Best of the Top 10 Tips to Be a Successful Storyteller in the Age of the Digital Nomad

Travel writer

There are a lot of travel writers out there, but hardly any advice on how to be a successful travel writer; in fact, I just did a search for “how to be a travel writer,” and to the Internet’s shame only got a few results. Worry not!

Like Mark Corrigan unleashing Business Secrets of the Pharoahs, today I’m here to share with you — finally — a few of the best secrets for becoming a top-10 travel writer in today’s competitive travel-writing world.

Know who you are and what to call yourself. Understanding how to brand yourself is crucial. It may seem a trifling matter of semantics, but referring to yourself the right way – the modern way – goes a long way towards establishing an engaging online persona.

With that in mind, stop calling yourself a travel writer – you’re a storyteller. Doesn’t that sound more whimsical? Of course it does.

If you’re storytelling for a travel blog, you’re not a travel blog storyteller (how stilted!) and certainly not just a travel blogger – you’re a digital nomad. Don’t worry, location independence (another modern phrase with which you should definitely be getting familiar) isn’t required to be a true digital nomad – an insatiable case of wanderlust will do just fine.

There are deviations of these two rock-solid professional titles – freelance storyteller, digital freelancer, traveling storyteller, to name but a few – but there’s no need to get cute. Pick one and slap it into the lead of your bio, which by the way should ideally run anywhere from 750 – 1,500 words and always include the following: how many countries/continents you’ve visited, where you caught your insatiable case of wanderlust, and where your readers will find you when you’re not doing [blank].

Engage your audience. Duh. A qualified authority on a given topic though you may be, it’s not enough anymore to share your expertise or detail your travel experiences in a thoughtful, well-written piece. At the end of every feature you publish online, turn the topic back on your readers by asking them to share their own stories. You’re not just a storyteller—you’re a travel story facilitator.

Here’s an example: if you wrote about the most fulfilling trip of your life, end the article with the following: “What has been the most fulfilling trip of your life? Leave it in the comments!” If you write about the best meal ever, ask your readers to share their favorite meals. See what you’re doing there? It doesn’t matter if you don’t care about random people’s responses (but of course you do!), because this is how you build community; this is how you get repeat visits; this is how you increase page views per session; this is what monetizing being a digital storyteller is all about.

Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, Google +ing, and LinkedIning your content is a given; your connections on LinkedIn, in particular, will especially enjoy getting pings about your new travel storytelling posts, so don’t neglect that potentially lucrative outlet.

First impressions are important, except when they are not. When I look back over my travel journals, the notes I’ve recorded during my first few days in a new place are inevitably the most detailed and observant. As storyteller Pico Iyer said during a discussion I attended in Singapore last year, whether these initial impressions are accurate depictions of what it’s really like is irrelevant. First impressions are part of the travel experience (my words, not his)… except when they’re wrong. Don’t publish wrong first impressions.

How can you tell the difference between wrong and right first impressions? It’s a little murky, but the general rule of thumb by which to abide is that positive first impressions – what you might call generalizations – are generally okay to publish because they’re probably right. In contrast, not-so-positive first impressions, which again you might call generalizations, are not really okay to publish because they’re probably wrong.

Here’s an example: if you’re in, say, Macau for five days and eat at five local restaurants that all serve amazing local food, it’s safe to say that Macau has awesome local cuisine. On the other hand, if you feel the food sucks at those restaurants, it’s not okay to say that Macau has awful local cuisine because, obviously, you’re not a foodie, you haven’t done any research, and you’re not trying hard enough. Don’t generalize.

Over the course of three days, if you have one bad experience after another with locals in, oh, Detroit, that doesn’t mean Detroiters are in general difficult people. However, if you have one good experience after another, that probably means Detroiters are friendly, and you should feel comfortable saying so.

In short, to accurately portray a given place in the world, always focus on the positive and try to gloss over the negative. The world is a magical place, treat it as such. To that end, if somebody ever asks if you have a least-favorite place in the world, the best answer is “I don’t have one, because every place has something to love about it.” Don’t risk making yourself look like a Negative Nancy, or of pissing off readers, tourism boards, advertisers, or other storytellers.

True storytellers with wanderlust don’t not like anywhere, though it should be noted that all storytellers are allowed to make negative generalizations about Detroit without sacrificing their professional reputation; in fact, it’s encouraged.

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Know the difference between good lists and bad lists. There are no dirtier phrases for self-respecting storytellers than “top 10,” “best of,” and their derivatives – usually. This is a little tricky, so pay attention because your professional reputation is at stake here. There’s a subtle difference between lists (shakes head nooooo) and lists (shakes head yesssss); obviously, you don’t want to storytell the former.

What’s the difference between a good list and a bad list? It’s essentially in the eye of the beholder, or in this case of the storyteller; in short, your lists are good, most others are bad. The best way to differentiate your fascinating lists from those hack lists is to publicly dismiss lists—in a blog post, a tweet, a Facebook post—as mostly rubbish before you publish your list(s), which will of course be much more well-researched, thoughtful, and unique. It’s really easy to do this, actually. Here’s an example, using my own work:

“Oh my god, if I read another list about the top-10 street foods of Southeast Asia or the five best ways to do London on a budget I’m going to fucking barf. These travel bloggers just don’t get that you have to put a little more effort into it than that. For example, I personally visited each one of the bars in my “Asia’s Best Beer Bars” article on CNN Travel, tracked down and interviewed brewmasters and bar owners, and packaged all of that content into a super-useful, interesting list.”

See what I did there? Publish lists, by all means, but don’t forget to distance yourself from them, too.

Don’t treat all comps and comp disclosures equally. For more on this, please click here. (Unfortunately, that link does not take you to a page with pop-ups prompting you to sign up for any newsletters or to take any surveys, which is another tried-and-true key to success.)

Tell us what you learned. Travel is a journey of not only the body but also the mind. It’s not enough to paint with words a vivid picture of a moment in time; you need to tell your readers what you learned during that moment, ideally in very explicit terms. The easiest way to do this, of course, is by utilizing the phrase “what I learned” before plunging into your riveting 1,200-word navel gaze. Powerful stuff that every storytelling nomad should learn how to master. (See what I did there, again?)

Use shitloads of adjectives. This is pretty self-explanatory, but as a friendly, prescient reminder it’s crucial for any super-successful nomadic digital storyteller to pepper their meandering prose with as many descriptive adjectives as they can reasonably squeeze into a full sentence. Exclamation marks should also be sprinkled throughout your work for emphasis! Another trick is to bold key phrases in your piece that you want to stand out because they are key to your readers understanding what you learned.

Don’t just tweet your content; snark-tweet, too. In between tweeting your storytelling content – and this goes back to establishing your public persona – engage as many storytelling peers as possible in lengthy exchanges of witticisms and snarkisms. Taking these conversations into DMs is pointless since nobody else will see them. Try to make these back-and-forths last as long as possible, and best practices say to target The Travel Storyteller Decision-Makers for the exchanges.

Listen to everything the experts tell you, always. Look, The Travel Storytellers Club has been doing this for a long time—successfully. Listen to them. Follow their “do’s and don’ts of travel writing” like the lord’s gospel, and don’t even think about breaking convention. That goes for this list (shakes head yessss), too.

Okay, I’ve had my say — what are your best storytelling tips? Leave them in the comments!

Brian Spencer is a nomadic storyteller with an incurable case of wanderlust who is based in Singapore; more of his work for the Perceptive Travel Blog is here.

Lead photo courtesy of Flickr user gnuckx; second photo courtesy of Flickr user lindsayAlachance.

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