Travel Writing for Beginners

Travel Writing Examples: A Presentation by Max Hartshorne and Paul Shoul of GoNOMAD Travel

Here are some of GoNOMAD’s editor’s travel writing tips for beginners, from a 2016 presentation at the NY Times Travel Show.

Max Hartshorne, editor of Travel, providing travel writing examples to help you be a better writer.
Max Hartshorne, the editor of Travel, providing travel writing examples to help you be a better writer.

Find a hook. Start out with an exciting scene — don’t meander. Use the inverted pyramid (a journalism idea), and put the most interesting part of your trip right at the beginning.

Everything else stems from that place. You can backtrack from there. It’s like when you get back from a trip — the first information you share when people ask you how your trip went is the information that should be your lede. Below is how Bruce Northam set the scene for his piece about Annapolis, Maryland:

Annapolis, Maryland is an iconic, charming, thought-provoking destination, and with good reason—awesomeness tempts you from every angle. The Naval Academy (you don’t get it until you take the tour), America’s oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use (intimate, gorgeous, screams history), and the epic leisure-boat port vibe are just part of the appeal in America’s Sailing Capital.

Get right to the point. Tell your reader where the story is set, where you’re going, and what the story is about. Don’t keep them guessing. If it takes three paragraphs for the reader to find out where the story is set, you need an editor. Here is an excellent example of setting the time, place and scene written by Andrew Castillo, on GoNOMAD about Burlington VT.

listenradioIt’s after 9 p.m. and one of those nights when my feet are soaked, but my spirits aren’t.

How can they be, when I’m in Burlington, Vermont, for the Discover Jazz Festival.

The raspy wail of an electric guitar floats out from under the awning of a tucked-away bar on Church Street. I push open the door and the full brunt of sad notes invade my emotions. It’s like ‘90s grunge met smooth jazz and produced an offspring.

Or maybe John Bonham from Led Zeppelin reincarnated as a jazz drummer.

(Read the rest of his Burlington VT story) 

The Hardest Part, The Story Arc—

People want to see WHY a place is worth visiting, and they see it how you share what happened. Plot out what happened. “Finding the arc of the story. Some suspense. Something has to happen. Characters have to meet resistance and change, just as in any good short story or novel. Something has to be at stake. Otherwise, the piece is just a litany of We saw this, then this.” from Peter Heller

Use all the senses — don’t forget about smells, sounds, taste, sights. Your reader hasn’t been to the places you’ve been to. Put them there with vivid, tantalizing descriptions that fully immerse them into the environment.

Max Hartshorne and photographer Paul Shoul at the 2016 NY Times Travel Show.

(Truffle hunting story example)

Best Advice: Use dialogue from locals. Peter Heller, of Outside Magazine, said this about dialogue and details:

I met John McPhee once. He told me to carry a notebook and write everything down, everything everyone says, exactly as they say it. Even while you’re climbing a mountain. Don’t try to remember dialogue at the end of the day, it will all end up sounding like you, and will be inaccurate. So that’s what I always did, on an eco-pirate ship in a storm, on a trail, I scribbled everything down as I heard it. Nothing can evoke a sense of character and authenticity better than letting the characters do it themselves.

Write everything down. Save receipts, save business cards, use a composition book and glue stick to keep as many reminders of where you went and matches, details, etc. 

Stick to one tense. The present tense is NOT GOOD. Use the past tense. Don’t be tempted to use present tense, because most of the time it will have to change eventually. We all do it some times but keep it to a minimum.

Use simple language.  Write conversationally. Maintain a personal, unique voice that has a distinct flavor. Talk the way you talk, use your own voice, but make it descriptive and don’t use overused words boring words like great, awesome, beautiful, nice….THINK HARDER.

Narrow Your Focus. Don’t try to write a guide if you visited for a few days, instead pick the event or local attraction and write about that then build the story around it. Festivals are not usually worth the whole story but can be a basis to write about a destination, including more than just the festival because people might visit at different times of the year.

Be a Reporter

Details details DETAILS! Be a reporter. Use visual descriptions and provide EXACT locations. Make sure you document, for instance, how much hotels cost. Travel writing has been described as part reporting, part dear diary and part providing information for the reader.

Wikipedia is good place to start but also use tourism board materials, state dept info, and ask experts. It’s harder being a reporter than a writer but if you want to get stories that people will want to read, ask more questions and dig deeper! Steve Szkotak, AP editor and reporter often says it’s harder to be a reporter but way more valuable than a writer. Heller suggests finding experts, asking for experts and trusting their answers.

Take a Fresh Perspective.

Writing from a different point of view makes the story more interesting.

Everyone is a local somewhere

You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to be a good travel writer. Start local. Write about what you know. People are interested in where you live, more than you might be, and it’s the perfect place to start. Look for things people can do, places you take friends—travelers would also be interested.

Write Ironically

Be unusual.  For instance: Skiing in the desert — be ironic! Surprise your readers with topics and ideas they don’t expect. Monaco for the Average Joe. Wineries in Mexico….

Learn to see the world from a fresh perspective. Write about familiar places in unfamiliar ways. When writing about mundane experiences, pretend that they are new and exciting. Document your findings in vivid, immersive detail.

Use a Narrative.

Make it a story, don’t make your travel article a checklist. Delve into what moved you, take out anything that’s not really crucial to understanding the place you went.

Include Emotion

Show how the trip affected or changed you. Human emotion is important to make the reader care about what you did and where you went.

Avoid Cliches…think harder for the right word, be more precise, don’t be lazy.

Peter Heller quote on overused words and phrases

Read Other Travel Writers

Some of the greats are Bill Bryson, Rachael Friedman, and Paul Theroux. Get in the habit of reading the NY Times Travel Section, Washington Post features, Afar,  Atlas Obscura, find your own favorite travel writers and read them, enjoy them, be a reader to become a better writer.

My favorite is Jeffrey Taylor, who travels to rough parts of the world like Siberia.

Create a blog.

It will give you a place to practice your writing and showcase your work. Don’t worry about making money from it, rather, use it as a place to introduce yourself. You can go back and use some of what you wrote on a blog on a trip to include in the final story. Capture the in-the-moment quotes that you can use in the story later.

It’s about their trip

Focus on the Readers can do, not what you did. Include events and places that anyone can visit, if you have an exclusive view to something, it’s not that interesting. No one cares about your massage or big meal unless they can get one too. The fact that you went to a location isn’t necessarily interesting.

The fact that you’re showing the reader how THEY could go, makes it interesting. Also, a story about a fascinating location can be boring, just as a story about a boring location can be fascinating. The location doesn’t make the story, it’s what happens and how they can relate.

Make your pitch.  Be a salesman for yourself: Write about places that haven’t received much attention from travel writers, such as the Middle East. Pitch your story to editors using a well written, succinct paragraph outlining what your story is about.

Surprise an Editor– include a CAPTIVATING photo in your query — that’ll make your pitch stand out. When you do send in articles, be reliable. Submit working links, good images, and polished work.

Tim Leffel, who’s an editor and author said “Ask me which writers I like working with the best as editor of multiple websites and group blogs, and I’ll tell you it’s the ones I know I can depend on every time. They meet deadlines. They hand things in already formatted correctly. The links in their blog posts work because they’ve checked them. They don’t give me excuses about why their photos are crappy. They don’t make the same stupid mistakes a half dozen times after being corrected twice.

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