Everything I Learned from 30+ Years as a Travel Writer Crammed into a Single Listicle
As far as travel writers go, I am an oldster. I come from the Typewriter Age. My first computer had the words “Radio Shack” on the side and it had no hard drive. Photographs for my first guidebook required black and white slide film. Really. There was a such a thing.
I am pretty sure that I am old enough to have given birth to almost every editor I have worked with in the last five years.
And yet I have 49,000 Twitter followers and have been called a “kickass freelancer” by those youthful editors more than once.
I frequently get asked how I got this life and someday I will write a book and fifty blog posts with video that I will call a travel writing course and charge $399 to access, but today, in the Listicle Age, these are probably the answers everyone really wants anyway.
The word “beautiful” should be removed from the English language. Writing a guidebook on campgrounds in Colorado was like writing the book on “beautiful.” I’m over it. (The word, not Colorado, obvs.) Substitute the word “generic” every time you are tempted to write “beautiful” and you start to get the point. Try describing what you see rather than labeling it.
Good grammar opens doors. If you want to write for money you must have a grasp of the grammatical rules of the language you write in. All of them. It’s that simple.
Bad punctuation closes doors. Nobody wants to clean up your commas and colons. Punctuation can make or break your writing, both from a reader’s point of view and especially from an editor’s.
Only morons trust spellcheckers. That does not mean that you shouldn’t spell check. It means that spell checking is not proofreading. Read out loud. Read backward. Have someone else read your work before you hit send, submit, or publish.
Have a voice, but generally keep it to yourself. For the most part, paid writing gigs mean learning to subdue your voice and writing more like everything else in the publication. Unless an editor has specifically told you that they like your style, make your stories more we-focused than I-focused.
Travel. Even if you aren’t writing about it. I had years in my life when I didn’t have time for paid travel writing, but I still traveled with my family. Besides creating memories with my loved ones, the travel I did during those years turned out to be some of the most important in building the career I have now.
Take the alternate route. The story is at the end of the untraveled dirt road. Always.
Shut up and listen. This one is hard, but you can’t hear someone’s story if you are talking. And that, my friend, is your job. Getting the story.
Stop writing and read. If your work is not getting noticed yet, it may be because you have more to learn. The way to learn is to read. Read about writing. Read about traveling. Read about marketing. Read ANYTHING. Then keep reading even after you are writing for pay.
Copy. Literally. Re-type articles you enjoy reading. The first time I write for a new publication I re-type eight or ten of their latest articles, especially ones written by the editor I will be working with. Then I study the sentence and paragraph structure. How many words per sentence? What grade level are they writing at? Then I make a list of the adjectives the stories all have in common. All of that puts my brain on the same track as the person who edited those stories.
Learn to love formats. I know. As a writer, you want to be creative. You want to break all the molds. Well don’t. Not if you want a paycheck and an audience. Readers love formats. Editors love formats. Eventually you will see that formats make your life easier. Get over your disdain.
All writing should inform or entertain, preferably both. When you come up with an idea for a story, first ask yourself if it will convey information. Once you have that, then it’s up to you to make it entertain.
Learn to take good photographs or partner with someone who does. Sometimes a good photograph is all the entertainment your readers need to accompany your words. Almost all editors today appreciate your ability to include photos if they need them.
Keep up with technology — all of it. I spend hours each week learning new ways of doing things, whether it is social media, computer tricks, blog plugins, or smart phone apps. It is amazing how often those things turn into stories of their own.
There will be trolls. You cannot please everyone and everyone is a critic. The more eyes you get on your work, the more this applies.
Get a blog. I can’t imagine a travel writer without a blog. Okay, so Andrew McCarthy doesn’t have a blog, but you ain’t him or you wouldn’t be reading this. It is your opportunity to show the world who you are beyond your other published work.
Don’t just blog. Writing for publications bigger than your blog teaches you discipline, teaches you to write better, and it eventually gets more eyes on your blog.
Editors hate cold pitches. Any editor will tell you that they prefer pitches from people they have at least heard of. You can’t always get around that, but start by following them on social media when you can, or maybe reach out on LinkedIn. Try anything to get your name in front of them before you pitch.
Editors actually hate all pitches. It’s kind of like dumpster diving behind an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. There’s a lot of three-day-old, half-eaten salad to pick through before they find what they are looking for.
Editors kind of hate you. Not really. It’s just that if you make their lives anything but easy, you aren’t exactly loved. Work harder not to suck.
Even freelancers can be fired. Really. I know of someone who got a letter terminating her freelance contract. Fired. From a non-job. Time to up your game.
Network. It is almost always about who you know. That means you’ve got to get to know people.
Be organized. If nothing else, start using a serious note app that works across all your devices. I use One Note. Other people I know use Evernote.
Help other writers. And don’t do this to help yourself; it will eventually, but doing it with that in mind is kind of creepy. Do it because we all need a little hand now and then.
Be a team player. Whatever publication you are writing for is your home team. Be a cheerleader turning backflips for them until it hurts. Promoting the publication you write for promotes you and makes you look better to the editors. Besides, I think that not being a team player was the reason that freelancer I mentioned got fired. By the way, I frequently write for Travel Pulse and am a new Cruise Critic contributor. (See what I did there? Back flip.)
Don’t be a diva. It doesn’t matter how high up the ladder you climb, you are no better than the last words you put on a page. If an editor needs scut work, do it.
Draw your ethical line in the sand. Travel writing is so ethically tenuous. We walk a tightrope with almost every story we write. Were we influenced by the fam trip? Are we being overzealous in promoting a place that we have financial ties to? Figure out where your line is, but realize that this is a changing world. What would have not been acceptable for a travel writer five years ago is now perfectly normal. (Mostly in terms of influencer contracts.) The goal is to have a set of journalistic principles and apply them to everything you write.
Write listicles. They aren’t going away anytime soon. Editors love them. Readers read them. Embrace them until they fade away, then be prepared for the next big thing.