I’m writing this on a Toronto-bound VIA train, heading home after my weekend in Montreal for the annual Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) national conference and AGM. At the conference, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on travel and food writing by GQ Brasil food editor and Montreal Buzz staff blogger Alexandra Forbes. Ms. Forbes is a world-renowned travel and food journalist, having written for publications such as enRoute, Azure, the Toronto Star, In, and Four Seasons, and having eaten at such famous restaurants as El Bulli (not once, but twice!), which is considered to be one of – if not the – best restaurants in the world, and Masa in New York, where dinner costs approximately $700 per person. As an aspiring travel writer (and someone who really likes to eat!), it was an honour to learn about the trade from someone so immersed in it.
Ms. Forbes was very candid and frank with the audience, for which I give her great credit. Travel writing is not glamorous. Sure, you get to eat in wonderful restaurants and see amazing scenery and meet incredible people from around the world, but it’s also a lot – and I mean A LOT – of work (I know, I know, cry me a river, right?). That’s not to say Ms. Forbes complained about it (and frankly, who would?). Quite the opposite, she praised the ups and downs of her job and said all the hard work is worth it and she wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. So, amidst her tale of the good, the bad, and the ugly of travel, she offered the following tips for being a successful travel writer in today’s market.
Find the hook
Travel writing is not about a destination. Don’t just pitch a story about a country or city. Find a specific angle about that city or country to write about. Narrow it down. Focus. Get a local perspective. Then narrow it down some more. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to write your piece and to get it picked up. While this is especially true of narrative travel writing, it’s also true of guidebooks. At first glance, they may seem to be about a destination, but they’re actually made up of profiles of all the little details about a destination.
Spin your story
Here are the cold, hard facts: you will not get rich travel writing. Nor will selling one story pay for your trip. That’s just not the way the industry works. If you want to make enough money to pay for your trip and earn an income, you have to spin your story at least three or four times. Find as many angles as you can on one trip and then submit them to different publications. Squeeze every last opportunity out of it to find something new, so that you can have multiple tales to tell – and sell.
Take and save
Take pictures of everything on your travels. EVERYTHING. You never know when that photo of your sketchy hotel room in London or that delicious breakfast you ate in Bali will come in handy. And once you have lots of photos, save them all. Keep an archive of photos, videos, notes, etc., for every trip you take. Then, if you decide to recycle content later on, or if you find a new twist on an old topic, you already have the background material to get you started.
Become a master of multimedia
Being a travel writer isn’t just about travel writing any more. You need photos (see above) and video. Ms. Forbes admitted that a lot of the bigger magazines won’t take photos from writers, where the old-school mentality is often that good writers can’t be good photographers – and vice versa. But smaller magazines and newspapers will be thrilled when you can provide your own visual content – and will be that much more willing to take your pitch. And if you can provide videos as well, all the better in our digital age.
Press trips aren’t always what they seem
Press trips seem like a dream come true: earn a free trip and all you have to do is write about it. But press trips are only good if you can find a story in it. Ms. Forbes gave us an example of a press trip she was invited on to Cabo, Mexico. Sure, it would have been a lovely vacation in a lovely hotel, but what could she write about Cabo that hasn’t already been said before? So she turned it down, because she knew she couldn’t sell a story from it. There’s often a reason why they’re giving these trips away for free, so go with your gut and don’t just take trips because you can. Take them because they’ll give you work.
Never, ever, EVER write for free
I’m guilty of this one. I’ve done it in the past, written for free (or what felt like very close to free) simply because I wanted the experience and to see my name in print. The problem? Giving away your work for free devalues all writers’ work. Writers’ rates haven’t increased in years, and in many cases, are actually decreasing. Content farms are making it seem like more and more writers are willing to write for $2 an article or just to see their name on a website. Every time a writer – travel writer or otherwise – lets someone publish their work for free, the entire professional writing industry dies a bit.
Okay, I lied. There is one time you can write for free: on your blog. Even Ms. Forbes has a blog (Boa Vida), off which she doesn’t make money. But it does build up her online presence and act as a sample of her work. Get on Twitter, too. Build up your online social presence and make online connections so that when potential editors Google your name, they can find you.
All in all, good tips from an expert in her field. Now, if only I could land a gig that would send me to El Bulli…
What about you? Any tips to pass along for aspiring travel writers? What is your rule for making it in the travel writing industry?