So You Want to Write a Guidebook?

When I tell people about my current position as a guidebook writer, they are quick to jump in with words of envy. “You’re so lucky,” and “That must be so amazing, getting paid to travel.” Of course, traveling the world for work is always an incredible experience that few get to have — but like any job, it is not without its challenges.

Your work begins long before you step foot in the city you’re writing about. You have a limited budget and limited time. It’s not possible to sleep in every hotel, eat at every restaurant, and do every single activity. Even if you had the chance to visit nearly every place in a region, there’s a strong likelihood that only a handful will be worthy of writing about in the book. So, you must go in with a list of recommendations from friends, locals, family, strangers, and people from the internet — who have all done some of the heavy lifting to see what properties are worth being considered. These recommendations plus a mix of spontaneity dictate the majority of your day.

Each day on site begins at sunrise. It’s important to hit most of the major monuments and sights before 10 am — after that, every picture will be ruined by sunlight and/or a flood of tourists. Who wants to see images of temples with lines of tourists pouring out the front? Should you include an image of the bloody wound a fellow tourist received after being bitten by a monkey in your blurb of Monkey Forest?

If you’re writing about surfing, as I often am, most surf shots are best captured at sunrise and under very specific conditions. Your schedule must adjust accordingly.

Around 10 am, hotel check-outs start to happen. In high season, it’s likely that most hotel properties are booked out and your only chance of seeing a room is in between cleanings. It often takes serious convincing (in a foreign language, no less) to let you in to snoop around and you lose precious time waiting in hotel lobbies to see if you can scope the space.

After 2 pm, it’s time to visit restaurants, shops, and fact-check existing maps. You’ll sample what you hope is a representative meal and pester other guests to see if they’re enjoying themselves and their meal. At each stop, you’ll need to take pictures, confirm websites, opening hours, double check the address and phone number, and scribble down other facts that will hopefully be useful to you when it comes time to write. You do this until it’s time for dinner. Finally, you can unwind with your laptop and dump the information overload from the hours before. This may be followed by a drink or two — all in the name of research. Finding the best cocktails in town is an essential part of the guide, right?

If you are covering risky activities like scuba diving, ziplining, freediving, or trekking, you do it with fingers crossed that the company guiding you behaves well. If the company acts shady or dangerously, you’ll find yourself doing the same exact activity the next day with someone else in hopes of finding a company that you can confidently recommend.

If you have a free hour to write, you may not have the energy. By the time you’ve written about the fifth sandy beach or tenth luxury villa, you’re racking your brain for new ideas. Did this beach have more coconut trees than the last? Was there more plastic pieces than sand? Was the villa thatch roofed, or tiled? It’s easy to write creatively when you’re talking about something novel. The true challenge is when you want to convey a nearly identical scene for the fifth time in one chapter.

“But you’re so lucky!” 

Travel writing can be frustrating and exhausting at times. Only a masochist would calculate the average guide writer’s hourly wage. It’s a job that rewards those who are intrepid, detail-oriented, adventurous, and dedicated. While luck is somewhat involved in getting a gig like travel writing, that’s just a small fraction of all the work that has happened behind the job title. If you call a guide writer lucky, don’t be surprised the next time you see their eyes wince.

Sure, it might be one of the best jobs in the world.

But it’s still a job.

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