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Travel Writing – How I got started

I’m starting my first blog today. I know nothing about it and will just have to feel my way as I go. It reminds me of starting out as a travel writer. I knew nothing about that, too. And based on the amount of emails I get from people asking how to get started (and how to get free trips) it’s a career most people don’t much know about. So here’s the story. How I became a travel writer. Read it and avoid my mistakes. Oh, wait, I’m not going to tell you about my mistakes. That will make me look bad. I’ll save those for later.

Step One) I wanted to write novels. Actually I’ve written two, both bad. Both sitting on my closet shelf. To get better, and just to have fun, I signed up for two two-week workshops at the New York Summer Writers Institute in Saratoga Springs. www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ The second fiction workshop was full, so I joined the nonfiction group. James Miller was my grumpy brilliant teacher and to this day I haven’t had a more insightful workshop leader, except maybe Philip Lopate. This class changed my world. From being a crappy fiction writer, I now had something that got people laughing. A couple of class members asked for copies to show their friends. The funny thing was, I was writing the same thing I’d been doing in fiction. Stories about my travels, my travel disasters and the crazy wonderful and sometimes dangerous world that is out there. Once people knew the stories were true (I’m strict about sticking to what really happened and you should be too if you want to write travel articles) people liked them better. Go figure. For the first time I wondered if travel writing could be a career.

Step Two) I found a travel writing workshop in Marin County near San Francisco and signed up. www.bookpassage.com/content.php?id=45  This taught me the basics of travel writing. I listened to lectures by the then-editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, John Flynn, and by the then-editor of the Dallas Morning Post, Larry Bleiberg, and went home and wrote two articles. One was about rock climbing in Thailand and one was about a state-run German spa. A local weekly rag bought the first one. The second one I sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. Eight months later John Flynn was no longer the editor but his successor picked it out of the slush pile, ran it and my career had begun. It truly makes me wonder if some things are just out there waiting to happen.

As an interesting aside, at least I think it’s interesting … when I had a one-on-one meeting with an editor at the Book Passages workshop, I showed him the same piece that had gone over so well in my nonfiction class, the one about my travel disasters, the one I was so puffed up over, and he burst my balloon fast, saying something like, “If you have this many problems when you travel, why do you bother?” Really, why I travel could be a whole other post, but the point is you’re never going to please everyone, so don’t take rejection too seriously.

Step Three) Hard work. It takes me much longer to write articles than most people. (For example, I just spend stupid minutes wondering whether to use ‘way’ or ‘much’ in the above sentence.) If you don’t take that extra step, though, you might not get published. There is a lot of competition out there. In the early days I would write an article and send it out to about 60 newspapers, and maybe one would pick it up. I think three sales was my record. (Yes, you can resell newspaper articles, just not in the same region). Now I’m lazy and don’t market much at all, so lucky for me I have a regular gig. And yes, I would write the article before I sold it. This works for newspapers but not for magazines. For those you’ll need to pitch your idea first. I didn’t worry about free trips. I didn’t even know about free trips. It was all about the writing and travelling. Hopefully it’s that way for you as well, because if you don’t love it, you’ll give up fast. That said, I’m not even going to talk about free trips. At least not yet. That will be a later post, too.


One Response

  1. Great post! These are good tips on taking those first steps to becoming a travel writer. As a Public Relations professional with tourism clients, I can tell you that the “free” trips may be a great perk ..and they can be lots of fun, but they entail hard work. When we host travel writers to a destination, we fill their schedule with activities and events. Each moment is precious and the best travel writers want to get the most out of their trip and work with us to outline the stories they are after, the angles and they ask questions…they learn, they experience, they involve themselves.

    And the writing is key. Great writing takes time, effort, talent and a commitment to excellence. Wanderingcarol is a perfect example of a great travel writer. She’s professional, she’s personable, she’s talented and she knows the ropes. Anyone wanting to learn more about travel writing should subscribe to this blog!


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