I don’t have all the answers.
My writing career is a constant work in progress, though anybody who takes their work seriously would likely say the same thing, regardless of their accomplishments. I lack the control and insight and stylistic nuances employed by so many other writers, still struggle after all these years with that nebulous thing called “voice,” still don’t write as much as I should, still don’t read as much as I should. It’d be lying to say I was content with my level of writing, which isn’t to say I don’t take joy in my work.
I went full-time freelance four years ago, following a decade working as a staff editor and freelancing on the side. I’m doing okay—landed some great assignments, stamped my byline on some respected publications, haven’t gone broke yet. I don’t have any empirical data to back this up, but it feels like the breadth and scope of my assignments have inched upwards with each passing year, which to me is progress. Certainly, even if I’m my own harshest critic—hell, I hope I am—I’m further along by all tangible and intangible measures than I was four years ago.
Point: I may not do everything right or everything as well as others, but I’m doing some things right.
Preamble out of the way, I want to share force upon you, dear reader, a few brief thoughts on making this thing—this writing-for-a-living thing—work. This is not exhaustive; there are (many) books on this topic, and even more online articles about it, but I’ll try my best to make this worth your time.
After all, there’s nothing worse than a soapbox self-help column, positioned as insider advice, that’s just horseshit cookie-cutter dreck. I don’t care to add to that steaming pile of published feces, but you’ll be the judge of that.
Realize there’s no “I” in story. It’s a little shocking how many glossy travel magazine features lead with, or at least revolve around, “I.” The features section in one of the bigger travel magazines in my region constantly runs insufferable stories centered on the author, who by the way we, the readers, usually know absolutely nothing about.
The best writers out there understand they aren’t the most interesting person in the story; they may even understand they’re not interesting at all. Many travel writers out there, however, don’t understand it. This is a major, ongoing correction I’ve had to make in my work—that is, knocking the “I” down a few rungs on the story structure ladder, or removing it entirely. I’ve gotten so far into this habit that alarm bells ring whenever I find myself inserting myself into stories of a certain type, and that’s a good thing.
There’s a time and place for “I” in travel writing; of course there is. It’s just not all the time and everywhere. This has nothing to do with the ability to write well; it has everything to do with understanding your role in the story. Your writing is more interesting than you are.
Don’t confuse social media success with writing success. 1.2 million Twitter followers and 3.1 zillion Facebook likes don’t excuse anybody from the garbage content stinking up their site.
To ape a few lines from the Bad Religion song “Popular Consensus,” the popular consensus doesn’t make it right, and the popular consensus doesn’t mean much to me—it shouldn’t mean much to you, either, at least if you’re serious about writing well, about building a high quality website, about offering high quality content.
The online travel world is plagued by writers/bloggers who seem like decent people, but who are churning out mediocre, redundant garbage. Don’t add to the landfill—worry about quality and not about winning a popularity contest. Social media comes last, not first, and even when it does come, it shouldn’t be a priority.
Mind the clichés. The list of overused, fairly meaningless phrases and references is a long one getting longer every day; travel writing seems to suffer from this practice more than other fields. “Craft beer revolution,” “bang-on trend,” “nuff said,” “hipster,” “foodie”—these are just five of hundreds of examples of words and phrases that you should avoid at all costs to strengthen your writing.
Cliches proliferate because in some original-ish context, at some point, they sounded smart/clever; however, they fail to be so once every other writer and blogger on the planet adopts them and incorporates them into their own work. That’s being lazy, not creative—speaking of cliches, the old one about jumping off a bridge just because your friends are doing it applies here.
I’m certain that a lot of my writing from over the years is riddled with cliches, but over the years, I’ve worked to correct that; to avoid them; to spot them and fix them before hitting the publish button or the send button.
Care about the “little” details. For example, spell people’s names correctly; actually, triple check that you spelled them correctly. I’m insanely diligent about this—perhaps stemming from a lifetime of others misspelling my name as “Brain”—so much so that I literally lost sleep over the one time I fucked up and let a restaurant owner’s incorrect last name go to print in a glossy travel magazine. I can’t think of another instance in my freelancing career in which I was more embarassed than when he emailed to ask why his last name was listed as “X” when it was “Y.”
Spell out the whole name, at least in the first reference, of whatever restaurant, bar, hotel, attraction you’re writing about. If it’s The Restaurant on Top O’ tha Hill, don’t call it “Restaurant on the Top of the Hill”—that’s erroneous and lazy and amateur. This isn’t Yelp or TripAdvisor—be a professional.
Be honest. There’s a wildly popular, very awful travel site out there that at one point ran a series of template Q&As with a bunch of respected travel writers and bloggers. One of the questions was something along the lines of “What is the least favorite country you’ve visited?”—the majority of answers were some version of: “I don’t have one, you can find something to love everywhere you go.”
My eyes are still rolling, but thank god those writers didn’t burn any tourism board bridges.
I actually collected those responses and have them in a document somewhere titled “Travel Writers Bullshitting,” because that’s what it is—bullshit. Don’t do that. Be honest. If something or somewhere sucks, say so; that doesn’t mean being negative for the sake of being negative, it just means being honest. Not everywhere in the world is fantastic; not all world cuisines are delicious; not all locals are friendly; not all beaches are, ahem, bucolic.
Can I squeeze in one more cliché? In my experience, honesty is always the best policy.
Oh, and my least favorite country so far is Panama–glad I went, had a good time, probably won’t go back.
Have some integrity. The matter of press trips, freebies and other comps in the travel industry is a somewhat heated one that I don’t care to get into here. I’ll just say this: if you take them, more power to you—but have some integrity. Respect yourself, respect your audience, and respect your work. Willy-nilly shilling because it’s free and because everybody else on the trip is doing it sucks.
I don’t know how some of these travel bloggers can sleep at night.
Don’t take rejection personally. I used to feel gutted by rejected and unanswered pitches. It’s still disappointing and it always will be, but it’s part of the game. Everybody gets rejected all the time. I hate to say it, but it’s a little comforting when writers I admire tell me how regularly their pitches get turned down, because I’m reminded it’s not just me. It can feel like that, sometimes, when you’re out there working on your own–like you’re the only one getting rejected–but it’s not like that.
Swallow the rejection, thank the editor for taking the time to consider it, and move on to another outlet—after sharpening that pitch and that angle first.
Don’t worry about what others are doing. You’ll drive yourself insane comparing yourself to others, because inevitably you’ll be comparing upwards, not downwards. There will always be writers who are way better than you, who have more bylines than you, who are younger than you, who [insert jealous comparison]. Consider, however, that there will always be others out there wishing they were in your shoes—take care of yourself. The only thing that matters is what you’re doing.
Respect your trade and career. I credit whatever incremental improvements I’ve made both in my writing and in my career to other writers and editors; in other words, to books. A few that I’ve found particularly helpful include:
– How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish (invaluable)
– Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, by Jack Hart (also invaluable)
– On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King,
– The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick
– The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner
– Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
There are many, many others; I also need to recommend Travel Writing 2.0 by Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel. I recommend it not because Leffel is our editor (and pays me for these posts), or because if you look closely enough you’ll see a bit from me in there, but because it’s a fantastic resource with some great advice—far more detailed advice than I’ve provided here—on making a career of this wacky thing we call travel writing.