So You Wanna Be a Travel Writer?
Becoming a travel writer is much more difficult than people think, probably because many of us have delusions of grandeur when it comes to the business. What? I get to travel around the world for free, getting wined and dined and enjoying the best of the best, and all I have to do is write about it? Sign me up, baby!
Sadly, it’s not that simple. Here are some of the hard truths I’ve learned about travel writing:
- You and everybody else would like to be a travel writer. Because of this, the competition is fierce.
- A writing career of any sort takes years of hard work (with very little income) to build up.
- The average travel writer makes (drumroll please): $6,000/year.
- The print industry is in crisis, and formerly lucrative (relatively speaking, for the industry) roles are being eliminated and farmed out to freelancers, sometimes even for free. The Huffington Post, for example, recently stopped paying its writers (and there are enough writers who are hungry for the exposure that they can get away with this).
- Getting professional and moral support as a writer is like pulling teeth.
- Sitting on a beach, being plied with free drinks, and writing leisurely is far from the reality of travel writing. Picture this instead: If you are lucky enough to get a free trip, expect to be ushered in a maniacal fashion from attraction to attraction, pressed with the personal agendas of local tourism boards. Downtime is usually spent holed up in your room, desperately typing notes and trying to keep up at the expense of sleep.
Are you still with me? Don’t want to poke your eye out with a spoon? Great: That’s the bad news, mostly out of the way. Once you rid yourself of the illusions of the travel writing industry, you can evaluate it a little more critically to decide if it’s still something you want to do. As I’ve said elsewhere, people who are writers usually choose the profession because they simply must write. It’s as natural as eating or sleeping.
In the past few years, I’ve learned many of the lessons of travel writing by making mistakes, reading between the lines in volumes upon volumes of industry periodicals, and occasionally being blessed with a dose of unwitting luck.
Recently though, I came across a book about travel writing that, had I read it when I got started, could have significantly eased my learning curve. It’s called Travel Writing 2.0: Earning Money From Your Travels in the New Media Landscape, and if you would like to get into the industry, I would recommend it as a place to start.
With a dose of (at times) harsh reality, the author (Tim Leffel, a multi-award-winning travel writer) debunks the glamour of the business and instead identifies things that a travel writer needs to focus on — like business skills.
Leffel describes the realities of freelancing as follows:
Your hours are your own, but you end up working more of them than most office drones.
You can go on vacation when you want, but you often end up working while you’re away.
You have freedom, but not much certainty.
You report to nobody, but there’s no mentor in the next room either.
You can pick and choose what you work on, but sometimes that means having no work.
And then he caps off the business of travel writing with this pearl of wisdom: "If you get one point of reality from this book, let it be this: travel writing is not something to go into because of the potential earnings."
Amen, brother. If I didn’t keep my travel expenses minimal by regularly volunteering in trade for my accommodation, my full-time travels wouldn’t be financially sustainable.
The book also addresses the “new climate” of the writing industry (hence the “2.0” in the title), where self-publishing and e-books are taking the place of some of the former traditional mediums of newspapers and books. In this brave new world, there's a focus on self-promotion, differentiating yourself from others, utilizing new media like the internet for brand development, and in many cases, simply creating your own opportunities as opposed to finding existing jobs or positions.
Following are some of the areas covered, tips provided, and concepts that I found to be particularly useful in the world of Travel Writing 2.0:
Find a Niche
One of the bigger lessons taught in the book (one that I thankfully fluked into), is that if you want to be a successful travel writer, you need to have an area of expertise that you can combine with travel to give your writing an edge. (For me it’s personal finance and lifestyle design.) This narrows the competition and makes you an expert of sorts, which creates a niche — and in turn, more business for you. If you don’t know of a beat that you can call yours, the book also helps give you some food for thought on the topic.
The Ins-and-Outs of the Business
I really enjoyed Leffel’s “no holds barred” approach to travel writing. He minces no words, makes no promises, and in turn, delivers some solid advice on the following topics:
- Developing a website that fulfills a need: Addressing a specific audience and meeting their needs increases the potential for your site to take off. Leffel outlines the criteria required to achieve this.
- Traditional media outlets: You learn what to expect from traditional media outlets like magazines, newspapers, trade publications, guidebooks, and corporate writing.
- Whether to use your name or a business name: This is an important decision to make at the outset for establishing a credible web presence.
- "You should write a book!": Why this phrase (which you'll inevitably hear at some point) is a dangerous one to take seriously.
- Networking: Leffel highlights some of the benefits of networking with writers, editors, and other industry professionals. I can say from experience that this can't be underestimated (and it's fun too)!
- The business of writing: This requires patience, persistence, tenacity, a good dose of sales skills, and the ability to cope with inevitable rejection.
- How to break into the industry: Breaking into the writing industry can be done using various vehicles like front-of-book writing, service articles, and blog writing.
- Different publication styles: Each different type of publication (e.g.: newspapers, web, etc.) operates differently. You learn how to pitch to them and what to expect of a working relationship (I found this section to be of particular appeal).
Tips from Experience
Other pearls of wisdom Leffel shares include the following:
- Don't aim too high at the start: Stave off delusions of selling travel narratives and features from the get-go; they’re like starring roles in movies — they tend to go to known names.
- Edit, edit, and re-edit: No matter how talented you are, expect to edit, edit, and re-edit your work. Leffel says that successful writers “still occasionally get the feeling that what they’ve put on the page is sub-par. One of the writers I respect the most once said quietly, 'I still feel like a hack sometimes.'”
Press Trips and Freebies
Given the ethical and moral grey areas that surround travel writers receiving press trips and freebies, a book on travel writing wouldn’t be complete without addressing this topic. Travel writing is particularly under the microscope right now, unlike other industries (like showbiz or food & wine) where writers get freebies all the time without persecution. Irrespective of industry however, it’s important that you approach freebies with honesty and without allowing your writing to be unduly influenced.
Advice From Other Professionals
Interspersed throughout are helpful quotes from other writers, editors, and industry professionals. I really liked these sidebars, which provide solid advice for aspiring writers (and good reminders for experienced ones).
At the end of the book each professional has a bio, which I surprisingly found were enjoyable reads unto themselves, since they outlined how the writers carved out their respective niches and found success.
In addition to sample query letters and itinerary requests, there’s a formidable travel-writing resources section towards the end, which includes databases, associations, conferences, courses, online communities, recommended reading, and book publishers. With all these resources, you won’t be left with the question “what’s next” at the end of the book, which is often common, especially with e-books.
Travel Writing 2.0 is Great, but…
I’m not sure I like this book as much in the e-book format (which is functional but not terribly pretty. Then again, if I owned a Kindle or other e-book reader, maybe I’d feel differently). Despite Leffel’s discussion on the “new world” of the print industry, I think the overall format and tone of this 254 page mega e-book is better-suited as a paperback. The good news is that you can buy Travel Writing 2.0 in e-book format ($9.89) or in paperback ($17.48), so the choice is yours.
So if you’re serious about getting into travel writing, Travel Writing 2.0 will help set the stage, give you focus, and put you on the right path. But as with any business (especially in a creative industry), the rest is up to you; so get ready to roll up your sleeves and wear out a few pens.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Travel Writing 2.0, and there are affiliate links in this post.