Five expert tips for getting started in travel writing

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So you say you want to be a travel writer? You want to wander the world, sending back tantalising tales of far-flung adventures to magazines, newspapers and websites. And get paid handsomely for it. Is that too much to ask?

Woman with a laptop on Campos do Jordao, Sao Paulo. Image by Superstudio / Taxi / Getty Images.Woman with a laptop on Campos do Jordao, Sao Paulo. Image by Superstudio / Taxi / Getty Images.

Well, surveying the scene of travel publishing right now is a little like trying to describe a landscape that’s in the middle of a prolonged earthquake. We know there’s a whole lot of shaking going on, but we really don’t know what it will look like when the shaking stops.

As for the getting paid handsomely part, we can be pretty sure about that and let’s just say: don’t quit that day job quite yet.

The overview is this: newspapers and magazines are still viable and alluring outlets, but they’re slimmer than they used to be, so the competition for a diminishing number of article slots is more intense than ever. On the other hand, as the internet evolves, the world around the internet - the readers, travelers, travel industry providers, advertisers, sponsors, and technology tool makers - evolves as well. And these overlapping evolutions create more and more online opportunities for travel writers.

So what does all this mean for would-be travel writers? It means there are more ways to get published than ever before. It also means there are more ways to make money than ever before. And these two combined mean there are more people trying to make money from travel writing than ever before. The resulting truth is this: more people are making less money than ever before in the history of travel writing.

'Dear Diary' by Ken Banks. CC BY 2.0.'Dear Diary' by Ken Banks. CC BY 2.0.

But let’s focus on the positive and talk about what you can do to maximise your chances of becoming a travel writer.

1. Construct a portfolio presence online

If you want to launch yourself as a travel writer today, it’s essential to create at least a portfolio website, if not a blog: this is a digital billboard where you can present your biography, past and upcoming travels, and social media feeds, and where you can begin to showcase your articles, photos and videos. In the ever-more-congested world of travel content creators, this site is your multi-layered, multimedia portal to the readers, viewers – and editors – you’re trying to reach. So, build your portfolio platform now!

2. Nurture a niche

With thousands of wannabe writers roving the blogosphere, you need to separate yourself from the crowd. Choose a destination, activity or subject that impassions you, and own it. Hone your expertise in this area – whether it’s biking, bagels, or Belize (or better yet: biking for bagels in Belize!) – and share your knowledge with authority, style and passion. Post about it on Facebook and Twitter, blog about it, write comments on other people’s sites and online forums and chats. Do this assiduously and over time you may become a go-to authority on the subject; this can widen your readership and even attract the attention of larger media outlets that may invoke you as an expert and so further publicise you and your site.

Backpacking Indonesia by Keith Parker. CC BY-SA 2.0Backpacking Indonesia by Keith Parker. CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Widen your world by starting small

Counterintuitive as it may seem, in the same way that it makes sense to focus your content, it also makes sense to closely focus any initial beyond-your-own-blog publishing efforts you’re inspired to make. Want to see your name in print? If your town has a local newspaper, pitch some stories to the features editor. If you’ve found a website you especially admire, contact the editor or producer to see if you might contribute content on a subject that requires your special expertise. If there’s a magazine that touches on a subject you love, study the small pieces that appear in the front of the magazine and pitch a story or two to that section’s editor. Your ultimate goal is to develop a relationship with an editor or producer that will give you a regular outlet for your pieces – and a potential springboard to a wider world beyond.

4. Network online and offline

As mentioned in #2, cultivate your connections through the social media siblings, others’ websites and online conversations.  Do the same offline: attend meet-ups, workshops and conferences. For travel writers and bloggers, multi-day annual gatherings such as TBEX, TBU and the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference are excellent places to meet members of your tribe, learn invaluable information and explore new beverages.

5. When you write, know the point of your piece

In 25 years of travel editing, the biggest mistake I’ve seen writers make has remained the same: they don’t know the point they’re trying to make, so they can’t possibly communicate it. When you sit down to write your tips and tales from the road, ask yourself: what do I want the reader to learn from this? What’s the take-away? Then craft a tightly constructed piece that leads, step by step, to that lesson-point. Do this, and you’ll have made a significant leap along the travel writer’s path. Good luck – and enjoy the journey!