The Travel Writer’s Handbook

A Pink Pangea travel writing workshop.
A group of women learning about travel writing.

Learn the Business with The Travel Writer’s Handbook

By Malea Ritz

The Travel Writer's Handbook.
The Travel Writer’s Handbook.

For the aspiring travel writers out there, veteran travel writer Jacqueline Harmon Butler lays out all of the guidelines for researching, writing and selling travel articles but also unveils the secret of what makes a travel article a winner in her new book, The Travel Writer’s Handbook.

Butler updates tips from her bestselling handbook with new tips on internet research, advancements in digital photography, mobile phone apps, social media and expanding your platform. She covers all of the bases from pre-trip research to specific marketing methods, while also including 12 formats for writing travel articles with an appeal to editors and readers in mind.

An Excerpt from the book, from Chapter 9: Follow the Reader

Tell the Bad News as Well as the Good

Never use your keyboard to settle private scores or get even with those who gave you a bad time.

Both your praise and your complaint should be tempered by the knowledge that both the restaurant or the hotel and you have good days and bad days.

Before you write too bitterly about the atrocious lunch, take into consideration the circumstances that might affect your outlook: the fact that you’re suffering from a heavy cold, the airline lost your luggage, and an unseasonable rainstorm beat against your windshield the whole twenty miles to the restaurant; the fact that it’s the chef’s day off and the storm prevented delivery of fresh produce.

Then, if you can be humorous, rather than grim—write explicitly, but amusingly—the result is often an entertaining, informative article. Tell your readers the truth—but be sure it is the truth.

On the other hand, Jacqueline doesn’t like to write about specific bad situations. She knows from experience that restaurants sometimes have an “off” day or are unable to procure specialty products. The chef got sick, the fisherman didn’t catch what was wanted, the specific vegetable wasn’t available. Things like that can cause havoc in the kitchen.

These days, choosing a hotel is a bit easier because most hotels have a Website where one can find lots of information, including location, price, details about the property, and often a map with the location indicated.

If there isn’t a map, you can go to MapQuest or, enter the address, and find out the location. If the hotel is located in an undesirable part of a city, you will have to decide if the inconvenient location is worth the cheaper price than a hotel that is centrally located. The star rating of hotels helps the traveler understand what is and what is not included, the overall ambiance, and amenities available. These facts are important if you are including a specific hotel in your article.

Check Out the Details

In addition to absorbing the feel of the place, you need to find and record the facts. Be sure your information is complete and accurate and current and includes all the cogent details. Keep careful track of mileage and costs.

Be ready to tell your readers which landmark signals the turnoff or what track they should stand on for their train. Find out, so you can say authoritatively the best time of year to take this trip and how long to stay at each place. Some publications prefer what they call “mentions”—the name an address of the hotel, the restaurant, the car rental agency, the sightseeing company. Some only want you to include mentions when you’re being complimentary.

The wise travel writer, though, stows away the information, regardless. Your present editor may scorn mentions, but the next time you sell a piece on this destination, a different editor may cover your manuscript margins with questions you can’t answer. The value of this is dramatized in Eleanor Bogart’s article “Oh Yes, I Remember It Well,” in which she tells of her plans to write a story describing all the streets she’s loved.

She has just returned from four days in St. Paul, Minnesota, and she will begin with Summit Street. Or is it Summit Avenue? Or Boulevard? Or Drive? Are the trees elms or maples? Are the houses really Victorian? Or earlier or later? Well, at lease the Hill mansion she remembers. But was it brown or red? Stone or brick? It was four stories, she thinks—or at any rate, three.

Jacqueline Harmon Butler
Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Surrounded by a fence. Was it wrought iron? She ends up unable to recreate Summit Street (Avenue?) because she didn’t take five minutes to jot down or record the details. Using the Internet to Google some of this information can be helpful, but not always. Write down or record what you are seeing.

We all do that—think we know a place very well, until we sit down to write about it. While we’re traveling it’s all so memorable, we think we’ll never forget. But we do. Make it a firm rule to scribble or record those supporting details you’ll need later.

With the details firmly in mind you can go ahead and write without stopping to look things up. If you have all the facts straight you can concentrate on plus value and won’t have to keep asking yourself, “Was it on the corner or in the middle of the block? Were the children wearing their school uniforms or their play clothes? Was it a canoe or a rowboat?”

A Note About Notes

Once you’re home, you’ll discover it’s very hard to track down some small, but colorful and enriching, fact. You may find yourself spending vast amounts of time and money searching for a nebulous tidbit that you have written down on scene—and never uncover it.

Paul Theroux says he never scribbles in a notebook in front of the person he’s talking to. He doesn’t like to arouse suspicion. Instead, he absorbs the conversation for about an hour, then hurries to a private place to place his notes, and amplifies the notes that evening.

You might want to organize your field notes by writing solid information in order. The special little extras you might want for something else, either jot on a separate page or circle when they appear in the middle of more mundane information. When you type your thoughts later you will gather together all these colorful little extras and remarks about them at the end of the more general information. Thus you’re reminded that the schoolgirls and the red rowboat called Erma had yellow trim, a human eye carved on the bow, and shiny brass oarlocks.

Using the recorder on your mobile device, you can easily and discreetly record an interview or dictate your notes. There are apps, such as Dragon, that will transcribe spoken words into text.

It’s the details that bring a place to life and make the reader eager to visit it.

Robert Schiller must have been thinking of his readers when he wrote “Storybook Prague” or Reader’s Digest. He must have marshaled all his senses and digested all the details to tell so much, so easily:

Nestled below the castle is Mala Strana, the Little Town, Prague’s loveliest section.

Although most of its baroque palaces are now foreign embassies and government offices, the area has changed little since the eighteenth century. You must explore its winding alleys, exquisite little squares, and courtyards on foot or you will miss the charming angels, eagles, chalices, keys, and fiddles carved over the doorways, which told the postmen where to deliver mail in the days before houses were numbered.

Cross the Vltava by the Charles Bridge, one of the earth’s most fascinating spans. Built in 1357, with elaborate Gothic guard towers at either end, it is lined with 30 sculptured groups of saints in ecstatic poses. Pious Czechs doff their hats as they pass the figure of Saint John Nepomuk, the “martyr of silence,” who was tied to a sack and thrown in the river for refusing to reveal secrets of the confessional. The eastern end of the bridge leads into the Old Town. Here is the famous Carolinum, seat of…Do you, the reader, want to visit Prague?

Specifics…Not Adjectives

Bill Peeples, for many years one of the editors of the Los Angeles Times travel section, was a hard taskmaster. He always asked the writer, “How much was the tip you say you won the guide’s lifelong devotion? What do you mean by ‘remarkably inexpensive?’ How far is ‘an easy day’s drive’?” Peeples says, “It’s amazing how many writers don’t tell the reader what they saw.

‘There was a beautiful panoramic view.’ Period.Paragraph. Perhaps they never saw it because they didn’t really look. But what the travel section needs are specific details, not adjectives.” Perhaps the writer could have said: From the lookout at the top of the mountain, vineyards filled the valley below. Their red/yellow and brown leaves left no doubt that summer was over. The air at the top of the hill was filled with the soft fragrance of the pine trees around us.

Peeples, as a writer, tells about Nantucket’s shops, restaurants, rental vehicles, boats, and sports, and where to get more information. He must have kept his eyes open to give his reader this vivid a picture of Nantucket: It has been said that the shape of the island, an accumulation of debris pushed off the mainland by the last glacier, is like a sailor’s hammock. A full one, with a sailor in it. If that is the case, Nantucket town is right where the sailor’s hands would be if he were folding them across his stomach while he slept.

Nantucket town, safely inside the jetties at the west end of a long, narrow harbor, is a place mostly of asphalt streets although three blocks of Main Street are cobblestoned. Main Street slopes up gently toward the north, a wide avenue framed by tall trees that shade shoppers but let the sun shine through, too…

Everyone watches as the moonglow becomes more golden. Then suddenly, as if someone held a ping-pong ball under the water and let it go, the moon pops up.

There’s only one way you can write that way—know what you’re talking about.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Travel Writer’s Handbook: How to Write – and Sell – Your Own Travel Experiences

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