The purpose of this guide is to act as a starting point for anyone who’s interested in travel writing. Travel writing is quite obviously the dream job for many, but it takes time, commitment and a lot of hard grafting to break into the industry, and then loads of talent, risks and contacts to get paid to do it! If you really love it and you’re prepared to work like mad though, you’ve got a shot at living that dream. Just don’t go giving up the day job too early on…
Below I have set out your first year of travel writing in six achievable steps.
1. Travel, and travel like a writer. This might seem like a tremendously obvious point to make, but the key to getting started in travel writing is to actually start travelling. For many people, this won’t be easy. You need the finance to whisk yourself off to different locations in order to have material to even attempt travel writing. But that doesn’t mean that travel writers all started out as rich kids living off of mummy and daddy until their career took off. Get on mailing lists and look out for deals; enter competitions; save up every penny you can; take on a second job temporarily to get some cashflow for travelling. Do whatever it takes. When you start travelling, don’t waste the opportunities presented to you. Travel like a writer. Keep notes. Ask questions. Take photos. Talk to the locals. Don’t be afraid, and perhaps most importantly, don’t just be a tourist. Being any kind of writer is about much more than just the ability to write; to be a travel writer, you have to be able to write well, but even more importantly, you have to be able to travel well.
2. Read the kind of travel writing you want to write, and all other kinds too. I can’t stress how important it is to read travel writing if you want to be a travel writer. You should absorb yourself in every available kind – magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, memoirs, fiction, guidebooks – and don’t just read it; analyse it; notice things about it; learn from it. Make sure you’re finding quality material and not just blindly searching the web for writing though. To get you started: I love the blog 501Places.com, I recently recommended an excellent travel memoir about Prague, and if you’re going to buy any book, I strongly recommend going for Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing (How to Guide) as a starting point – it’s full of excerpts and articles by well-established travel writers. To quote Stephen King, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
3. Research your interests. Simply visiting a place, especially if only for a few days, doesn’t mean you’re ready to write about it. Tourists are the ones who follow the paths that travellers and travel writers tell them to; you have to get off the beaten track and make your own way around a city, town, region or country. In order to do this, research is absolutely key – both before you go and while you’re there – because it gives your ideas and you as a writer an edge. Focus your studies on your own travelling interests, such as food, sport, culture or adventure. When you’re a little more experienced, you’ll find you can cover several bases at once (and therefore produce several different features from one trip), but to begin with, choose something to focus on and pay special attention to that during your trip. Whichever topic you choose, make sure you know why you’re choosing it – is the region famous for a particular food or sport? Does a sports or food celebrity come from that town or city? Find out before you go, and then deepen and develop your knowledge over the course of your visit. The excellent Anthony Capella is a great example of using research as a tool in travel writing and storytelling.
4. Identify your “entry-level publications”. When you’ve mastered the first three aspects mentioned above, you need to find a way to begin actually doing some travel writing. This part is a lot easier than you might think, especially if the above recommendations are followed. There are three mains streams of “entry-level” places for your travel writing, and which you choose will largely depend on what’s available to you locally and whether you’re a student or not. For students, your university newspaper will have a travel section either in print or on their website; this is a good starting point for you. There are also national student publications which offer writing experience – check out: Exploration, The National Student and The Student Journals. If you’re not a student, try your local/regional newspapers and magazines such as the Eastern Daily Press and On:Yorkshire Magazine, and look to national websites like Tour-Smart.co.uk and Escapist Traveller. You won’t get paid for the majority of these, but the purpose here is not about money. Your aim is to receive editorial feedback, and to build a portfolio of work and links that you can refer to later. Hone your craft and make sure only pieces of writing you’re proud of are being published.
5. Make industry contacts. There’s a lot of truth to the statement “it’s all about who you know”, and the travel industry is no exception. So networking from an early stage is important. Travel shows happen all year, all over the country – with a concentration, of course, in London. Examples are the TNT Travel Show and the World Travel Market. Many of them are annual or twice yearly, and they are definitely worth your time and money if you use them well. As well as being a great research opportunity through seminars and presentations on different countries from tour companies and tourism boards, they give you a chance to meet a variety of people working in the sector – from the mentioned tour companies and tourism boards to PRs to editors to other writers. Speak to everyone you possibly can, and take business cards with you.
6. Build. At all times, understand the level you’re working at. Don’t call yourself a travel writer, because you’re not; you might be doing travel writing or trying to break into travel writing, but you are not a travel writer until it accounts for some decent portion of your monthly earnings. You’ll piss a lot of people off if you refer to yourself as a travel writer at an early stage in industry circles. Help yourself out. Find out the statistics of the publications/websites you’re currently writing for, and make a note of these somewhere you can easily find them. Keep yourself a spreadsheet of any and all industry contacts, even if they seem useless at this point. Put together your own profile on Clippings.me so you can easily refer to the writing that you’ve done so far. Begin to target slightly bigger sites and publications, contacting them with writing samples and ideas of what you might like to write for them. If you’re able, get in touch with even bigger publications and see about doing some work experience with them to see if you can get your foot in the door as a freelance. It’s all about building from this point onwards, but don’t do it too fast and don’t overestimate your abilities; not everyone’s nice in the travel industry (just as in any other), and you don’t want to make bad impressions early on and get ‘blacklisted’ or thought of as a joke.
And one final tip – have fun! You should travel and travel like a writer because you enjoy it. Whether you end up as the next Head of Travel at The Times Media Group or just have some beautiful handwritten journals to give your grandkids one day, it needs to be worth doing for you personally. You’ll see amazing things, have amazing adventures and speak to people you never would have otherwise while you’re travelling. Appreciate it, enjoy it and have unbelievable experiences. Live to travel.