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How I Became a Travel Columnist

Writing a travel column has to be one of the greatest gigs for a freelance writer. You have some control over your subject and you don’t have to market each and every article. Best of all, you get to write! And travel! I don’t know how most people get to be a columnist but I know how I managed. Luck. Timing. And a stupid class assignment.

After I moved to Toronto I was trying hard to find a writing community so I signed up for a class at Ryerson called the Business of Freelancing. I didn’t find a whole new community but I did make a really good friend. (Hi Deena!) The thing I liked least about the class was the final assignment: find someone at the top of the field that you want to work in and interview them. I’m shy. I don’t like interviewing anyone

I really wanted to work in the travel field, however, so I considered contacting the travel editors at one of three papers: the National Post, The Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star. I considered it, but I didn’t actually do it – when in doubt, procrastinate. Finally, a few days before we had to present our results, I launched into action. Kind of. When I couldn’t find the contact info for the editor of the National Post, I gave that one up – obviously any excuse to avoid the project would do. Down to the wire, I sent emails to the other two editors and asked if I could send them some questions. The Globe editor answered my emails while the editor of the Toronto Star, Mark Atchison, wrote back and said, “Why don’t you come down to the paper and I’ll show you around?” I might have been new in the business but I still knew that this was a rare stroke of luck.

Little did I know that the editor was new himself and was looking to expand his stable of writers. Somehow, I’d stumbled onto one small window of opportunity. At the Toronto Star offices, Mark showed me around and asked if I’d brought anything for him to read. “Of course not,” I stammered. “I’d never presume to do that.”

He laughed and said, “If you want to get ahead in this business you have to put yourself out there.” Words to remember. As soon as I got back home I sent him the two pieces that I’d already had published (see yesterday’s post), one on rock climbing that I’d sold to NOW Magazine and one on a German spa that by now, I’d sold to both the San Francisco Chronicle and NOW.

“I’ll take these,” he wrote back.

Oh, oh. “Um, I never thought you’d actually want them,” I said. “I’ve already published them in Toronto.”

You’d think he would have given up on me by then, but he told me to send him something else. I did. This time it wasn’t a story about going to a spa, it was how to choose a German spa. Considering the country has hundreds of them, it is more complex than it sounds.

“I’ll buy this,” he said. Finally. Finally. I had something that could be published in the Star. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. After I’d written for the Star for about a year, Mark asked me where I saw myself going and I broached the idea of a column on solo travel. He asked me to write three samples. I did and my colum began.

Mark’s no longer the travel editor (so I’m afraid you can’t follow my lead) but his advice to put yourself out there still applies. And the main moral of the story? Do your homework. You never know where it will lead.


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