October 27, 2010

How I Became a Travel Writer

The Victorian Writers Centre asked me to respond to a short Q&A about freelance writing. True to form my reply was over the word count and a day late! Seriously though, my initial write up was too long at 1100 words, so I'm posting the full length version here in case anyone is interested. The original questions are shown first, and then my reply.

1. You travel write on a freelance basis. How did you get started? Is there anything you'd do differently if you were starting over?

2. How do you come up with fresh angles on places many others might have already written about?

3. How do you personally go about pitching your articles, and what's the balance between articles you pitch, and articles you're commissioned to write?

4. What kind of opportunities are out there for travel writers? Is the industry changing at all with the proliferation of online media?

5. What tips could you give to writers interested in getting into travel writing?


I met a lady while travelling in India who teaches writing, and she gave me some excellent advice, she said that 'writers write.' So I started writing. Initially just a blog that nobody read, just to practise my skills and get into the habit of using words on a regular basis and in longer forms. The possibility that someone might read it was motivation enough to cultivate some craft.

Twice in the same month I crossed paths with people who knew a travel editor somewhere and they gave me a contact to forward on my unsolicited stories. Both editors were kind enough to be brutal about my skills, and generous enough to offer advice to improve. Honesty is rare.

I worked hard and worried about the quality instead of the money. I always believed that if you put your 'client' first then the business will follow. It took a long time to gain confidence in my work and it takes time to build a relationship with any editor. I have to start over again every time my editors shuffle their seats, but I have more experience now and can cope a little better with the constant uncertainty of being a freelancer.


I pretty much ignore what may or may not have been before and go with my own experience. I write what I know and stick to my style, which works for some editors and not others but that's ok. You can go mad trying to second guess your audience, so instead I focus on my inner voice and what it has to say. If you have something to say then I think you're more likely to find an audience to listen anyway. It always easier to write your story rather than someone else's.

My angles come purely from my train of thought, direct from the experience. I keep my smartphone switched on and ready to make notes at all times, you never know when a good idea will coalesce into a story outline. If the words flow then I start making notes. These always turn out to be my best work.


It depends on the ebb and flow of my editor relationships. The best editors get to know their writers and spend a few minutes nutting out a brief over the phone. They realise that a freelancer can help them if you let them. At the moment I mostly send in stories on spec, with a few commissions here and there. Editors are more under staffed and over stretched than ever, so you don't always get a reply and you have to understand it's not personal.

What seems like a great idea can fall on deaf ears, if it's the wrong month or just a hectic day for the editor. Then the same pitch gets picked up a month later by another editor and you feel vindicated about the premise of the story. Hard to say which side of the fence is greener, being and editor or a freelancer. Either way there's a bit of green-wash involved.


The industry has taken a lot of knocks in recent years, and not only are writers squabbling over a smaller slice of pie but it's the readers ultimately who are left out to dry. The lack of diversity in media is resulting in poor travel journalism written by non-travel writers. Media famils for staff writers with no knowledge of travel as a discipline are serving up predictable content without suitable experience to challenge what they're offered on a famil. Those few slots that remain for freelancers are increasingly driven by advertising. A few media outlets do a good job of holding their standards, but only where a good editor with some resources are in place.

Many writers believe they need to re-tool, to add other media to their skill set. I disagree, I think this only adds to the dilution of skill and their value. It's better to diversify your writing than dilute it, and look for other mediums to publish words. Books, lifestyle sections, apps and online. The media world is in flux and we need to push for better quality journalism across the spectrum, give readers a real choice. Blogs are not the answer, they're largely a distraction with a few exceptional cases where the character and talent of the author comes through and champions the medium. For the most part blogs add noise and make it harder to find content.

Good travel content is edited and reviewed and published under editorial guidelines. The internet just needs to grow up a little more and I hope we'll see more outlets for good writing on the web. Just look at Television and how it took decades to learn how to use it properly. We're still waiting for the web to evolve, and media opportunities will evolve with it. In the meantime the internet is a bit chaotic, so writers have to put their eggs into many baskets and see what happens.


Keep your expectations real. There's a lot of hype about the fantasy of travel writing and it's mostly bollocks. You need a passion for journalism and writing to make a go of it, and talent alone may not be enough. Be realistic about the level of rejection and failure ahead, and cultivate a thick skin. There's no shortage of people who want to predict your failure, and no shortage of people wanting to take your place.

I've watched many people sit on the sidelines of travel writing, dip their toes in the water and never make the leap in. It's a tough call to make for anyone, you have to give up what you have before trying to succeed in something new. Most people fail before they start, unwilling to take that risk. As a freelance writer you're running a small business and that comes with a pile of responsibility that can kill every creative impulse in your brain. Having some well grounded expectations can help you through the business stuff and let you enjoy the writing.

It's often hard to recognise if you're making progress with your career or not, and finding a measure of success that balances humility with optimism is essential. There are times when you have to talk yourself up a bit, but it's a trap to start believing the hype and especially your own. A good day for me is getting a story filed on time that fits the brief but filled with my own ideas.

If your aim is to be a famous travel writer you might want to get famous at something else first. If your aim is to be a financially viable travel writer then you have a lot of work ahead of you, but accept all the wishes for good luck you can.

October 13, 2010

I want to be a travel writer

This is what happens when I stop doing work for 30 minutes and get distracted by text-to-type movie making technology...