the art & craft of travel writing
by Don George / Lonelyplanet.com
What constitutes good travel writing? What makes a wonderful travel story? In one word, it is place. Successful travel stories bring a particular place to life through a combination of factual information and vividly rendered descriptive details and anecdotes, characters and dialogue. Such stories transport the reader and convey a rich sense of the author’s experience in that place. The best travel stories also set the destination and experience in some larger context, creating rings of resonance in the reader.
CRAFTING A STRUCTURE
A good travel article is shaped like a good short story, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Broadly speaking, and of course varying with the overall length of the story (travel stories for the UK and Australian markets tend to be shorter than those for the US market), the beginning is made up of approximately the first two to seven paragraphs. The aim of the beginning is to create a thematic or narrative lead (spelled ‘lede’ in the US) that immediately interests and engages the reader, drawing them into the article. Often the beginning will set the story’s scene, and sometimes it will hint at why the writer is there, but the prime purpose of the beginning is to grab the reader’s attention.
The middle is the long and winding road of the story, where the destination is brought alive for the reader, using your experience there as a filter. The end – and again, this is usually no more than the last two to seven paragraphs or so – wraps the story up and offers a kind of closure, tying the story back to its beginning but with a larger, enhanced sense of the whole.
CREATING A COMPELLING BEGINNING
So how do you create a compelling hook that will capture your readers’ attention and propel them into the middle of your story? A few writers I know refuse to write any other part of their piece until they find that attention-grabbing introduction. I’ve sometimes found that a beginning will occur to me as I’m shaping the piece in my mind. When that happens I write it down immediately, as the beginning can be a kind of key that unlocks the rest of the story for you.
In most cases you won’t find the beginning right away – you’ll only find it in the process of writing the story. So my advice is to move on, and not get stuck on the start. You can, as Douglas Adams said so memorably, ‘stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds’, but if you’re waiting for the perfect beginning to arrive, you may never get your story written. So just start writing.
You’ll find that as you are writing, all sorts of ways to start your article may pop into your mind. Write them down and leave them at the top of your screen or page until they become so compelling that you feel forced to stop writing the body of your article to start writing its beginning. Sometimes you might have too many ideas for beginnings; sometimes none. If the latter happens, one trick I often use is to think of the most telling moment of my trip and start with that.
THE MIDDLE SECTION
Most travel stories are structured by following either a thematic or narrative strategy. If your story is thematic, you will develop the middle section as an ascending succession of examples leading to your overriding point. If it’s a narrative, you will most likely develop the central section of your story as a chronological sequence of anecdotal incidents that embody and reveal the main points of your piece.
MODULATING YOUR MIDDLE
Let’s say I want to write a thematic article expressing my conviction that Croatia is the next big destination for travellers to visit. First, I’d ask myself why I feel this way. Well, let’s see: it’s beautiful, it has a rich history, the people are warm and unjaded, and it’s great value. Now I’ve isolated four salient points to support my theme, so the next question is their order of importance.
I’ve decided to organise my story in terms of accelerating emotional connection, so I’ll lead with the point about value for money as it’s the least emotional and most practical or logical consideration. History begins to involve the heart but is still fundamentally intellectual, so that would be second. Beauty is a more emotional consideration, drawing readers into the story via their soul. Finally, the people connection represents what I think is the climax of my trip, and is the climax of travel itself, so that would be the final point I would want to make in my story. My final point is the top of the pyramid, but every step along the way contributes to my story’s overall resonance and effectiveness.
Next, I’ll search through my notes and draw out the experiences that really brought these points to life. There was the hostel in Dubrovnik that cost just £15 a night, or that extraordinary meal under the stars that was £5. That’s where I really learned how inexpensive the place was, relatively speaking. The historical richness of the country came to life most poignantly in Dubrovnik, when I walked along the walls of the old city and saw the old roof tiles shattered during the war lying side by side with the new roof tiles that have been built to replace them – a shining and poignant reminder of the presence of the past wherever we go, but also an inspiring example of how tourism can help rebuild a place.
Croatia’s beauty was obvious from the start: the rocky coast and the shadowing cypresses, the wildflowers in bloom and not a person in sight. And then it all came together for me on my last night in Dubrovnik, when I went out to dinner with a local tour guide and she told me about her family and how they had suffered during the war, how the entire country had suffered, but how there was now new hope blooming in the land and a new sense of the future.
On reviewing these experiences and thoughts, I realise that the historic part of the piece has more emotional resonance for me than the beautiful landscape. So, in keeping with my strategy of accelerating up to the greatest emotional resonance, I decide to rearrange the segments. I’ll start with the prices, then move on to the beauty and the history, and end with my meal with the tour guide. It’s a smooth movement. I’ll have to make sure I pay attention to the transitions between the sections, but the piece is already taking shape in my mind. I’ve figured out how to structure the middle, and now it’s just a question of bringing the individual examples to vivid life.
CONCLUSIONS THAT LEAD TO NEW DIRECTIONS
The end of your article needs to achieve three intricately related objectives: it has to bring the focus of your piece to a satisfying conclusion; it has to tie the story back to its beginning; and it has to deliver the reader back to the world.
Finally, it’s critical that you pay special attention to the last word of your story. This is where you leave the reader, literally and figuratively. It is your – and your story’s – last point of connection with the reader, and the reader’s threshold to the world outside the story. Where do you want to leave the reader? What do you want their last – and lasting – impression of your story to be?
THE ACCORDION THEORY OF TIME
Students often ask me how to craft a description of an entire trip in a few words. Say you have between 1500 and 2500 words to write about a five-day journey. If you tried to write about everything that happened on that journey, you would have the travel equivalent of War and Peace. (You would also end up with a piece that was more suited to your personal travel diary than the very public pages of a newspaper or magazine.) So what you have to do is edit your reality. You have to think about all the pertinent experiences in your trip and then you have to choose those very few – three or four – that embody and illuminate the main points you want to make about your journey.
In order to do this well, you are going to end up focusing very precisely on those four experiences, and skimming over all the other experiences of your trip. This is where the accordion theory of time comes in. Your narrative focus moves in and out, in and out. You expand the accordion to full arm’s length in order to focus closely on a moment in time, then you push it in to skim over whole days; then you draw it out again to focus on the next significant experience, then push it in to jump over more days.
Study almost any travel narrative, and you’ll see that the author is playing the accordion of time. The writer isolates the cardinal events in their experience, analyses how they fit into the pattern of meaning they are trying to evoke, and focuses on the details of those events to render them in a way that will enable the reader to live them just as they did. They may lavish three pages on an incident that happened in five minutes, then summarise the next five days in five sentences. The narrative proceeds in this way – in and out, in and out – singling out for scrutiny and expanded description the events that form the building blocks of the story. The full meaning and impact of the story is created through the accumulation, organisation and integration of these event blocks.
ELEMENTS OF STRUCTURE
by Don George
Excerpted from Travel Writing
Think of each story as a set of building blocks. The beginning lays the foundation, and the middle builds on that foundation. It is essential that each part of the story builds upon the part that came before. This building is logical – that is, the progression of ideas and events in the story has to make sense – but it is also thematic and emotional.
When you are editing your own article, ask yourself if each section advances the story in the direction it needs to go, and whether each section builds upon the one before. In order to answer these questions, you need to be clear about your article’s overall aim – this is absolutely fundamental to a successful travel article. As long as you know your story’s goal, you’ll be able to tell if your story is proceeding clearly and powerfully, block by block. With each new addition, ask yourself: does the reader need to know this? Does this take the reader one step closer to the overall point? If you stray from your overall aim, you’ll lose your reader.
In crafting a story, transitions are one of the writer’s most important tools, linking one paragraph to another, and one section of a piece to the next. If you think of your article as a journey, the transitions are the stepping stones or tiny bridges that help the reader along – without them, the reader would fall into the chasm of incomprehensibility. Transitions give your piece coherence; they make sure your story follows logically from one step to the next, and they make sure you don’t lose your reader along the way.
Transitions from one paragraph to another usually pick up a detail, image or theme from the last sentence in the preceding paragraph. In a chronological description, the sequential rush of events provides its own transitions, but when you leap from one event to another, you need to make sure the reader leaps with you. Occasionally, you will find that there is no appropriate transition at a particular place in a story, or that you don’t want to craft a transition – you want to make a clear break. This is the place to use a section break, indicated in the text by a line break or a graphic element, which signals to the reader that you have ended one sequence and are beginning another. The reader will leap with you over the break, but without that visual cue, the reader will expect you to lead them along by the hand.
BRINGING YOUR STORY TO LIFE
How do you bring your story to life with the kind of lively prose that editors say they want? Here are some of the most important tools and principles.
Dialogue helps to enliven a piece aurally, varying its rhythm. On another level it can be used to humanise a story, injecting characters into your article in a way that creates warmth and resonance for the reader. It can also help to illuminate a place.
Dialogue gives a piece human context and contact. It can also help supply critical information in a nontextbook way. For example, a local resident or museum attendant can enter the story to reveal the history of the town or the special qualities of the painting on display. And dialogue can introduce human quirks – turns of phrase, words, patterns of speech – that help warm a story as well. The key is to use dialogue sparingly, keeping it crisp and authentic.
Dialogue should never be invented or embellished to suit your purpose. If you are altering reality in any way – compressing sentences spoken by three different people at three different times into one cocktail party dialogue, for example – then you have to make it clear that you are doing so. It’s perfectly acceptable to clean up dialogue by removing repetitious pauses such as ‘um’ and ‘ah’, but you must adhere scrupulously to the truth of what the person is saying. You must not distort their words or misrepresent their meaning.
The introduction of characters is often critical to the success of a travel piece. Characters can illuminate places, and often help to propel and enliven a story. The human connection is arguably the most powerful element of travel, spanning cultures and backgrounds. Conveying a sense of human connection through the effective introduction of character is a great and powerful art. So pay attention to characters and don’t shy away from bringing local people – or fellow travellers – into your story. Their presence in a story creates a human bridge between the story and the reader, just as they themselves are a human bridge between their home and you.
LLUMINATING DETAILS & ANECDOTES
Details hold the key to a good description and can be full of meaning, embodying the most important characteristics you want to convey. The more precise you can be in identifying and isolating the right details, and the more fully you can evoke those particular details in the reader’s mind, the more powerful, compelling and effective your description will be.
You can never squeeze all the details of a place into a description. If you tried to do so minutely, you could write a book as long as Ulysses about the room you are sitting in now. You have to edit reality. You have to isolate the most telling details, asking yourself which ones most powerfully and precisely convey whatever it is about the scene that is most directly relevant to your story, which details will best establish the points you want to make.
Anecdotes are simply a larger, expanded version of details. Just as a scene is composed of myriad details that need to be filtered, so a journey is composed of myriad anecdotes. Your job is to choose just those anecdotes that capture, crystallise and convey the point of your piece.
One especially critical element in re-creating a travel experience is accuracy. Travel pieces must be accurate in two ways. First, they must be factually accurate in their reporting. This means getting the population of the African village right, precisely conveying the colour of the church in Nova Scotia and getting the year that the Spaniards settled on the coast correct. There is simply no excuse for getting your facts wrong, and you should not expect sympathy (or future work) from an editor if you do.
The second kind of accuracy is perception and description. It is far more difficult to capture, but is equally critical to the depth and success of travel writing.
Let’s say you are trying to describe a field in France. You write, ‘I saw a field in France.’ Does this bring any image of the field into the reader’s mind? No. So you think some more about the field and write, ‘In France I saw a field the size of a football pitch.’ This helps a little – at least we have a sense of size – but we still don’t see the field. So you dig back into your memory – and your notes – and write: ‘In France I saw a field the size of a football pitch, filled with red poppies.’ Suddenly the image blazes to life. We can see the field, the poppies extending toward the horizon. Now you’re back in the scene, remembering the morning, and you write: ‘In France I drove by a field the size of a football pitch, filled with red poppies and bordered on three sides by rows of lavender, whose sweet scent so filled the air that I had to stop.’ Now we’re right with you. Not only do we have a sense of size and colour, we also have another sense involved – the sense of smell – and the action of you stopping. You’ve engaged us.
A good travel story is basically the accumulation of such details of perception and description. But you can’t put these descriptive details into your stories unless you experience them first. You have to experience the world with a fearless curiosity, and then render that curiosity and the discoveries it brings in clean, clear, compelling prose. Do that and you’ll get somewhere. And you’ll take the reader with you.
USE ALL YOUR SENSES
Most travel articles include good visual descriptions of the places where the stories are set, but writers far too frequently ignore their other senses. Think of it: when you walk into an Italian restaurant, what are the first senses that accost you? Not sight, but probably sound and smell. There’s the raucous ruckus of the patrons, the waiters pushing through the crowd, the garlicky snap and sizzle of food flipped in frying pans. The aromas may be the first sensory impression of all: the garlic that insinuated itself into the preceding sentence’s sizzle, the mozzarella and tomatoes wafting from the kitchen, the mingled smells of veal piccata and pasta al pesto. So if you are going to describe this Italian restaurant in your article, you could begin with its smells and sounds, not forgetting, of course, the tastes.
When we travel we experience the world with all of our senses – so why do we focus so exclusively on sight in our articles? Pay attention to all the senses. Let your ears and nose and taste buds and fingers do as much work as your eyes. How can you cultivate this art? Here’s a little exercise that should help. Think of a place or situation from the past and describe it in no more than 300 words, using as many of the five senses as you can. Then read your piece of writing aloud and see how using all the senses in your description brings the place to life – it’s more satisfying for you and for your reader.
Clichés have a way of creeping into our writing – it’s difficult to come up with something fresh every time. Sometimes, without our even realising it, a well-worn phrase that we’ve picked up from who-knows-where slips surreptitiously into our prose. Reread your writing with your cliché-meter on high, and avoid those tired descriptions – land of contrasts, tropical paradise, bustling thoroughfare… Whenever you come to a phrase that sounds wooden, stop and ask yourself if there might be a better way of expressing what you want to say, one that more truly reflects your take on it.
One of the culprits editors most frequently cite when they talk about bad travel writing is the use of clichés. So be a vigilant self-editor. Always make your words and descriptions your own.
ELEMENTS OF STYLE
The following critical elements also help to determine the success – or failure – of a travel story.
Travel stories need a warm human voice. Don’t try to write like a fact-checker or reporter who is simply recording their surroundings, without any sense of engagement. You are undertaking a fundamentally human adventure – encountering new people and a new culture, whether it’s in a different region of your own country or somewhere halfway around the world. Your humanity should be one of the fundamental strengths of your story.
Your voice should be a reflection of your personality and style, whether romantic, reflective, funny, sarcastic or informative. Read the examples in Chapter Five, and note how each writer employs a different tone. Over time you will come to be identified with the voice you project in your stories, so it is imperative to write in a way that feels natural to you and to the particular story.
Another aspect of voice is its use to express opinion and judgment. Readers – and editors – are relying on your expertise and discernment to steer them away from scams and disappointments, and to point them in the direction of the best on-the-road experiences. Informing your voice with opinion when appropriate is an essential part of your job.
What kind of pace do you want your story to have? It can be headlong and breathless or slow and measured. Make sure the pace fits your piece, and that you’re in control of the pacing of your story. It’s fine to speed up and slow down – it can make the reading a richer experience – just don’t let the story careen out of control like a South American mountain bus crossing a snow-patched pass and then heading downhill when suddenly the brakes give out and the driver can’t stop and the landscape is whizzing dizzyingly by and before you know it the reader is gone – pfff! – like that bus into the South American sky.
ATTEND TO THE MUSIC OF THE LANGUAGE
Think of English as a musical instrument. You are using that instrument to create great music. Read your writing out loud, and listen to the music of your writing. What kind of mood are you creating? Are you keeping the pace lively or is it wooden? Are you varying the tempos in your writing? Are you using devices such as internal rhyme and alliteration?
REWRITING & SELF-EDITING
Different writers have different strategies for rewriting and self-editing. Some rewrite as they go along; others wait to rewrite until they’ve completed a first draft of the entire piece.
A good practice is to write three drafts of an article. In the first draft, try to get down everything that’s in your mind about the story – all the important incidents, impressions and lessons. In this phase it’s best to write as quickly as possible, rather than pausing to rewrite.
The second draft is the macro-editing phase. Read the story for flow and logical development, possibly moving sections in order to clarify and refine the movement and development of the piece. Remove sections that don’t add to the story and identify gaps that need to be filled. Ask yourself if you’ve supplied all the information a reader needs to know to re-create that experience. Does the story build up coherently to its main point?
The third draft is the micro-editing phase, where you read very slowly and precisely, paying close attention to the style of the prose. Have you made every word count? Are you re-creating your experience as vividly and truly as possible? Are all the transitions there? How about the music of the piece?
After the third draft you should be ready to send the story to an editor. At this stage many experienced writers show their work to a trusted reader before sending it off to be published – sometimes even the most capable writers are too close to their work to see something that an objective eye can pick up. Of course, after the editor has read it, you may need to rework the piece further, but that’s an essential part of the process, too. The editor will have their own view of the piece, and of where and how it fits into the puzzle of their publication. It is the writer’s job to work with the editor to come up with a story that satisfies both parties. If you feel very strongly that you don’t want to make an edi torial change, you should discuss that point with the editor by all means, but you should be careful not to alienate them. Just as finding a great story entails a marriage of passion and practicality, so too publishing a story entails marrying the editor’s and the writer’s views of the story.
WRITING FOR TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS
by David Else
Excerpted from Travel Writing
Much of the foregoing advice about writing travel articles for magazines and newspapers can also be applied to writing for travel guidebooks – and, indeed, many freelance writers combine guidebook writing with magazine or newspaper work – but there are some major differences, too. To focus on the particular skills required for writing or contributing to travel guidebooks, we turned to one of Lonely Planet’s most seasoned guidebook writers, David Else, who has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing for a variety of travel guides. Here are David’s tips and tales from the trenches.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A GUIDEBOOK WRITER
What abilities do you need to be a guidebook writer? First, you must employ the same artistic skills as a travel literature author or travel journalist. Your words must capture the nature, spirit and ambience of a place, whether it’s a whole country, a small town or a single café. Your words must be engaging or entertaining where appropriate, and authoritative or serious where required.
Second, you need the temperament of a detective. You need to be inquisitive and fastidious as you seek out details and carefully record them, from obscure facts about local customs to bland hotel rates or restaurant phone numbers. The information you provide to your publisher, and eventually to your reader, has to be 100 per cent accurate and reliable.
Third, you need the mind of a poet. Space is always short in guidebooks, and you must transmit the detail and description in a concise, engaging and economic manner. When you’ve got just a few pages to cover a city with 20 hotels, 10 restaurants, three museums and four galleries, plus some introductory paragraphs to reflect the atmosphere of the place, you simply don’t have the space for long reviews or elaborate articles enjoyed by magazine writers. As with poetry, every word must count. But we’re not talking Paradise Lost here; think more along the lines of a haiku.
And finally, you must have the attitude of a publishing professional. You must adhere to your editors’ requirements and produce the work according to their guidelines, rather than making up your own. You might think your ‘artistic freedom’ is hobbled – and sometimes it is – but freedom is a luxury enjoyed by the novelist. As a guidebook writer, you are a provider of information, and you must present it in an accessible style and in a prescribed format as laid down by the publisher who hires you for the assignment.
If you can combine all these skills and attributes, and – most important – if you simply love travel, then guidebook writing could be the job for you.
WHY WRITE GUIDEBOOKS?
Although it’s not a major concern for every writer, a good reason to write guidebooks is that compared to many other genres, guidebook work can sometimes offer a fair chance of actually earning enough money to make freelance writing a full-time career. That’s a major advantage. But you should never do it just for the money – not least because in many cases the money isn’t that good, and not always constant enough to keep the wolf from the door.
So before you buy that air ticket, before you phone that editor, and even before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you must be very clear on your own reasons for wanting to write guidebooks. Do you think that guidebook writing might suit your personality? Do you have an urge to seek out new places, and a desire to spread the word? Do you want to write guidebooks for pleasure? For the satisfaction of seeing your work in print? Is it just a desire for subsidised holidays, or simply to make a small amount of money while seeing interesting parts of the world, escaping the nine-to-five rat-race, and generally having a good time?
Of course, you often have to ask yourself the same questions about writing literary works or magazine pieces, and all or any of the above are perfectly good reasons for wanting to write guidebooks. The key point is that you have to be clear about your reason for wanting to write travel guides. This chapter will help you make that decision.
APPROACHING A PUBLISHER
Rule Number One: get a publisher. Only on very rare occasions should you write a guidebook without having contacted a publisher beforehand. You should secure an assignment or commission (and, in most cases, a contract) from the publisher before you start researching and writing, at least in detail. Writing a book that nobody wants would be a huge waste of your time. Also, you need clear instructions from the publisher (such as which areas they want you to cover, or which angle they want you to take) before you go out on your travels. Even if you decide on the destination and the nature of the book, and a publisher agrees with your proposal, it’s still not possible to write a book after returning from a ‘normal’ holiday; you must travel specifically to do your research.
STUDY THE MARKET
As with magazine and newspaper writing, before approaching guidebook publishers you need to study the size, style, range and coverage of the market. Get to know the specialities of each company, and tailor your applications accordingly. It’s important to note that not all guidebook publishers are the same, and they vary considerably in their methods of dealing with new writers. You can’t send out identical email applications or form letters to a batch of publishers and expect any of them to take you seriously. In fact, if a publisher feels you’re sending out form letters, that’s the surest way for your mail to end up in the rubbish bin.
Some publishers concentrate on a certain sector of the travelling public and produce only one type of book; they could be aimed at adventure tourists, overland drivers, culture buffs or wildlife fans, for instance. Other publishers produce a wide range of series aimed at different markets; Lonely Planet, for example, publishes Shoestring guides for backpackers, City guides for urban aficionados and Best Of guides for business and shortbreak travellers.
Invest your time and effort wisely, and do some serious research in libraries and travel bookshops. Make sure you look at publishers’ most recent products, as the style and content of guidebooks can change over the years. Publishers who once covered the backpacker scene might now be publishing guides for mid-market travellers, too; they may have introduced a new series, such as mini city guides for business travellers or recreation guides for families, or perhaps trimmed their range right back. Wherever possible, take a look at the different publishers’ catalogues (either in print or on line) to see what new series they are publishing right now – and what they will be bringing out next year, too.
PITCHING YOURSELF AS A WRITER
Having done your homework, and decided which company you want to approach, the next step is to write your pitch. Tell the publisher what you can offer them. Asking for a job because you’ve ‘always wanted to travel’ is unlikely to be successful.
While you’re researching the market, you’ll also discover the sort of initial information the publisher will need, the name or title of the person you should write to (usually a managing editor, commissioning editor, publishing recruitment administrator or similar) and whether the company prefers written or emailed applications.
Whatever their specific preferences, you’ll generally need to briefly outline your background, skills and qualifications. Emphasise your experience as a writer or your knowledge of certain destinations. Keep your main message short and sweet. Include some examples of your writing and a more detailed CV or résumé.
PITCHING AN IDEA
If you have an idea for a brand-new book, something no other publisher currently has on their list, you’ll need to pitch both your idea and yourself as a writer. Once again, it’s essential to study the market, and make sure you take your proposal to the right place. Ask yourself why your book is required. Does it cover a new subject; an emerging destination, such as Ethiopia, North Korea or the Arctic; an unusual niche, such as Iraq; or an unusual angle, such as travelling the railways of Africa or a guide to South American ski resorts? You need to be very clear about the reasons why a publisher should take up your idea and why it should sell. (Incidentally, all these examples of possible new titles already exist.)
Also consider the different types of destination, and your readership. Is your book targeted at low-budget travellers visiting a wider area (a backpacking guide to Southeast Asia, for example); high-rolling tourists stopping off at a compact destination (a Tokyo city guide, perhaps); or a guide for all budget levels but with a particular specialist bias (such as a guide to trekking in Nepal)?
Do some research into the number of tourists travelling to the destination you propose covering. Are there enough potential travellers out there to buy the book and make it commercially viable? A ‘remote island paradise’ may appear the perfect subject for a guidebook, but if it can only be reached by a three-day canoe trip, it’s unlikely to be flooded with visitors.
Maybe there are books which are similar to the one you’re proposing, but you feel that yours will be much better. You may persuade a publisher with a well-researched, detailed and confident pitch, but only the big companies can take up a full-frontal assault on the opposition in this way.
Finally, be relevant. Don’t contact a publisher of backpacker titles offering a book on five-star restaurants, or send a publisher of smart hotel guides a pitch about travelling around Europe on a dollar a day.
REPLIES & REJECTION
As with many other types of travel writing, contacting guidebook publishers can be a soul-destroying affair. Every month the major guidebook publishers receive literally hundreds of applications from eager wannabees, and even the smaller outfits have a steady steam of enquiries coming in, so a reply along the lines of ‘Sure, we’d love to hire you, can you go to Cuba tomorrow?’ is very unlikely (but not unknown). It’s much more likely that you’ll be sent a standard response asking for more details of your skills, experience and qualifications (formal or otherwise) for writing a book. However, some publishers may not even reply at all.
If you don’t receive a commission, but you still believe in your guidebook idea and remain convinced that there’s an eager travelling public out there just dying to buy it, then you could consider taking the path of self-publishing. Many of the well-known travel guidebook publishers of today started out by self-publishing just one title. However, while it’s still possible, the nature of travel publishing has changed considerably since then. The writing and printing aspects of self-publishing are relatively straightforward, but in order to actually sell books you’ll probably end up having to self-market and self-distribute, too.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
by David Else
Excerpted from Travel Writing
Assuming you’re working as a travel guidebook writer at least partly for the money, you have to make sure that all the earnings you make from writing a guidebook cover your research costs and your general business items, and still leave you with enough money to live on. And that means your rent or mortgage, food, clothes and all the other stuff you’d buy with your salary from any other type of job. But how does a guidebook writer know if the fee being offered is fair or reasonable? This is a question commonly asked by new writers. There is no easy answer, as there are no hard and fast rules in the world of freelance travel writing. The fee for a job might seem fair to one author, too low to another, and generous to yet another. To help a little, here are a few pointers:
MAKING IT PAY
Working Out Your Costs
To work out your costs, take into account the following:
Decide if a town with 12 hotels and 10 restaurants plus beaches, museums and clubs is going to take you one day or three to research. Decide how long bigger cities, villages or places like national parks will take. Work out your travel time (in some countries it can take a whole day just to get from Town A to Town B), then add it all up – that’s how long you’ll be on the road.
Long-Haul Travel Costs
This is usually a plane fare. Scan the Internet or newspapers for sample fares, then add 20 to 50 per cent because those travel agent bargains are always hard to find in reality.
Ground Travel Costs
Costs for travel by bus, train, boat, rental car, camel or dug-out canoe will depend on the destination, but are easy to calculate based on the number of days you’ll be in the destination, the number of days you’ll actually be travelling, and the average costs (per day, per 100 kilometres, or whatever) of travel in your destination. If you have no idea of average costs in the country you’re about to write about, ask yourself if you’re the right person for the job.
This cost is easy to calculate, based on the number of days you’ll be on the road, the type of book you’re writing and the type of accommodation you intend to sample.
Once again, this cost is easy to calculate, based on the number of days you’ll be on the road. Don’t forget that you’ve got to eat wherever you are, so deduct your normal ‘at home’ food bills from this amount.
This includes miscellaneous expenses such as phone calls, Internet time, postage, photocopying, laundry and local guides, and will depend on the destination you’re covering and the amount of time you’re away.
Work Out Your Profit
Add together all the costs listed above to work out your total cost. Look at the fee offered by your publisher, deduct the total cost, and that’s your profit or earnings.
Work Out How Long the Project Will Take
You’ve already worked out how long you’ll be on the road; now calculate the number of days you’ll spend writing up. Consider the number of pages you’re responsible for, the amount of brand-new text that’s required, and how much rewriting of old text you’ll have to do. Add together the research and writing-up time, then add another week or two to set up flights, arrange meetings and familiarise yourself with your editor’s requirements, plus about a week at the end of the project to handle editorial queries.
Is it Right for You?
Consider the profit as a whole (guidebook writers get paid by the job, not by the hour) or view the sum as a daily or weekly rate according to the time it will take you to earn it. It could work out at £5 per day; it could be £150 per day, or more. Then ask yourself: does that seem reasonable, and will the earnings cover your cost of living? What surplus does it leave for essentials such as new equipment or a pension for the day you hang up your backpack and laptop for good?
f you’re single, footloose and fancy-free, you might not care too much about profit. You might want to be a travel guidebook writer for the thrill of visiting exotic destinations. For you, as long as your costs are covered, that’s enough.
Maybe you can combine the book research with other freelance opportunities, such as photography or writing for magazines. Or perhaps you realise that because you are new to travel writing, you’ve got to get a gig or two under your belt before you can start expecting (or demanding) higher fees.
Approaches to fees vary considerably among writers, and everyone has their own parameters. A lot depends on your attitude to writing and your attitude to life, but the key question is always this: is the fee reasonable for you?
On the assumption that you’re not immediately going to make a million from your first endeavour, how do you combine guidebook writing with everyday life, and how do you survive for a year or so with no income from the guidebook you’re still hammering out on your computer?
The answer may be hard to swallow, but until you reach a stage where you can live off guidebook writing alone, you’ll almost certainly have to combine it with another job. This leads to its own problems as, unfortunately, it’s not normally possible to research and write a book in the two to four weeks of annual leave that most people can take from their work.
An option might involve taking a short commission such as updating a small part of a book. This can require just a couple of weeks of ground research, and you can write it up back at home in the evenings when you’ve finished your day job. This can be a very useful way of getting a feel for the world of guidebook writing, without having to commit fully right from the start.
Ideally, of course, you need the sort of job which gives you long holidays, but there aren’t many of those about. You’re more likely to take a series of temporary jobs, and use the time in between for writing. Many guidebook writers – in fact, many writers, whatever their speciality – combine writing with jobs such as supply teaching, locum medicine, night security, agency nursing, taxi driving, motorbike dispatch, short-term secretarial or accountancy, and so on. These jobs keep some money coming in, and allow you to take guidebook jobs at pretty short notice. This course can seem a bit risky or unsettling if you’re used to the comforts of a secure full-time occupation – and income.
Perhaps the most practical option is to combine guidebook writing with a job which is somehow compatible. As mentioned earlier, many guidebook writers also write for magazines or newspapers; others sell their photographs, drive overland trucks, or work as leaders and guides for tour companies. Perhaps the most perfect option is to find a job that pays so well that you can afford to work only half the year and then concentrate on writing guidebooks in the other half.
However you work it out, the bottom line is still the same: travel guidebook writing is not a job to be taken lightly. You need to have the right attitude; you need to be able to combine the skills of author, poet, detective and publishing professional; you need to be flexible and adventurous; and you need to be able to work hard and fast. Meet these requirements, and after a year or two you’ll have the pleasure of seeing your guidebook on the bookstore shelves and in the hands of eager travellers. You’ll be able to visit the places you love, and you might even make some decent money along the way.
That’s it! Hopefully, we’ve given you all the information and inspiration you need to embark on your own travel writing adventures – and for a wealth of further practical information, consult the Resources appendix at the end of this book. Before you set off on those adventures, here’s one final wish: wherever you go and whatever you endeavour to do, may you always map your dreams, journey fully every day and impassion your path in your own special way. Good luck, and whatever you do – don’t forget to write.