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- Travel Tips
Travel Writing 101
Travel Writing 101
Tips and Advice from Journalist and Eurotrip Regular Anika Scott
Let’s face facts: People who’ve walked down the Appian Way, climbed the mountain at Neuschwanstein or tossed back a few in a London pub are the lucky ones. The average working Joe and Jane horde vacation time like bullion but the travel addict spends weeks, months or even longer crisscrossing the globe. There’s a link between the stay-at-homes and the globetrotter and that’s the travel writer. A distinctive breed of traveler who can’t see and hear and taste new things without telling someone about it. Many of us itch to write about our travels and know that the folks at home would enjoy an armchair adventure lived vicariously through our writing. The problem is usually how to begin. So grab some notebooks, pens and a camera and let’s give travel writing a shot. All packed? Ok, let’s go!
Before You Leave, Plan Ahead
Did I say let’s go? Wrong! There’s a lot to do before the plane lifts off. Once you know where you’re traveling to, do some research. Pre-trip research is often one of the most neglected pieces of travel planning, but for the traveler who wants to write, it’s crucial. General reading about a place’s history, culture and sights is just the beginning. Get a map and familiarize yourself with the layout and topography of the places you will visit. Make a short list of must-see sights. Browse travel magazines to see what has recently been written about your destination or watch the news for the latest in politics and economics. Search the Internet for websites with events calendars for your destination and note down what interests you. Is there a special art exhibition at the Uffizi in Florence? When does the Pope host public audiences at St. Peters? Will a trip to Venice coincide with Carnival or the Regatta? Your research could include anything from archaeological expeditions to local festivals to traditional hand crafts that are dying out, or still going strong. And of course, essential language phrases always help. The more you know about your travel destination, the more enjoyable and productive your trip. Copy or print out pages, or write down in a notebook the key information you may need on your trip.
On the Trip: Eyes Wide Open
Here’s the bad news about travel writing: It’s work. Just like work at home, traveling with the intention to write means a bit of discipline, of working when you feel like playing. Your job is to keep your eyes and ears open, to observe the world around you and notice (and write down or photograph) details that the average traveler may forget, or not notice at all. Remember that you’re not traveling just for yourself, but for all those people who had to stay home. What would they want to know? They can eat at McDonalds at home, so don’t eat there in Paris. Try new foods, peek inside stores, park yourself at a sidewalk cafe and watch people. Seek out neighborhoods that are tourist free, where real people live, work and play. Some of the most fascinating travel writing gives a glimpse of daily life in other countries.
Time tends to be limited on your travels, so it’s important to carve time out to visit the places that interest you most from the list you made before you left home. Along the way, collect everything. Ticket stubs, subway maps, brochures, schedules, advertisements. If you’re really organized, stick this stuff in a big envelope and label it to prevent confusion later. Why do this? You’ll need these little things later. Trust me on this one, or see the Confronting the Blank Page section.
While you’re snooping around, talk to people. Sure, you’ll likely hook up with other backpackers at the hostel, but that’s not who I mean. Chat with people who live and work in your destination. With hotel clerks, hostel owners, waiters, people in the train compartment with you. Ask questions. At times you’ll be lucky enough to get someone enthusiastic about showing you around. Many beginning travel writers forget that readers are interested in the people abroad, not just the museums, artwork and landscape. A few minutes of chatting with the priest at the Wieskirche Pilgrimage Church in Bavaria yielded the opening anecdote of a travel story I later sold to the Chicago Tribune .
The priest in the slim black robe was round-faced, nearly bald and all smiles. As he should be, because his church— the Wieskirche in the meadow near Fussen in Bavaria— was packed to capacity that Sunday. He shuffled here and there behind the baroque church’s altar, a little bit nervous by the shaking of his hands, because mass was starting in 15 minutes. An English mass. “My English is not so good,” he said in German as he looked with excitement and anxiety ant the crowds gathering in the color-splashed nave. The mass was planned for a busload of pilgrims. Americans, he said. Which made him think of his only trip to the States, involving a stopover at O’Hare Airport. “I looked for my gate and I carried all of these bags,” he said, comically slouching under the weight of imaginary luggage, “and I asked the airline person for gate H17. She said: “I’m sorry, in German I only know how to count to nine.”
A note on photography: If you’re experienced with a manual camera with fancy lenses, great. If you have a digital camera, that’s probably even better. But if you’re like me and have a limited budget and even less photography training, a quality point-and-shoot camera works well, especially if you hope to sell your travel article to newspapers or websites. (Magazines tend to prefer professional photographs). A photographer colleague of mine recommended the pocket-sized Olympus Stylus for its super-clear photos. I have one, and it’s produced good clean prints. Zoom features on pocket cameras often blur the final photos, so I live without zoom. Photography is a seperate art from writing, and I can only recommend that you take lots of film of the best quality you can afford and experiment with up-close and faraway shots, details, people, moving things, monuments, natural sights. With time, you’ll get a feel for what will work with your camera. Always take more than one photo of anything that may relate to an article you’ll write later. There’s nothing like getting film developed to find that one essential photo is obscured by your thumb.
Now that we’re talking to people, snapping photos and seeing the sights, we must pause a bit to write it all down in the Travel Journal.
The Travel Journal
You can’t rely on your memory. Probably for our own good, the brain filters out much if not most of the sights and sounds we come across each day. When traveling in a new place, the sensations can be overwhelming. That’s why we need a Travel Journal or notebook. At times I take two notebooks: one for practical lists like what I’ve photographed, restaurants I ate at and the prices, quick analyses of hotel or hostel, the name of a new wine, bits of conversations with locals. The other book is the more diary-like journal where I keep my impressions. Obviously this can all be done in one book. Either way, you must have a notebook of some kind and— here’s the hard part— you must write in it. Traveling is exciting and frustrating and tiring and it’s easy to do everything but take notes. Maybe you plan to hit the clubs, figure you’ll write later, you drink a bit too much, the night is gone, the morning comes, you’re bleary-eyed…. No, if you’re serious about writing about your trip, take just a bit of time before you go to the pub to write while your memory is fresh.
This may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: There are at least five senses. Use them. We often overuse the sense of sight when on a trip because, well, there’s so much to see. Naturally what you see is a key part of anything you may later write, but what you hear, smell, touch and taste can make an article vibrant and alive to a reader. Here’s a quick excerpt from my travel notebook on my first impressions of Palermo: “Exhaust, garbage, dust, vaguely like NYC but smell not unpleasant, like a body odor distinctive but natural. Traffic and pedestrians are a flow, move in and out of one another in a high speed ballet across streets jammed with mopeds and double parked cars, construction sites, parked trucks, loiterers, workmen carrying a carpet on their shoulders, sharp suit biz man talking into ear piece cell phone, hands gesturing to noone.” The Travel Journal should capture your experience in as many different ways as possible, the practical and the impressionable. This is the raw stuff you will use to write your article. The more you note down while on the trip, the more material you’ll have to work with when you get home.
Home Again: Confronting the Blank Page
Even experienced writers sometimes have a hard time getting started. The blank page or computer screen is there, the cursor blinks on a field of white and suddenly, you can’t for the life of you think of how to start. So how do you begin the actual article? Now is the time to dig out all of those ticket stubs and brochures we lugged home. For me, these are priceless for jogging the memory. Touching them and turning them over in my hands produces some sort of tactile spark that gets my memory going. Your trip photos may also help get you in the mood to write. And of course, reading through the travel journal should give you the “Oh, yea, that was great!” feeling that can get you on your way.
Maybe you know you want to write about… say, Rome, but you can’t think of a way to begin. You may be suffering from a lack of story focus. That is, you have only a vague idea of what to write about, because there’s just too much to write about. Here is where it helps to think of the Reader. This is the person who will open the newspaper over the Sunday morning coffee and go on a short journey with the Travel Section. Or it’s the bored person on an airplane hoping for a bit of distraction. Your job is to entertain and educate them. How? Think about what would interest you if you were browsing through travel articles. Perhaps you arrived at the Vatican Museum at the last minute but managed to see it all anyway. An article could be: “How to See the Treasures of the Vatican in 20 Minutes or Less.” This is unusual, a new spin on a destination that has been written about thousands of times. Did you go on a gondola ride in Venice and chat for an hour with the driver? That could yield a story like “Life on the Lagoon: A Day in the Life of a Gondoleer.” Were you terrified by the traffic in Rome? Maybe you could write: “Roman Taxi Rides and Other Extreme Sports.” Think of your travels in new ways, not just on the sightseeing basics. By the way, dreaming up headlines for the travel story you want to write can do wonders. Try brainstorming ten article ideas by writing down interesting headlines. That may be all you need to start off your story.
L. Peat O’Neill in his book Travel Writing: A Guide to Research, Writing and Selling points out that there are many different kinds of travel stories. These include: Destination (a sightseeing piece that inspires the reader to travel); Special Interest (travel as related to food, arts, sports, shopping, etc.); Journey (emphasizes the travel part of travel with scenic drives, train rides and so forth); the Roundup (a half dozen or so destinations with a common theme like “Holidays from Hell”); Historical or Holiday Peg (tied to an anniversary or historical event); Side Trip (short jaunts outside major cities); Outdoor/Recreation (self-explanatory); Travel Advice (how to save money, pack light, etc.); and Personal Essay. Writing your article will be easier if you know what type of story you want to tell. Again, read travel magazines and newspaper travel sections to get a feel for these article types.
Writing tip #1: Have you ever thought about how an article is put together? The most basic journalistic article has four parts: the Lead, Nut Graph, Body and Kicker. I’m not saying everything must be written this way. Far from it. But a general understanding of this basic structure may help you craft your first stories. The Lead is anything from the first line to the first few paragraphs of a story. It can be almost anything, an anecdote, a description, a startling fact. However you start it, the lede is the key (after the story idea) to getting readers to stick to the article, and for getting editors to consider it for publication. So make it fascinating, humorous, compelling, whatever it takes to hold someone’s interest. Here’s a descriptive lead from Bettina Edelstein’s In Norway, Cod, Caves and White Nights in the New York Times .
The ocean seemed calm, the voyage promising. Bits of blue peeked from the mist around the spiky green and granite mountains, the geological backbone of the Lofoten Islands of Norway, rising from the water like the spine of some ancient sea creature. The boat was waiting in the Reine harbor, next to a small warehouse where we could see, and smell, stacks of dried cod.
The Nut Graph is a transition from the Lead to the story’s main Body and answers the central question of the article: So what? What makes your article topic so important or entertaining that someone should read about it? Why are you telling us about this destination? The Nut Graph point is more important for newspapers than magazines, but it helps to keep it in mind. The Body of the article is the main chunk of the story, and the Kicker is the story conclusion, an interesting twist or additional fact or observation that closes out the article and leaves the reader with a last impression. Study travel articles to see how writers use— or dispense with— this basic structure.
Writing Tip #2: Be detailed. Beginning writers are often guilty of vagueness. They may write: “We passed through the beautiful Tuscan countryside on our way to Florence.” But this says almost nothing. Words like beautiful, quaint, lovely, interesting and picturesque are weak and inexact adjectives. Instead, think of what made the countryside beautiful. The spindly stems of empty grapevines in October? The shadows of umbrella pines on terra cotta soil? If you find yourself writing tree, stop and write chestnut, maple, elm. If you write red, tell us what kind— like a traffic light, like over-ripe cherries, like the old Soviet flag?
Writing Tip #3: If possible, have a light touch. Humor is a commodity much prized in travel writing. It’s not appropriate to make light of a trip to Dachau of course, but many good travel articles would have been rather boring if written in a sober style. Here’s the Lead of a humorous travel story from the Philadelphia Inquirer called Exploring a sport of high fashion, speed and prices by Doug Lansky.
Until recently, the closest I got to the game of polo was getting sprayed with Ralph Lauren’s cologne by an overzealous attendant as I walked through an airport duty-free shop. I couldn’t have told you how many players there were on a team, how many points you got for a goal, or even if cross-checking was allowed. All I knew for certain was that polo players had names like Sir Dinkus Pattington 3d, were required to compare Rolexes for a least three minutes between games, and send their polo ponies to Swiss health spas for grooming.
Writing Tip #4: Don’t sweat style. Editors value accuracy and clarity as much as if not more than “good” writing. Dazzle editors and readers with your ideas, your observations, the details of what you experienced. Style develops by itself over time.
If you thought writing the article was the hard part, watch out. Getting the first few travel stories published if you have no previous published work can be a stiff battle. If you know that going in, it’ll save you heartache later. In the 2000 Writers Market, Chicago Tribune Travel Editor Randy Curwen said only 1% of the manuscripts on his desk make it into the newspaper. Higher paying magazines may be even more difficult because they generally prefer to work with published writers. It’s tough for a newbie, but definitely not impossible, especially if you don’t mind not getting paid, at least at first. If you’ve never been published, it’s unlikely the New York Times will pay for your article. They may, but the chances are slim. So start at more modest publications like a local newspaper or unpaying magazine. The web has opened up new horizons for writers, though many websites are still unpaid or low-paying. Sites like Eurotrip.com look for well-written and entertaining travel stories. But how do you approach a prospective publication or editor?
1. Hit the Internet. Not only can you find websites that need travel articles, you can research print publications that you may be interested in contacting. Search newspaper or magazine archives online to be sure your article idea hasn’t been published in the last year or two. Read your target publications to get a feel for the tone and style they prefer. Write down editor names and email or snailmail addresses. Look for writers guidelines on magazine websites, or email the editor requesting a copy (you may be told to mail a SASE to receive the guidelines). These tell you exactly what you must do to submit work to the publication and what sort of articles it’s looking for.
2. Consult resources like the Writers Market and WritersDigest.com . I’ve included a few of these key sources at the end of this article. These list the basics about how to approach an editor. Some editors prefer a complete finished article sent to them “on spec,” meaning they have the right to take or refuse the article after looking at the whole thing. Other editors want a query letter, a summary in a paragraph or two of your story idea, how you will write it and its proposed length. Some publications require clips or examples of published work with the query. Some editors accept queries and manuscripts by email and some prefer hard copies sent in the mail. Editors may take anywhere from a week to a couple of months to respond to queries, so be patient.
3. Make the editor’s life easy. That means check your spelling, your grammar, your punctuation, the ink cartridge in your printer, anything that if wrong, makes your work sloppy. I know from my days at newspapers that many a freelance story arrives looking as if the writer completed it in a half hour and didn’t give it a second look. Editors hate that. Proofread and self-edit and give an editor as polished and professional a story as possible. Editors often have no time to rewrite freelance stories, and they have no reason to revise a sloppy one when there may be 50 other articles on her desk to choose from.