shame,” said Jane Doe, President of the Tourist Board of Greater Montreal. “If anything, our city is more fun in winter than summer – where else could you learn to make an ice sculpture, skate a Figure 8 with an Olympic medallist as teacher, build an igloo, or shop indoors all day without having to step outside?
Can you see how short that is? And can you see how well the quote captures what you need to say? Quotes provide color and texture to your story. You can park the more boring facts elsewhere.
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #3: Interviewing
Choose one of the many story angles you developed in Lesson 1 and map out your interviews. Make a list of potential interviewees. Then make a list of 10 questions you would ask each of them. Try to imagine which bits you’ll use and where they’ll go. You’ll see an article beginning to take shape in your mind.
Interviewing someone is all about putting your common sense to work. Know what you want, then ask for it.
But be open-minded. You never know how someone might answer a question – and what path that answer might lead you down if you only listen.
This series is dedicated to setting you apart from the crowd – to showing you how to write saleable travel articles.
If you can think up the angles, do the research, approach people for interviews and write up your story…
… you may have what it takes to make a real living out of this.
But there’s one other step…
How often have you heard this?
“A picture is worth 1000 words.”
I hear it from editors all the time: give me visuals! Sometimes photos (and video, if you’re submitting to a website) make the difference between a sale and a rejection.
If you can’t recreate your story through pictures, your editor may look for someone who can.
Your success or failure as a travel writer depends on just a few factors – and a visually appealing story is definitely one of them.
Imagine a beautifully written travel piece that tries to describe a coastal sunrise – splashing rays shimmering over the horizon, their light skipping across the sea foam… Very nice, but wouldn’t it be even better just to show one?
With the range of affordable digital point-and-shoot cameras now on the market, it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture. I mostly use... my iPhone.
#1. Do your homework before you go. There might be a festival or special event taking place during your trip – a great photo opportunity you won’t want to miss.
#2. Spend a bit of time on composition. Get in close – remove the non-essentials from your picture. Keep your backgrounds uncluttered and simple – don’t distract your viewer.
#3. Never ‘bisect’ your photographs. In other words, don’t cut them in two, for example with the horizon across the middle. Use the ‘rule of thirds’ instead. Put your horizon in the top or bottom third of your picture. Faces too: position someone in the left or right side of your photograph, not in the middle. Leave that silly frontal look for a passport picture.
#4. Take colorful shots, but beware – not too much color. Force the eye to focus: a bright flower against a plain background will show up far better than a bright flower against a multi-colored background.
#5. The edge of your photograph may be straight, but the world around you isn’t. Find landscapes that curve or follow a line to soften the eye. If you do shoot a horizon, don’t shoot it at an angle. Unless you have a steady hand you’ll need a tripod (or a brick or a stone) to support your camera.
#6. Nothing is as compelling as a photograph with people. Just make sure you ask permission first. You don’t legally need a release if you’re using a photograph editorially as part of a newspaper or magazine story under what is known as ‘fair use’; you only need a release for advertisements or if you’re using the photograph to make money directly – on a mug or poster, for example.
However, many editors actually don’t know this and demand releases anyway so be prepared to provide them if it means the difference between making a sale or not.
#7. Photograph people going about their daily routines. Avoid the group or head shot. There’s nothing as boring as a group of people standing around staring at the camera.
#8. Be aware that some places apply strict rules to photography. I was once chased around a Nigerian market with a machete because I tried to photograph a vegetable seller without her permission. In some countries many things are out of bounds, from military buildings to airports and sometimes even schools. Check first.
#9. Choose your camera wisely. Nothing too complicated – you need something simple and easy to carry. Just make sure it’s sturdy. With digital photography you can check your photographs on the spot and if you don’t like what you see, shoot again. If you're taking a camera, carry a spare battery and memory cards – they do corrupt. Or get lost. And back up at the end of each day.
#10. Finally – read the manual! Don’t wait until a glorious sunset to decipher instructions. Yes, you can edit later but the more you get it right from the start, the better.
Magazines and websites usually have guidelines for photographers.
Some magazines (fewer every day) still insist on 35mm slides, while the rest want high-resolution digital shots. Guidelines are different for each publication, so check before you submit.
I can’t let you go without giving you one last tip: when you get to your destination, your first stop should be the postcard shop.
Have a look at what the pros are shooting – especially the angles and composition – and use the image to inspire up your own.
If you’re interviewing someone, place them in that picture. If these postcards sell by the thousands, your similarly-framed shots should sell too. Once you’ve got the basic shot wrapped up, then you can experiment. But get your main shot first.
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #4: Thinking visually
Choose a destination you’d like to visit and make a list of 10 photographs you might take there. Explain how each shot would contribute to your story. Include not only landscapes and sights of interest but people as well. Who or what would you shoot? Why? Why one shot and not another? Write captions for each story. Will they add information to what’s already in the photograph?
We’ve talked about the importance of finding a story angle, researching the story, snagging great interviews and taking fantastic photographs…
Now, learn how to make your story so compelling an editor won’t be able to resist it – and will pay to publish it!
In case you haven’t noticed, this entire guide is focused on getting an editor to: 1) read your story, and 2) to buy it.
And if the editor doesn’t first read your story, she can’t buy it.
If she does read it, she’ll have to like it so much she’ll be desperate to buy it (and isn’t this exactly the response you want?)
I can’t say it any more clearly: your career as a travel writer depends on whether an editor reads your story, and then buys it.
And it all starts with a gripping headline. Here’s what I mean.
1. Keep it short.
The shorter the headline the better. Keep it to five words, seven at most. Make every word count. Draw pictures with your words.
2. Keep it active rather than passive.
3. Keep it honest.
A flashy headline is great – but only if it’s true. I write the headline after I’ve written the story. Others do the opposite. No matter, as long as the two match. Don’t make promises or raise expectations in the headline that you fail to deliver in the story.
4. Go for the familiar.
Sounds of Silence on Cape Cod
Plays on your knowledge of music, and notice the cadence of sounds?
Le Tour du Chocolat
Even if you don’t speak French there’s a good chance you’ll know this is about travel, France and chocolate.
Out of Africa, the Wisdom of a Warrior
Plays on a movie and on rhythm and alliteration (note the constant consonants – W and W).
These three headlines from the New York Times travel section play on familiarity – things you may know or have heard of, but not necessarily in the same context. Still, they’re familiar.
5. Keep it gripping.
A headline grips the reader’s attention – but it must also grab the editor. Use poetry and alliteration. Make your headline sing and dance. Use numbers. Use superlatives. Use active verbs.
6. Keep it clear.
There’s little worse than an ambiguous headline, especially one trying to be funny or to deliver puns that fall flat and only confuse the reader (again, I sadly speak from experience). Have a look at these bad headlines and you’ll see what I mean. Stay away from being clever – you rarely will be. If you can’t think of anything brilliant or creative, just be clear and succinct – tell the reader what to expect in the story, and then deliver.
Here are a few examples of clear headlines that deliver on their promise:
So lets just recap: what goes into a good headline?
Here’s what your headline should not be:
By now it should come as no surprise that writing a good headline can be harder than writing a good story – and may take as much time to write.
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #5: Crafting headlines
Get a copy of your weekend newspaper travel section and look at the headlines. Are they any good? Do they fit the criteria for good headlines? How so? If not, how could you improve them? Now choose a travel destination and a great story angle. Write three headlines for your story. Once you’re satisfied, write three more. (For practice I once wrote 10 headlines a day for 30 days.) The headline is crucial: it can sell your story. Not that easy, is it?
It’s now time for me to share my number one technique to guarantee you actually make money travel writing rather than just feed your passion.
If you don’t apply this lesson, you may become a wonderful travel writer – but you won’t make a living at it.
The secret to making money as a travel writer is to sell the same story over and over again – in other words, to recycle it! It’s the only way to make a (possibly) decent living.
Most travel writing doesn’t pay much so you have to stretch every trip as far as you can.
Remember how in our first lesson we discussed finding new angles to old stories?
This is a similar technique but it goes a step further. Not only do you find lots of angles for a single story, but you also market to several publications.
If you visit the Alps on a skiing trip, you could easily query a skiing magazine with an obvious skiing in the Alps story.
But that’s just one story.
Now imagine this:
I can think of dozens more.
You get the picture.
Take one trip, and resell it dozens of times simply by changing the angle and the market. That’s recycling.
It’s quite straightforward. First, check the publication’s writers’ guidelines (I’ve prepared this fun little downloadable guide that demystifies guidelines for you).
Then, have a look at a sample query or pitch, adapt the content to your chosen publication and send it to the appropriate editor. Repeat for each submission.
The trick is to think this through before you travel so you’ll know what to look for once you’re there. Unless you’re planning a food story, you might not ask a chef for the secret ingredient in his tartiflette or the tourist board about the history of fondue.
SELF-ASSIGNMENT #6: Recycling your stories
Pick one of your best story angles and sit with it for a bit. Make a list of 10 new stories – spinoffs – based on that original story. Each special feature of your destination can become its own story. You should easily be able to come up with 10 ways to recycle your original story with a new target audience in mind every time. If you can do this over and over again for a dozen stories, you’ll be ready to start thinking of selling.
You now have everything you need to get started on your travel writing career.
I’d like to wish you all the best in your quest to become a travel writer! If you want to see the world and get paid for it, you’ve taken the first few steps. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t succeed immediately – I didn’t, and neither did most writers I know.
It takes practice to develop the craft of writing, and the best way to practice is to keep writing, keep submitting, keep rewriting – and eventually you'll keep selling.
You've covered the basics.
Still keen to be a travel writer?
Then you may have to push further, depending on your skills.
If you're a gifted writer, then go for it! Start pitching.
If you don't feel ready to write for pay and want to hone your craft, a travel writing course might help. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison once said: "Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration." The same can be said for travel writing.
Here are my two suggestions.
Travel Blog Success was put together by several successful travel bloggers. It is much more than a course, although I had no idea until I joined it. TBS has a 27-lesson package that teaches you absolutely everything you need to know to launch your own travel blog, from SEO to Wordpress to how to tell great stories, along with great travel blogging instructions and advice.
This is the course you should take if you want to launch your own travel blog and make money with it, and are comfortable online (or want to be). Even if you're an absolute beginner, you'll get the help you need at TBS.
The coursework is brilliant but there's a lot more:
So writing, yes, but also everything you'll need to set up your own successful travel blog. I'm on their Facebook group nearly every day and while I've been online since early 2007, I still learn something new each time.
At US$ 447 it's not cheap but that's for life, and new resources are added all the time.
The Ultimate Travel Writing Course is the first travel writing course I ever took, many years ago: it's professional and traditional, a classic.
This is the course you should take if you're just starting out and wondering if travel writing is for you - and if you're more interested in the writing rather than the publishing side.
This is the less expensive option at US$ 249.
I can't tell you which is best - because they're both excellent, in different ways. What counts is who you are, what kind of writing ambitions you have, and what you still need to learn.
Either of these courses will set you on your travel writing path - we all have to start somewhere!
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