Writing Desk

Judgment’s not tomorrow, its today (yes now it’s here). But no it isn’t Jesus, take a look at all your peers. They’re all looking down on you. Inside they know what’s best for you… everybody knows what’s best for you. – Bad Religion, “Best for You”

She emailed me last October to ask if I was interested in coming to Bali for the purpose of staying at two resorts and writing about them for this site. They both looked nice enough; they were both well off my radar, and both well out of my non-essential travel budget. In other words, there was little to no chance that without this offer I would ever visit these resorts.

The offer was for two comped two-night stays — “day rates,” as some writers call it — for me and my wife, transfers to and from the airport included; I would be responsible for my visa ($25) and roundtrip airfare from Singapore. Since compensation is understandably modest for my Perceptive Travel work, the comps would essentially be my payment for the three features to which I’d need to commit in exchange for the stay. Further factor in the cost of airfare, visa, and a cat sitter, and it’d boil down to a working four-night vacation to Bali with hotel expenses covered.

I certainly don’t by rule accept these offers when they come along, which isn’t often. I’ve worked in publishing as a writer and editor for more than a decade now; I’m not in this for the freebies. I was inclined to at least follow up, however, because I’d be able to bring my wife. I’d have responsibilities before, during, and after the trip — pre-trip research, meeting with PR folks, touring the grounds, asking questions and taking notes, post-trip research, the writing — but she wouldn’t have any and could just relax. That’s a consideration in my thought process.

More influential, however, and in fact making or breaking the deal is complete editorial autonomy. I have never, do not, and will never accept any sort of complimentary stay or service in exchange for positive coverage. I will also never agree to pre-publication review of my content by whomever provides the comp, thereby giving them the opportunity to object to potentially negative things I may have written.

I’m not patting myself on the back about this; it’s just how it is and always has been for me (and for many writers who write about travel). When I worked as a travel editor, I allowed my writers to accept comps provided they a) included full disclosure, and b) wrote honestly about their experience. If they didn’t, and if I caught them doing it, it came down or needed to be rewritten.

Some writers and readers have no problem with comps that meet those criteria; some have a problem with comps regardless. That’s fine, everybody has their own reasons for falling on one side or the other. I’m on the former for reasons of my own, in part because when it comes to how I handle comps, I know that I treat them with integrity. Again, that’s just how it is.

I thanked her for the offer and expressed some interest in it. Before getting into further detail, however, I made it clear that I would only agree to write about the resorts if she understood that I would have 100-percent control of the content; that I would not agree to any type of internal review of the content before I published it, and that I would not guarantee positive coverage. She agreed, so we moved on.

My other, unstated concern was the actual content. How could I write something even remotely compelling about this experience? What kind of story could I extract from two short days in a potential “paradise” that wasn’t either a straightforward, staid resort review, or a boring account of all the things I did and ate and drank? Would I be able to inject at least a shred of narrative into these pieces? There was no way of knowing before actually taking the trip, of course, but I resolved to at least try and be better than some of the other articles I found about these resorts that were byproducts of offers similar to mine.

Again, no self-congratulatory pat on the back here — just doing what any writer should do.

Five months later my wife and I took the trip. The resorts (and cultural performance) were lovely, particularly one that I haven’t yet written about — that one was insanely luxe. As I feared, finding a hook for my feature about the first resort took some consideration; I certainly could have just done a proper review, but… blah. I ultimately led with a short narrative — not an earth-shattering one — concerning my experience getting water cannoned in the resort’s spa.

It’s not the strongest lead in the world; in general I’m trying to get away from leads and, indeed, entire pieces about me and what I did and what happened to me. There are far more interesting people in the world and far more interesting things happening to them, and I write and have written about myself and my adventures plenty. I do think, in this situation, it worked and was the best I could do with this topic; to quote Ricky Gervais, “you’ll be the judge of that.”

As I say, the resort was lovely but not without fault, and I honestly feel I did a decent job of conveying it; that is, balancing positives with some negatives and providing an accurate picture of what it’s like staying at the resort. I slapped a full disclosure about my comp at the bottom of the feature — you’d be surprised how many well-respected writers do not bother to disclose their comps — and published it. I’m okay with how the piece turned out.

Within minutes of me posting it, however, travel-writing wolves descended. You see, comps, editorial integrity, story, “the state of travel writing/blogging,” and the lack of “soul” in today’s travel writing/blogging has been a hot topic lately among members of The Travel Writers Club and oh, god help me, here comes my modest little feature about a resort that comped me, written with a lead about something that happened to me.

God help me and god forgive me, for I have Sinned.

I can handle criticism of my writing; I’m sure there’s plenty to criticize and to pick apart, and I know more than anybody that it can and needs to improve. I’m fine with that; I’m even a little happy about that. I write this on the eve of my 36th birthday, and it would be sad to think I’m already at or even near the top of my game. I’m not.

When one skims down to the bottom of a feature, however, notes the disclosure, ridicules it, and makes a snarky (if indirect) comment insinuating that despite the disclosure I’m clearly only writing positive things because I was provided with a day rate, that’s when I do have a problem. I particularly have a problem when said parties have blogs in which a large number of their posts include disclosures about comps they received and are writing about. Oh, how delish to have one’s cake and eat it too.

“Oh, er, you saw those? Nevermind those. My comps definitely didn’t and never influence me… I have integrity. But you. You lying piece of shit. I just know you were influenced by your comps. Oh, travel writing has lost its soul!”

It ain’t me, babe.

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Discussions I’ve seen about travel-writing ethics and travel-writing craft tend to all too often dovetail into distasteful circle jerks. It’s “us real writers with infallible integrity and talents” against “those hack bloggers who gleefully accept freebies and don’t care about the craft of writing.” I place myself in neither group. I don’t participate in these bitch sessions because I don’t comment on blogs, and I don’t get into back-and-forths on Twitter. I’ll never out-argue or rant more loudly than anybody.

I’m just a writer who writes about travel and tries to get better at what I do.

I’m also uncomfortable publicly positioning myself as one who operates above the fray, though I’m aware that in writing this I’m ostensibly putting myself above those putting themselves above the fray. That’s not my point or my intent; my point is that it’s time to take a deep breath, come back from the ledge, and stop stepping on others and tearing them down. Productive discussion about the field in which one works is one thing; ranting and raving and, ultimately, bullshitting is another.

I’m so very tired of travel writers picking on other travel writers. Worry about yourself.

Oh, there is a mountain of bad travel writing out there; oh, lawd, is there ever. Turrible, turrible stuff that equates to diarrhea of the mouth spilled onto a keyboard and into some sort of published state. It makes my eyes bleed and blood pressure rise, particularly when I realize that said diarrhea is getting tons of hits and tons of readers and tons of great feedback.

Really bad travel writing is easy to spot; comps handled without integrity are easy to spot too. Such things happen all the time, not just in travel blogs but in glossy travel magazines. I don’t disagree with the circle-jerking Club that it’s gross, abhorrable, and kind of makes the rest of us look bad; I don’t, however, see the benefit in sustained rants about it.

Travel writers need not go out of their way to note others’ foibles — bad travel writing and questionable ethics stand out. When you publicly position yourself and your work above others, you’re just making yourself look bad too. You look like an asshole.

Here’s the shocking truth about bad travel writing and integrity-less comps: It exists, it will always exist, and there will be so much more of it to come. None of it impacts me, however, or what I’m trying to accomplish with my work. When I see this garbage, I click away from it, and just like that it’s gone. Poof! When I see a television show I dislike, I change the channel; when I’m at the movie theater and the movie sucks, I walk out.

Does all of this bad stuff contribute to travel writing (or blogging) getting a bad name? Does it make things harder on me? No and no, because though the topics may be related to travel, I don’t consider it travel writing; it’s just writing that doesn’t interest me.

The Art of Freelancing

I don’t find many smart commentaries on the subject of travel-related comps that don’t devolve into condescension; this archival post from Alex Robertson Textor, a good writer who seems to always approach his work on an even keel and with a cool head, is one of the few exceptions. In it he shares his experience with a comped resort stay, and his thoughts on the complex relationship between writers and “clients.” The full post is worth a read, but this passage in particular stands out (bold emphasis my own):

“My point isn’t that travel writers shouldn’t also write marketing materials for tourist boards or move into destination branding or offer advice, solicited or otherwise, to the hotels or tourist boards comping them. The point is that these sorts of assignments are essentially marketing activities (or, in the final case, friendly recommendations) and should be understood as such. Readers are not well served by travel writers who are simply filtering the marketing priorities of hotels and other promotional entities into their published work.”

Damn straight they aren’t; travel writers are not well serving themselves by doing that either.

Successful freelancers, or at least the vast majority of them who, like me, are hustlin’ on a daily basis to avoid the dreaded financial necessity that is a return to The Cubicle, write for many different audiences and clients. In the past year, for example, I’ve been commissioned to write advertorials, service-oriented travel features, travel narrative features, travel blog posts, straightforward hotel reviews, promo copy for events, travel-related lists, and more. I covet certain types of assignments more than others, but I’m not at a point in my career where exclusively paying the bills with splashy magazine narratives is within the realm. Fine.

Different projects call for different approaches, tones, and content. Some projects, in fact — particularly advertorials — call for me to extract the positives about a given topic, disregard the negatives, and build those positives up into a maelstrom of THIS PLACE/THING/PERSON IS OMG YES! It all depends on the scope of the project, and it’s called doing your job.

When it comes to magazine assignments or a website commission, my job is the same whether or not a comp is involved — to the best of my ability accurately describe that experience/topic in a way that’s helpful and, hopefully, enjoyable for the reader. In an ideal world, the only influence of a comp is the comp itself; that is, the influence begins and ends with the fact that the content wouldn’t likely exist if not for the comp. In other words, I would not have written about these Bali resorts were I not invited to; I couldn’t afford them, for starters.

By the way, the Bali resorts are the only comps I’ve taken in almost two years. I otherwise travel and write about travel the old-fashioned (foolhardy?) way: I foot the bill, try to sniff out stories during the trip, then pitch stories when I return in the hope that I can get my costs from said trip reimbursed and — gasp — perhaps even make some extra money on top of that.

Not all writers approach their work or their comps like this; oh well. I can’t control what others do and do not do, but I can control whether I give them a page view, or a follow, or a link. I certainly don’t feel their attempt to make a living, or to simply do something that makes them happy, has any impact on me. I don’t begrudge that; it’s not my place to tear anybody down.

Bad travel writing and unscrupulous writers simply exist in a place in which I choose not to visit and that has none of my interest. I don’t stand to gain anything by actively and loudly judging anything, because frankly that’s not my place and I’m not smug enough to assert my superiority over anybody or their work, this rambling post notwithstanding.

“The state of my travel writing,” indeed, is of much more concern to me than “the state of travel writing.” I think the latter will be and would be just fine if more of us worried about the former, and less about what everybody else is or is not doing.

The writer was provided with a platform to get this off their chest. Though Perceptive Travel has not influenced their opinion in any way, and all opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own, he and the site believe in full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest.

Lead photo credit to Flickr user Ben Sutherland

Second photo credit to Flickr user Nana B Agyei

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.