These for me are the key requisites of producing good travel journalism and succeeding to the best of one’s abilities in a crowded field – I hesitate to even call it a “business” as there are so few people that generate a full-time income from travel writing. It should be a labour of love.
1. Tell a story. Paint a picture. Evoke a scene in the mind of the reader sitting on the 7.16 to London Paddington that transports him to a forest in Costa Rica, to the ocean in Mozambique or to a vinyl cafe in Bratislava. In this travel journalism is no different from any other kind of writing. But be pragmatic as well as romantic - combine this with listening to a commissioning editor, e.g. a newspaper editor might well need a less descriptive piece and more of one that focuses on presenting what needs to be done in practical terms to travel to and stay in a particular location.
2. Don't tell a reader what to think - instead show them the place you have visited and let them draw the natural conclusion. That means not just lazily describing a place as "attractive" or "down-at-heel", but rather illustrating why they are so. Many editors warn against adjectives and adverbs, but these are fine used frugally in the act of genuinely describing a place, a person or event.
3. Leave your ego at home - or at least put reins on it. The most amateurish and lame travel pieces are peppered with I, me and my. Most readers are likely to be much more interested in the inhabitants and landscapes of a faraway place than the food preferences or marital status of a working journalist. You only earn the right to scrap this rule if your experience is essential to the piece, e.g. it's a coming-of-age or odyssey story, or if you are such a damn good writer that you can get away with it. Only a handful of people fall into this latter category.
4. Choose a specialism. This can be as wide or as narrow as you wish - you could be an Eastern European expert on historical travel, focus on train travel worldwide, develop a specialism staying ahead of trends in the travel trade, or choose a region - such as Central America, or a broad specialism - such as eco-travel or travel for older people. The specialism you opt for should be based on where you live, your background, your contacts, and whether your writing is more factual and newsy or more descriptive and suited to features.
5. Persist. Getting the right break in journalism can often be a matter of "luck" i.e. being in the right place at the right time, whether bumping into an editor at a party or pitching a piece on a day when a commissioning editor is desperate for copy. Either way, it isn't just about good fortune. It is about putting yourself out there as much as possible, therefore maximising your chance of catching that lucky break. Developing a thick skin helps with this too - writers are often fragile creatures and constant rejections are tough. Good family and friends around you can help you to cope with this and continue in your quest to be as widely published as possible.
6. Travel and write for love, sell for profit. Don't expect to make much money from travel journalism - it's often badly paid and the field is deeply competitive. If you have a day job, keep it for now, and try to organise any travel journalism work around it. Travel and write about travelling because you want to, not because it seems like a cool way to make some cash. If you can sell off the back of this then all the better.
7. Be kind and have integrity. Don't write a bad review of a place based on a brief experience without backing this up with research. Make sure your conclusions are well-founded and not just based on unfortunate timing of a visit - especially in developing countries where tourism and travel training can be limited and poor infrastructure can often result in things going wrong. Equally don't write puff about a place just because you got free accommodation unless you are convinced that it offers something special for the reader. Truth is subjective, but at least make sure you can back up the version of the truth you are delivering. Also make sure that your facts are accurate, it should go without saying...
8. Keep your eyes open. Just because you have planned to go to country A and write about X, Y and Z, don't be switched off as you travel because the best stories are often spontaneous and inspired by a chance encounter. Pre-planned stories can often be the bread and butter of travel journalism, but stories that unfold on the ground often offer a richer treat.
9. Edit, edit, edit. The romance of writing is in sitting at a keyboard and letting the words flow from within. The hard graft of writing is numerous re-reads and wrestling unwieldy phrases into submission. But if you don't edit yourself well, you pass on more hard graft to the reader and remove some of the romance from their reading experience.
10. It's about the message not the medium. With the practice of journalism in flux and people choosing teams - 'old media' or 'new media' - sometimes the importance of content itself is forgotten. That is that people want good journalism that informs, educates and/or entertains them. This can be delivered through myriad media, from newspaper articles to podcasts and from specialist magazines to online video. The point is, yes, to master the medium, but then concentrate on the critical job of delivering content that wows.
Please do comment on what you think are any other important rules of travel journalism. I have deliberately left out the art of pitching as that is another subject in its own right!
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