Many travelers consider this at some point... Should I become a travel writer? A travel blogger? I'm already traveling... I'm not a bad writer... Maybe...
If you've ever had these thoughts but haven't acted on them, you might be curious about what it takes to find a travel writing job or to make a living as a travel writer. Please read on!
Once upon a time there were things called travel writing jobs: you actually got hired to travel and write about it. They've become extremely scarce and unless you are particularly well connected (like the newspaper's owner is your aunt or similar bit of good fortune), your chances of landing one are as good as being picked to fly to the moon.
Don't be too disheartened though: an actual job isn't the only way to write and get paid for it.
There are plenty of other pathways to travel writing as a career. Here are just a few examples...
And there are many others.
I'm going to focus on freelance writing, which I've done for years and know quite a bit about.
We all have our own approaches, but this is a rough road map that you might follow.
If freelance writing were a recipe, here are the ingredients you'd need:
If you're already a writer or your skills are strong, you're ahead of the game. But if writing is still a distant hope or you are less than confident about your writing, you may need a bit of training.
If you're a beginner, you can do it two ways.
You can spend months - sometimes years - mastering the art of writing for publication. Or you can take a shortcut and take a writing course.
Several good courses are on the market (see the resources section below), and each takes a different approach to travel writing for money. If you'd like something less structured, I've also provided plenty of free resources you can browse to improve your writing.
Long ago, before the advent of the internet or social media, your writing spoke for itself. You wrote a great story, and chances are an editor would hire you again.
These days it's a bit harder. You still have to write stories that read well and that interest people. But you have to go a step further. Editors may want to see your online portfolio, look at your social media reach to see if you'll be of use in promoting your story, even look at your LinkedIn profile to see who you are professionally.
So many would-be writers are beating down editors' doors - there are fewer doors each day - and competition is fierce. Superb or extraordinary writing on its own might be enough - but merely good or even excellent writing probably needs a push.
You'll need to decide who you want to write for. Once you've decided, you'll need to see whether they want you. Each publication is different and has its own style and needs. Usually these special requirements are listed in something called writers' guidelines, which may be posted on a publication's own website. Other than searching for [publication + writers guidelines] the easiest way to find them is to buy a list. The two most complete are the Writer's Market (more US-oriented), which comes in both hardcover and online versions, and Willings Press Guide or the Artists and Writers Yearbook (more UK-based).
The guidelines usually contain everything you need to know: how long an article should be, whether photos are required and their size, whether 'new' writers are accepted, what stories are preferred, how much they pay, contact names of editors - and anything else the publication thinks is important.
Armed with the guidelines of your preferred publication, you'll have to pitch. Plainly put, all travel writing jobs, especially freelance ones, contain a healthy dose of marketing: you'll have to 'sell' the publication on the fact that this is a story idea they must commission immediately, and why you're the best person in the world to write it.
What you pitch in your query letter will to a large extent determine the answer you get. Just telling an editor you're going to Tibet or Timbuktu will elicit about as much excitement as watching broccoli boil. Editors have more than enough copy - much of it poorly written - so what they need is something different. What is your angle? What is special about your story? How specific and unique is it? Here's a query letter example, and another.
And now you wait.
After sending in your pitch, you begin the waiting game. It can take weeks and even months to get a reply, believe it or not, and in the trade it's poor form to submit the same story idea to different publications - at least if they cover similar regions or topics.
My best advice - learn to diversify. While you're waiting for an editor to get back to you about a story pitch, move on to the next editor, with a different pitch. By the time you reach the end of your list, it will probably be time to circle back to the first editor, and then the second, and the third...
Until someone says yes!
Don't expect your first article, however brilliant your friends tell you it is, to end up in National Geographic or Travel + Leisure. You'll probably need to start with small markets, either low-paying or free (There are many debates out there about whether you should write for free, even as a beginner. I say Yes, but many people disagree.) Writing for the web is good, but print is better when it comes to earning recognition as a travel writer. These days, however, some websites are becoming as prestigious as printed media.
So by all means, practice with websites and collect writing samples, but graduate quickly to print markets or markets that have a principal print outlet, even those that pay abysmally (or not at all). Getting a few clippings under your belt will do wonders for your reputation and build your experience. Until the balance tips, it is still more prestigious to wave around a clipping from a newspaper or magazine than from a web-only publication. I suspect this will change.
Eventually, armed with clippings in hand as a published travel writer, you can approach larger and more prestigious publications.
You'll have plenty of competition - the publisher's niece who wants to travel for free, the well-known rock star who dabbles in writing, the news reporter who wants to try her hand at travel, and absolutely everyone else who loves to travel and wants to make enough money to continue doing so.
Just remember, the smaller and more specialized the magazine, the better your chances of breaking in.
1. Do your research beforehand
Research skills are essential, both for your pitch, and once you've been handed an assignment. It's all very well to hit the ground running once you're assigned a story, but I find having a wider picture, a sense of place, is important before I go anywhere. The more you know beforehand, the better the questions you'll ask and the understanding you'll bring to a situation.
2. Write everything down.
Keep a travel journal, and start even before you travel. You don't know what you'll need later. Once you're on the road, include thoughts, smells, sounds, descriptions, emotions, costs... anything and everything that strikes you and that can provide detail. Don't forget people's names and titles. The times I haven't done this, I've regretted it.
3. Plan your article before you write it.
Sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike is something best left to amateur novelists. Be systematic. Outline your beginning, your middle and your end - and everything in-between. You'll find the more time you spend on the outline, the less time you'll need to spend on the story. I learned this the hard way. Remember, we're talking about a travel writing job, something someone is paying you to write - not a blog post, where you can let your imagine run wild and your feelings and impressions take over.
4. Know your audience.
Make sure you pitch the kind of story that will actually fit in a publication. It you're pitching a magazine aimed at upper income spa-lovers, you won't get far with an article on choosing the best backpack. Nor will the editor - whom you really want to please - think you're very professional.
5. Put people in your story.
There's nothing more boring than a long litany of facts. Interview people and use what they say give your piece more punch. Anticipate this in your pitch - tell an editor who you plan to interview. You may not know a person's name yet, but you can guess you'll be talking to a tour guide, a repeat visitor or the head of the tourist office.
6. Get it right.
Be certain of your story. If you're quoting someone, use their exact words, in context. Double-check any facts or figures. If you get a simple number wrong, there's no reason for the editor to trust the rest of your story.
7. Take photographs.
You may earn more money if you supply high-quality photographs. Or not. But your chances of convincing an editor to publish you will usually be better if you provide images. Read the various writers' guidelines to see what editors want.
8. Go the extra mile.
Your first draft won't be your best draft, and your first shot will not be your best shot. Read your piece out loud, and rewrite what sounds long, unclear, convoluted, pretentious. Remove extra words. Pare down. Prune. The same with your photographs. Edit them ruthlessly. An editor will expect nothing less than perfection.
9. Recycle and rewrite.
You shouldn't submit the same travel article to two publications - unless their markets are so different there is no chance they'll overlap, ever. (I never submit simultaneously, no matter what). What you can do is rewrite: change your angle from singles to families, from winter to summer travel, from a whole city to a small neighbourhood.
10. Grow a thick skin.
The process of submitting and writing a travel article means you will get rejected, more often than you can imagine. But if one editor rejects a query, send it on to the next one, and the next one. At some point your supply and the market's demand will meet. Be stubborn and tenacious. And remember - the more articles you sell, the more you practice, the better-known you'll become, and the easier it will be to sell the next one.
11. And finally - travel!
Travel, and travel some more. Sitting in that cozy café in Paris for a month acting like a starving writer will keep you just that - starving. Grab your travel journal, buy that ticket and hit the road!