Love to travel and reckon you might have the guts to start writing about it? That was me 10 years ago, hiking the Cordilleras mountains of the northern Philippines with notebook and camera in hand, anxious and excited and hoping to sell my first story. Since then I’ve written and photographed features from Europe to Asia to Africa to Australia, and while no sane person would characterise the road to building a travel writing career as easy, it is genuinely rewarding. See amazing places. Do great things. Share it with others. Hell yeah.
Want a bit of wisdom if you’re interested in walking that path yourself? Read on.
(1) Get used to rejection
Here’s the reality with starting off as a travel writer: you’re going to get ignored. A lot. For quite a long time. With the advent of cheap air travel, fast worldwide internet, and inexpensive laptops and digital cameras, there are more ‘travel writers’ and more travel content out there than ever. And, unsurprisingly, most of it just isn’t that good. Editors are busy people and, more likely than not, are looking for a reason to trash your pitch or submission, as sifting through the volumes that outlets typically receive takes heaps of time and energy that they don’t really have to spare. So don’t take it personally. Even amongst established writers, having a travel writing career consists in having 80 or 90% of the people you pitch ignore you, instead of 99 or 100%. Even if you get a ‘no’ reply from an editor, consider it a win: you’ve opened up a dialogue and made contact, and that’s someone that you can reach out to again with your next idea. Pitching is to some extent a numbers game, so (especially starting out) get used to sending a lot of emails and getting a lot of silence back. Any reply is a good reply. Keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks.
(2) Learn to pitch
That word I’ve been saying over and over and, ‘pitch’? That’s the majority of the work that you’re doing as a working writer. ‘Pitching’ is simply the proposal or outline for a story, and job one in getting anyone to pay attention to you is learning how to write one. A number of outlets will give you specifics on how to pitch them in their contributors’ guide, and it’s always worth following their instructions if they do. Beyond that a pitch is, at its most basic, just a summary of a story: what it is, what happens in it, why it’s interesting or worth publishing, and the first paragraph or two of the story itself to show that you’ve got an engaging lede and a decent writing style. If you’ve got photos to accompany, it’s also worth sending a link to a selection (not every single thing you shot!) as well. Pitching is an art form, and writing a pitch for a story will often help you to figure out if you’ve actually got a good story to tell: the distillation process required for the pitch is also a useful one as a writer, and will help you to write the story itself once an editor actually commissions it. It’s a weird truth that as much of your time as a writer will probably be spent researching outlets and pitching them as it will be writing actual stories, but that’s the nature of the beast. The outlet research process is also useful for picking out publications that you might not have the right story for right now, but which you can keep in mind as a potential market for future work.
(3) Build up a CV (and publish it online)
One of the main ways that you get up off the floor of the depressing sub-1% editor response rate is to get a CV (resume) built up. The more examples of already-published work that you can show an editor whom you’re pitching, the more likely they are to pause for the minute necessary to give your proposal some actual consideration. Having work already published is a rule of thumb that editors can use to see if you’re likely to have any idea what you’re doing. Obviously this is a massive Catch-22, as you tend to not get considered until you have some published work, but can’t get work published until you get someone to actually give it some consideration. Sure as a bear’s Catholic, however, you get a solid chunk of clips to show people when you make a proposal, and you’ll start getting more people to give you the time of day. The best way to make your travel writing CV accessible to the people you pitch is usually just to make a website (Wordpress is a good place to start), so that when someone searches for your work, that’s the first thing that comes up. This doesn’t have to be flashy or expensive (there are heaps of good free options), but it should look clean and professional and give people a good at-a-glance look of what you’re about.
(4) Don’t work for free
Which makes this next bit of advice all the more puzzling: don’t work for free. Or, more accurately, don’t get in the habit of working for free. Working for ‘exposure’ is usually just someone who doesn’t really value your time and effort trying to exploit your hard work for their own easy gain. So even if you’re not making much money on a piece, it’s a good idea to aim for making something. Online for example often pays much less than print, but is easier to break into (and easier to share and publicise once a piece is published), so this is often a good place to start your search for outlets. There are, of course, exceptions to the ‘no free work’ rule: when I was starting out, I did a number of minor features for a small magazine where I was living in Seoul; the mag wasn’t being run to churn out profits, it was a tiny office producing it, and the guys who ran it were nice and upfront about their situation. They were always hugely helpful and generally managed to throw in freebies for local restaurants or bars that helped make me feel appreciated, even as a starting writer. It was a low-stakes local endeavour that let me cut my teeth on publishing for the first time and do a bit of learning. Once I got my first paid stories onto my CV, however, doing unpaid work stopped being a necessity, and I learned to value my time and hard work by not working for free.
(5) Find a niche and work it
Like pretty much any other profession on the face of the Earth today, it helps to have a specialisation. I tend to do outdoorsy stuff when I travel – hiking, camping, mountain biking, the odd bit of freediving – and so I’ve carved out a little niche writing about just those things. It’s what I like to do in the places I visit, and I think that that enthusiasm and expertise shines through in my work. Now: I’d rather punch myself in the face for an hour straight than go on a cruise, but there are in fact people who love being trapped on a boat for a week with a bunch of strangers, and if that’s your bag too, you’ve got an ideal target audience for your work. There are people who travel for (and write about) food, about family travel, and about luxury hotels and spas (though I’d suggest that this latter is basically a form of neoliberal kool-aid and that ‘luxury’ is, as Paul Theroux observes, poisonous to an authentic and meaningful travel experience). Having a niche that you cover doesn’t mean you can’t write about things outside it when an idea or destination strikes you, but it DOES mean that you develop a kind of nose for what’s a great story in that subgenre, and can help you to build not only a CV, but also a list of outlets and editors that know and appreciate your work.
(6) Cultivate clients
Once again: anyone you can get to respond to your email is a potential ally. An editor who passes on a story but invites you to pitch them again is one of your best leads for breaking into a new outlet, and an outlet that’s run your work once is likely to at least be receptive to the next story that you pitch. This doesn’t mean that every pitch is going to be a success, or that you can relax your game in terms of consistently pitching excellent high-quality stories, only that in this business, relationships matter. As such, it’s best policy to always be patient and polite – if you have to follow up on a pitch for two months before you get a response, be glad for the response when it comes (again, editors are busy people), even if it’s a no. Keep in mind that persistence is important: pitch, follow up, and follow up again. Over time the contacts that you make will start bearing fruit. As part and parcel of maintaining the relationships you’ve built, always submit excellent work and always meet your deadlines – good manners are as important in publishing as anywhere. That said, recognise if someone you’re dealing with is genuinely a jerk who it’s not worth dealing with: I had an editor who repeatedly and rudely blasted every submission for months with a brash “your story’s got no point!” I was happy to move on from my relationship with him, and instead sold those same stories to bigger and better outlets.
(7) Don’t bother with newspaper travel sections
Every newspaper travel article you’ve ever read goes something like this: ‘Place X had unfortunate thing Y happen to it, but it’s bouncing back, with some great restaurants and an exciting microbrewery scene.’ Every newspaper travel article you’ve ever read also tends to have this message following it: ‘Writer X was a guest of Company Y’, meaning that their travel was paid for. These two observations suggest a couple of things, the first of which is that newspaper travel writing tends to follow a set of predictable formulas, and the second of which is that newspaper travel writing is frequently done in-house and comes out of complimentary freebie travel. Sadly, even though I first broke into a major outlet with a newspaper travel story, travel sections generally also tend to be about ‘lifestyle’ travel for those with far more money than time, and that first big story of mine ran in a section of the paper called, blech, ‘Travel & Indulgence’. If you’ve got a story that you think is specifically fit for a paper, by all means publish it and take the writing credit when you can, but there tends to be neither budget nor appetite for travel writing that deviates much from the formula. Having a niche or specialisation, as mentioned above, will help to give you a good way out of pitching or relying on these ‘generalist’ outlets.
(8) Decide if you really want to be a blogger
So, when I say, ‘make a website’ it’s worth noting that I don’t mean ‘make a blog’. Casual blogging is a great way for people doing big trips to keep people back home up-to-date with their journey. But blogging as a general, committed mode of professional travel writing, intended for a wide audience, is serious work. It means constantly staying on top of generating content (and making sure that that constant stream of content is worth publishing!) and doing things like Search Engine Optimisation to ensure that you’re driving as much traffic to your site as you can. There are people who manage to make it work – finding a content niche and serving the audience for it and monetising that content through clicks and advertising to the point where the income generated is non-trivial. But the travel blogging world is a heavily saturated marketplace, and you really need to be finding some way of consistently adding plus-value to your output to really differentiate and distinguish yourself. Some people love it and thrive on it, but before you throw yourself into being a blogger, it’s worth asking if you’re comfortable spending as much time seeking followers and doing SEO as you are doing actual travel. No right or wrong answer here, just things to think about.
(9) It helps to have a day job
So: here’s the reality. If you’re going to be a travel writer, you’re going to have to be both (A) lucky and (B) good combined with one or the other of the following: (C) frugal as hell or (D) otherwise gainfully employed. Of the people making an actual living doing travel writing, the vast majority are doing guidebook work, which if it isn’t enough to get rich off, will at least usually keep the wolf from the door. There are a few lucky souls who are managing to pay a mortgage doing travel writing work (often supplemented by other kinds of writing work, teaching, and perhaps the occasional book), but for most people, if you’re going to be relying on travel-writing income for anything important, you better be living on the super-cheap. Practically, this often means an extended sort of life on the road in places where cost of living is low – Southeast Asia, Central America – combined with a pretty austere lifestyle. The other option, of course, is not to NOT be a travel writer, or to not care about being paid for your writing, but not to rely on the money from travel writing for any of life’s crucial needs and expenses. This is also known as ‘having a day job’. So, me, globetrotting adventure-travel journalist by night? I write literacy assessments in my mild-mannered day-job incarnation. It’s creative work, albeit with a weird, niche application, and I feel very lucky to be able to do it (and all the more so for being able to do it surrounded by a group of co-workers that I love!). Having a travel writing career in this form means more of a balancing act between professional and writing obligations, but I’ve found it works pretty well for me. Finding your own balance takes time, and no one solution or arrangement will necessarily work for all seasons or people, so experiment to find what’s best for you.
(10) Learning photography helps
One last thing: If there’s a single skill that compliments travel writing, it’s photography. Being able to provide a strong set of images to accompany a story is often a make-or-break for getting the story published. This has less to do with your equipment (though your phone sadly probably won’t cut it, especially in anything other than daylight conditions) and more to do with your eye and ability to edit your images. Shoot a lot (I mean a LOT a lot) and over time your eye for what makes a strong photo will eventually get better; learn to edit your images in a basic photo editing program (I use Lightroom, but there are plenty of free options available) and you’ll get more technically useable images out of the things that you shoot. There isn’t a magic bullet here, and nothing’s going to make you a skilled photog overnight, but if you want to write about the places that you travel, it helps to be able to photograph them as well. A strong pitch well-targeted to the right outlet, combined with a strong set of accompanying images, is half the hard work done to getting a story published.