How many times have you read a travel article and imagined the glamourous life of the writer, who gets paid to explore far-flung places? A dream job. A life of vacation. What could be better?
As I sit down to write this article, irony slaps me. I have writer’s block. And jet lag. So I do what any good writer would do: unload the dishwasher, answer emails, pay bills, stare out the window, check Facebook, write down a list of 23 countries I’ve visited in the last three years, look at my own Instagram photos and am amazed.
My life is a bit of a blur. A shelf in my closet is full of tiny spiral-bound notebooks that can tuck in the side pocket of my travel pants. Hectic scribbles from around the world fill the well-worn pages, capturing fleeting details before they get lost in the mosaic of my brain.
I once counted 26 stops during a 16-hour day on a media tour. I stumbled into my hotel room after dinner and wanted to fall into bed, but emails demanded answers and a deadline was looming, so I propped open my eyelids and filed a story using spotty wifi under the dim glow of the bedside lamp. The next morning when my alarm went off after five hours of sleep, I blinked up at the ceiling, forgetting what country I was in.
Not exactly like sipping an umbrella-drink poolside and working on my tan.
When I’m home, I dig through piles of mail and laundry, tucking everything in drawers, hoping neatly folded clothing and tidy papers will instill order before I start packing again. I run into friends who say, “I haven’t seen you in so long!” and I think, “You’re the last person I saw when I was in town.”
I try to write. I stare at the blinking cursor that begs me to create, as though inspiration can be scheduled on a calendar. Hours vanish as I hunch over my computer screen in yoga pants, forgetting to eat. Creativity trickles through writer’s block and then overtakes me. My mantra, “Nothing worth reading is ever easy to write,” feeds me.
I write pitches, certain I’ve come up with brilliant story angles that are unique and enticing and perfectly tailored to my target publications. I send ideas to editors and wait. On a bad day, having an editor say no is better than hearing nothing. At least someone is listening. In a good week, a flood of assignments pours in, creating a mad dash to finish deadlines before my next trip. It’s feast or famine. Rejection batters my ego daily. I have no choice but to peel off my fears, wad them up, and throw them away. There is no room in my duffel bag for doubt. I have to travel lightly.
I am not alone. Travel writers’ fingers are bloodied and bruised from clawing their way, especially these days, when competing for assignments in shrinking print magazines is like battling a pack of wolves. Meanwhile online media is mushrooming, but pay rates are plummeting.
I click over to a website to see if a story I wrote has published. It’s been eight weeks since I submitted it and I just got paid, so it should be soon. And there it is. What started as a pitch eight months ago, and then became an assignment due ASAP, is staring back at me in full color from the screen. I remember the fun I had researching, and a rush of dopamine floods my brain. I guess I’ll live to write another day.
This is travel writing stripped of its veneer. It is, indeed, a dream job, but also a really hard job. And if you’re a freelancer, which many writers are, it is about more than just writing. In addition to being able to craft perfect prose, you have to edit photos, sell your ideas to editors, adapt as the media world changes, do your own bookkeeping, and find a way to make ends meet.
But don’t take it from me. I asked 16 professionals for their top advice to would-be travel writers. Here is what they said:
Start by reading
“Read. Not just your favorite travel magazines, websites, and blogs, but also books by the folks who have defined the genre … Every great writer is first and foremost a voracious reader.” –Jayme Moye, freelance writer who was named “Travel Writer of the Year” by the North American Travel Journalists Association in 2014
Take the leap
“A freelance writer has to be part artist, part technician, part salesman. If you don’t like the sound of all three of those titles, then this job is not for you.” –Mark Anders, award-winning writer whose stories come to life in print, television, and film
“I think the biggest hurdle for people to overcome is the security of giving up a day job—or at least cutting way back on hours—to give writing a go, but that’s exactly what you need to do.” –Tim Neville, writer for Outside, The New York Times, Men’s Journal, and more
“Don't go into it unless you have a strong passion for travel because there are far easier ways to make a buck, even as a writer. … You have to be a self-motivated self-starter who has the right mindset to pitch ideas and run a business.” –Tim Leffel, who created Travel Writing 2.0 to help travel writers navigate the rapidly evolving media landscape in the digital age
Tailor your pitches
“Read the magazine you're pitching to, and pitch directly to one particular area. Never say: I went to xxx, do you want an article? Editors hate that. Oh, and don't forget to enjoy the journey, it's the best job in the world, but believe it or not, it often doesn't feel like it.” –Dan Neilson, British journalist, photographer, and editor specializing in adventure travel
Learn how to travel as a writer
“In order to be a good travel writer, you must first be a good traveler. See the world with open eyes and an open heart, and stay receptive to the people you meet in the destinations to drive your story forward.” –MaSovaida Morgan, Lonely Planet’s Destination Editor for South America
“Great travel writers listen and learn. They absorb. They are not predisposed. They seek the new, the unusual, the different … even in the common experiences.” –Michael Hodgson, author of HiTravelTales.com
“Do your research, but don’t go places over prepared. Flexibility and curiosity are key. Let people and their stories take you to new places and make you explore different angles.” –Sissy Pärsch, German freelance journalist who focuses on travel and sports
Become a storyteller
“Narrative travel writing is at essence less about me and more about we and less about travel and more about life. What are the larger truths about humanity that travel can surface?” –Norie Quintos, communications consultant and journalist, and editor at large for National Geographic Travel Media
"The best travel writing is about telling a story rather than a chronological account of your trip. Pick the highlights, and see if there is a common theme that can be turned into a good narrative.” –Yvonne Gordon, Irish Travel Writer of The Year who writes for titles like AFAR.com, The Guardian, and The San Francisco Chronicle
“Travel writing is no different than any form of excellent writing: It follows all of the basic rules of reporting and storytelling like having great reporting, following a narrative arc, etc.” –Stephanie Pearson, freelance writer and contributing editor to Outside
Build your network
“You need to build industry contacts and clips to be taken seriously as a travel journalist and to receive trip invitations (from suppliers) and story assignments (from websites and publications).” –Mindy Poder, award-winning journalist and executive editor of TravelAge West, Family Getaways, and Explorer magazines
“Really put yourself out there by networking and attending conferences. Introduce yourself to as many people as you can. You never know who you're going to meet, and making a name for yourself is important.” –Jackie Nourse, lifestyle adventurer, multimedia traveler, and author of TravelingJackie.com and The Budget-Minded Traveler blog
“As a freelancer, you get shut down dozens of times a day. Persistence and a positive attitude are essential for success.” –Jen Murphy, former deputy editor of AFAR who is now a freelance writer
“A big lesson for me was to learn how to handle rejection well and not take anything personally. Just because an editor doesn't like a specific story idea or angle doesn't mean they're saying no to you.” –Michaela Trimble, freelance writer and photographer who contributes to Vogue, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic, and more
“Persevere. It's tough. Many throw in the towel. Persistence, persistence, persistence.” –Theresa Storm, an award-winning Canadian travel writer and photographer
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer who has traveled to more than 50 countries in search of adventure. Focusing on outdoor, adventure, and travel, her work has been published by RootsRated, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Fodor’s, Elevation Outdoors, and more.