Lonely Planet Writer

10 ways not to be a travel writer

It's the dream: travelling around the world and getting paid for it. Every day, thousands of aspiring travel journalists start up blogs, pitch pieces to editors and put pen to paper (at least metaphorically) in the hopes of making travel a full-time job.

Image by swimparallel, Flickr

The good news is that it's achievable. While only a select few attain the high life of sipping margaritas by the pool while churning out leisurely prose on their Macbooks, travel writing for a living is a real possibility for those who have the talent and are willing to put in some really, really hard work.

However, we've noticed that there is a subclass of potential travel writers, photographers and video journalists who don't really seem to have their heart in it. For some reason, they do their best to sabotage any chance of success. We believe you can learn a lot from them, so we've put together a list of their most common traits. Engage in these behaviours and you're pretty much guaranteed to lock yourself out of a career in travel journalism.

10. Be sloppy

Whether you're pitching a 500-word essay to the New Yorker or dashing off a quick blog entry, you're presenting your professional face to the world. Is it the best face possible?

No one is perfect, and everyone except the stodgiest subeditor will forgive the occasional typo. But when you're an aspiring content creator, any form of communication you produce becomes part of your portfolio. If your work is amateurish in quality, don't expect to be paid for it.

9. Treat your pieces as personal journals

If you've started up a blog to keep your friends and family informed about your travels, go crazy! But all too often, we see works that are all about the creator and not at all about providing real value to the audience. They have the stink of those WhatWeDidOnOurFamilyVacation slideshows that everyone used to dread.

Use Facebook or personal blogs to reassure your mother and make your friends jealous. Use the avenue from which you hope to derive income to inform, educate, entertain or otherwise improve the lives of your audience.

8. Be flaky

Have you promised an editor that you'll have that sample in for next week? Have you told your blogging audience, 'Stay tuned for a big post tomorrow?' Then please deliver. Nothing alienates people more than broken promises. Editors have tight, busy schedules and they are primarily concerned with getting great content out on time. Your audience has a ton of options vying for their attention, and if you fail to earn their trust they will go elsewhere.

7. Act like a jerk

You'd think this one would be obvious. But we're constantly surprised by content creators who appear to lack any respect for those who are there to help them.

Here are a few simple tips:

  • Don't call your editors names or make bombastic demands from them. (Any reasonable editor will listen to calm, professionally delivered opinion, but no one wants to be yelled at.)
  • Don't belittle the people who comment on your website.
  • Don't be rude in any form of communication with anyone who might have anything to do with your getting your work published. These people are here to help you live your dream. Don't ruin it for yourself.

6. Stay shallow and general rather than building expertise

Bill Bryson may be able to say anything he likes about whatever he likes (no matter how general), but you can't just go out and make observations about 'stuff'. Build your niche and establish your credibility in it - this is crucial to earning trust. Are you THE authority on hiking in northern Spain? Are you an incredible wildlife photographer? Are your videos mordantly funny? Figure out what it is you're amazing at, and go after that. Once you've established your area of expertise, you can begin branching out. But start focused.

5. Demand respect without earning it

Not too long ago, having your words on a printed page provided an instant credibility boost. But nowadays, anyone can self-publish - to the web, to ebook readers and even to print-on-demand machines. What this means is that you need to provide better evidence for your claims to expertise than being a published writer. Have you won any credible awards? Can you demonstrate having a large following? Have you produced something truly meaningful? If you can answer 'yes' to these questions, then let people know! And if you can't, get to work on it. We'd all love to be paid $5 per word, but before you get there you need to demonstrate your value for more realistic returns.

4. Lack voice and personality

Most travel writing is insanely boring. If you can make someone smile, cry or act, you're well ahead of the game. Gimmicks and tricks can help, but it will come down to how authentic you are. If you don't put enough of yourself in your work, your travel content will be as woeful as the rest of the dross that pollutes the travel-blogging universe, and even the Travel Literature section of your local bookstore. Please be interesting.

3. Act without integrity

Trading unverified links with others to bolster your search-engine juice? Made deals with the devil (eg sketchy 'advertisers' who put malware on people's machines)? Lied about your accomplishments - such as where you've been? Making promises you can't keep to your editors and audience?

Sorry - there's just no room in the travel-content community for you. Get out.

2. Ignore or disrespect your audience

Your audience is by far the most important factor in your success as a travel journalist. And yet we so often come across people who have no idea whom they're writing, photographing or making videos for. If you don't know who is going to consume your content, you haven't targeted it appropriately. And you've demonstrated that your priorities are all wrong.

If you're pitching or creating a piece, make sure you know exactly whom it's intended for. (Case in point: if you've read this far down this list, then this list is DEFINITELY intended for you.)

1. Never try

Of all the mistakes aspiring travel writers make, none is more catastrophic than failing to enter the game.

It's not an easy life. It requires a lot of talent, determination, perseverance and resilience. But the world is full of people who turn their travels into a living - through blogging, professional writing, video journalism and beyond. There are more resources than ever available to those who wish to travel for a living. If it's what you want to do, then go for it.

What do you think?