You might want to choose a book on the subject written by an author who’s still alive.

I mean no disrespect to the late Louise Purwin Zobel, the original author of many editions of The Travel Writer’s Handbook.  Since she died in 2008 — a fact which features prominently in her author’s bio on the back of the book —  the 2012 edition has a (presumably living)  co-author, Jacqueline Harmon Butler. It’s frankly bizarre to read a book which frequently refers to the now-most-dead original author in the present tense, as on page 65: “With an itinerary sheet for each of these possibilities and marketing materials within easy reach, Louise goes to work. When she speaks of marketing materials, she means, of course, the marketing manuals…”

I sure hope Louise is not in the afterlife going to work, easily reaching marketing manuals and pitching stories, because when I die that’s the last thing I want to be doing.

That, however, is the least of this book’s problems. Although it attempts currency by throwing around terms like  “smart phone” and “digital camera”, it’s seriously out of date. For one thing, the book suggests that CD-ROMs would make a good market for the aspiring traveling writer. It suggests sending a postcard to government agencies to receive pamphlets. (A postcard!)  It references American Demographics magazine as a potential market — the magazine where, as it happens,  I started my career. Alas, the magazine is like Zobel: very dead. It folded almost a decade ago.

The introduction promises insights for established travel writers  and total beginners. But surely, even the rankest amateur in the year 2012 should not need the word “email” defined?  Nor the words “internet,” “online,” “website,” or “link”? And if you, as a reader,  can relate to the feeling of being unable to cope with “Enter,” “Ctrl.” “Alt,” and “Esc”,” as described in the chapter on research, you really ought not have “someone else do the search for you,” as the book suggests.  You ought not be a travel writer. You are simply not equipped.

But okay, fine. There are plenty of people who dream of being travel writers and also lack every conceivable qualification. And yes, I can see that there’s room in the world for an incredibly basic travel writing book that starts with the instruction to inhale, proceeds through the exhale process, and eventually gets to the ins-and-outs of email, before tackling the higher functions of writing.

Unfortunately,  this book offers terribly misleading advice to that poor feeble beginner, especially in its recommendations of where to send story ideas. Should you pitch Sports Illustrated “a wonderful market because of its weekliness“?  Um, no, dear beginner, if you have no experience and decide to pitch a top national magazine on the basis of its publishing schedule, the odds are overwhelming that you will be either be ignored or summarily rejected.   And while I’m on this subject, please do not be heartened by the the news that a Black publication “might like to hear about your trip, especially if you’re Black.” If you’re not African American, and your story has nothing to do with African Americans, do yourself, do everyone a favor: do not send those editors ideas relating to your latest trip.

 

What I didn’t find misleading in the book, I found mystifying. For instance, from the chapter on research, let’s try to make sense of this together:

Do you want to scan all the Yellow Pages directories in America for an all-inclusive picture of travel services? Do you want to compare winter weather in Miami and Cancun or to compile the geographical distribution of Starbucks locations? Just ask. For instance, Sacramento writer Michel McCormick was preparing a speech she was scheduled to give at a lawyers’s conference, so she looked for some lawyer jokes.

Why would I ever need this sort of information? Who should I “just ask”? And what do lawyer jokes for a speech at a lawyer’s conference have to do with travel writing?  The very next sentence in the book  is about accessing travel agents’ “programs” in order to spot a bargain, so there are no answers forthcoming in the text.

If I write WTF, do I need to define that for you in a glossary at the end of this post?

I didn’t think so.

 

 

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Alison J. Stein

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