Published on May 19th, 2017 | by Geckos Tales Team
Interested in a career in travel writing? Top tips from the experts
Read time: a bit over 9 minutes
You love travel. You love writing. You want nothing more than to be a bona fide travel writer, jetting about the world first class, staying in fancy hotels, drinking champagne for breakfast and, oh yeah, getting your wanderlusty words out there in your favourite publications.
Hate to break your bubble, but travel writing is nothing like this. It’s budget airlines, frantic note-taking, dodgy wifi, pitching stories, and – oh yeah – the crushing heartache of having a pitch rejected. But it’s also the best job in the world. You get to camp out with Maasai warriors in the middle of Kenya, overcome your fear of heights on a trek to one of the highest peaks in Peru, and eat the world’s best Portuguese tarts. And then you get to WRITE about it, and inspire others to take the leap, book a trip, and go.
But how do you break into it? We reached out to a few of our favourite travel writers to get their top travel writing tips and advice for aspiring writers keen to see their names up in lights aka printed somewhere.
Let’s meet our panel of travel writing experts:
Ben Groundwater is a columnist for Traveller.com.au. He’s travelled to more than 80 countries around the world and has been named Travel Writer of the Year TWICE.
Jo Stewart is a freelance travel writer, photographer and cat fancier. You’ll find her words all over the place – VICE, International Traveller, yen magazine (plus a stack more). Jo has also just released a book on cults. It’s really good.
Catherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer, whose work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and in various online publications around Australia, South Africa, Asia and the USA.
Ute Junker started out as an editor and producer, before throwing it all in to become a travel and food writer. She’s always hungry for delicious meals… AND ADVENTURE.
Nina Karnikowski is a freelance travel writer who regularly appears in Traveller, Luxury Travel Magazine, Get Lost and a bunch of websites. Nina also has a penchant for alpacas.
First things first: how do you find inspiration?
BG: I’m often inspired more by people than by, say, the natural world. I love meeting interesting characters when I travel, getting to know the quirks and realities of a destination through the people who live there. That, for me, is what makes a great travel story.
JS: For me, finding inspiration isn’t the challenge because everywhere I look I see an opportunity for a story. Because I’m a naturally curious person, I always find interesting people/places/stories to research and write about. So the challenge is actually sifting through the immense amounts of inspiration I find almost everywhere daily, and then working out what is worth writing about and pitching to editors. The challenge is actually letting go of inspiration… leaving those stories that I don’t have the time, energy or resources to follow up.
CM: I’m naturally guided by a spirit of enquiry, so the idea of a great big world populated by fascinating people and places inspires me to go and seek it out. Certain places interest me more than others – for instance, I’ve wanted to visit the Faroe Islands ever since I heard an interview with a woman who grew up there around 15 years ago. She evoked in my imagination a wild and unruly place buffeted by Atlantic gales, and I’d like to go and experience it for myself. I’m also inspired by empty landscapes, remote places that are hard to get to and devoid of tourists. These are the places we hear little about in the media and so they are, in some sense, undiscovered by the travelling masses.
UJ: If you want to write for a living, you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You’re going to have to meet your deadlines, regardless of where you are. You’ll be writing stories in train stations, on planes, at 11pm at night after a busy day exploring.
NK: I look to travel magazines, newspaper travel sections, travel blogs and shows (I’ve been loving Joanna Lumley’s travel series lately) and my Instagram feed for inspiration. There’s so much to sift through these days, which can make things a bit overwhelming. But I keep lists on my phone where I collate bits and pieces for each destination, so when the time comes to head there much of the leg-work has already been done.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a travel writer?
BG: That it’s all poolside cocktails and fancy hotels! Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there really are poolside cocktails in fancy hotels. But other times you’ll find yourself crammed into a budget airline seat to fly for 13 hours, or have to file copy from some campsite in the middle of nowhere that has the world’s slowest internet, or realise that as much as you love this job, you don’t get paid a lot for it.
JS: That you have to be an adventurous, confident, outgoing, tanned person who looks good in a swimsuit. I’m none of those things!
CM: That we’re constantly on holidays. In reality, travel writers must maintain unswerving focus if they’re to do a proper job in distilling the experience through prose. I frequently juggle notebook and camera, and when I can’t take notes I record and later transcribe my interviews. Travel writers must observe and note every element of the trip, ask questions regular travellers might not think of, and remain professional at all times. Even while sipping a cocktail we’re checking the ingredients, finding out where the barman’s from and jotting notes about the bar’s décor.
NK: That it’s one long holiday, which it really isn’t. Sure, the travel is wonderful, but on a typical day on assignment you’ll be on the go from sun up to well after sun down. You’ll be taking notes constantly while dreaming up story angles, taking photos (and possibly videos) to sell with your stories, meeting publicists, managers and guides and asking millions of questions. All this while also trying to find pockets of downtime in which you can really sink into the destination and figure out what makes it tick. Then, of course, comes the hustle of selling your stories once you get home. It’s hard work, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my time.
Pitching’s hard work. What’s your advice to aspiring writers wanting to get noticed – and published?
BG: You’ll hear this a lot, but the key really is persistence. Even now, as an established writer, I’ll have to pitch my stories two, three or maybe four times to the same people before I’ll get a response. As someone who is just starting out in the industry you’ll have an even tougher time getting noticed. It really is all about hanging in there.
JS: It’s really a very simple thing but it is so very important to have intimate knowledge of the publication you are hoping to write for. It’s for this reason that I believe reading widely is so crucial. How can you write for an audience you don’t know? Don’t just flick through an issue or scan a few webpages. Really read the title, get a feel for the editorial style, the sections, the photography style, destinations covered etc. Once you know the magazine or website really well, then you’re in a good position to provide stories and images that align with the publication and you’ll be in a much better place to have your pitch accepted. Also, it helps to pitch an experience that is out-of-the-ordinary, rare or unusual. When I first started out writing I self-funded a lot of road trips and adventures to lesser visited places, and I feel this helped establish myself on the scene – because I had stories that not many other writers were pitching at the time.
CM: Research the publication to get an idea of the type of story they publish and the formats they use. Track down the contact details for the commissioning or features editor. Refine your pitch so that it reads like an enticing introduction to a new (or old) destination. Maintain a friendly but professional tone. Send a reminder a month or so down the track if you haven’t heard back from the editor. And don’t be disillusioned if you don’t ever hear back – it takes time and effort and a lot of rejection to establish yourself as a writer.
NK: First, get to know the marketplace. Read as many issues of the publication you’re pitching to as you can, as well as similar magazines. Find out what destinations and types of stories are hot, but also beware places that are getting loads of coverage – editors won’t want a story if it’s been covered a lot. You’re on the lookout for fresh places and experiences that will excite their readers. Next, make sure you have a unique angle that will really grab the editor, and flesh it out really well in your pitch. I usually leave it about a month before I follow a pitch up. Finally, don’t let the rejections get you down. They’re inevitable, they have nothing to do with your talent and everything to do with editorial timelines and budgets.
What’s your number one tip for aspiring writers wanting to break into travel writing?
BG: Start writing. So many people dream of doing this, but never take that first step. If you love to travel, and you love to write, start up a travel blog and get into it. Build up a portfolio by self-publishing. You’ll find very quickly that if you’ve got talent, people will take notice and start to follow and interact with you. Blogging could either become your sole medium, or you can use it as a way of getting editors’ attention and proving that you can do the job.
JS: Read widely and immerse yourself in the world of travel writing to get a feel for the craft. Read AA Gill and Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit and WG Sebald. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is the gold standard for me. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for a reason.
CM: Be curious about the world and the people who live in it. In this way you’ll find your best stories. Many travel influencers today (writers, bloggers, Instagrammers) are more interested in their own place in the world, and what their personal journey looks like. This defeats the purpose of travel, which is to connect outwardly and to open our own eyes to the places and experiences that are foreign to us. My more practical tip would be to start by writing about your own town, city or region. It’s not easy to break into travel writing, but you can polish your skill by exploring the places you know best through the eyes of a newcomer. It will give you an appreciation for the importance of observation and accuracy in your writing. After all, your hometown might be familiar to you, but to people on the other side of the world it’s a foreign place full of interesting people, each with their own story to tell.
UJ: Just as important as finding the story and writing the story is thinking about what your editor needs. You are there to make their life easier. Fact checking everything, adding fact boxes, captioning images: the easier you make their lives, the more likely they are to use you again.
NK: Travel as much as you can, write as much as you can, decide on your niche (specialising in an area – whether it be adventure, luxury or family – of travel really helps) and start building your own platform, whether it a blog, Instagram or YouTube account. This is a great way to share your work with the world and build up your confidence, while also building up an audience and portfolio. Once you have that body of work, you can get out there and start pitching to your dream outlets.
So you’re thinking of becoming a travel writer? We’re running a competition with Fairfax for aspiring writers – click here for more details and to enter.
In need of an epic adventure to write about? Head out on a small group adventure with Geckos.