Thursday, 29 June 2006

Gone Travelling

Insofar as anyone actually asks us for advice on anything at all, we get asked this pretty often. "How do I get into travel writing?" We realise that this is more because travel writing is considered to be quite a cushy thing to do and not because of the wisdom we project, but hey, we're flattered.
Anyway, after our head returns to something approaching its normal size (we, by the way, have a hat size slightly above the normal to start with, but that's irrelevant here), we wind up saying pretty much the same thing. So, being a lazy sod, we decided to put this up here for future reference. Of course this means that now no one will ever ask us for any advice whatsoever, but laziness wins over need-for-ego-stroking any day.

Several caveats first (and we'll abandon the royal pronoun for the rest of this post).0

a. I write only for one travel magazine, Outlook Traveller. This is not because they're the only ones who have asked me to write for them.1 I happen to think it's pretty much a no contest as to which is the best travel mag in the Indian market. So I haven't the foggiest idea how to really work the circuit. I don't even know who all the other players are.

b. I am by no means a professional "travel writer." I'm sure it's possible to be one, but I haven't made the contacts that would permit me to do it full time, and even if I did have the ear of every travel editor worth the name, I'm not sure I could make enough cash doing it. I do it because I enjoy it, because OT is a good place to have one's byline appear, because it means a little paid holiday every now and then. My main income, however, is from other stuff.

c. That I first got a look in involved a generous slice of luck: someone who had read
some of my writing elsewhere recommended me to Outlook Traveller. (This wasn't even travel writing, by the way, it was just general mood stuff in a newspaper.2) I had pitched an idea to the magazine before that, but got no reply. I haven't actually used the methods I'm suggesting to you, so, pretty please, take my oracular motherhoods with a large shovelful of salt.

On with the show, then.

Waitaminute. Before we start. You're a good writer, right? Sorry, but I have to ask. You'd be amazed at the number of people who want writing jobs when they can't spell for toffee, have atrocious grammar, wouldn't know a metaphor if it bit them in the arse—and demonstrate these facts in their CVs. Editors (and for the purposes of this little ramble, I also mean people who may not have that title on their visiting cards but who do commission writers) of any degree of competence will not look kindly at wannabe-writers who can't write.

Travel editors, perhaps more than any other kind, are inundated with offers to write for them. Not surprising, because travel writing is perceived as being very attractive, very cushy. I'm not saying it's not, mind you - just that that supply exceeds demand. An email out of the blue is not guaranteed to get you a reply, even from the most courteous of editors. If you're submitting an article on paper or photographs, include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you want them back.

The essence of good travel writing, IMAO, is not just the documentation of your travels. You must bring the place alive to someone who's never been there. Some people read travel writing as a form of vicarious entertainment—they'll never actually visit the places they read about. Others (a smaller section, when you're talking print magazines, but a large and growing percentage online) read up on stuff with the intention of actually going to those places. A travel writer must cater to both those kinds of people.

How do you get better at it? Read a lot of travel writing. Seems self-evident, but quite a few people don't bother with it. As with any field, it pays to study the pros.

Do some homework. Find all the publications that publish travel writing.3 Short-list the ones that you would like to see your writing in. Factors to consider: the kind of readership they have; the circulation; the quality of the articles, the kind of remuneration they offer. Be warned: quite a few publications that happen to carry travel writing among other special interest areas do not pay your travel expenses.

Figure out also which ones are closest to your natural writing style. Figure out the balance they maintain between hard information and intangible stuff like mood and style (and the best ones have all of those) and whether you can deliver that balance, whether you're comfortable with it.

Practise. On your next trip, write about the place you're visiting. Or think back to your last trip and do likewise. Even tougher: write about your home town, or the place you're living in now, but do so as if you were writing for a travel magazine. Put these travelogues on to a blog, or a personal website (if you have a photographer's eye, even better: put up your pictures as well4), or mail them to your friends. Ask for feedback. Take serious note of what people like, what they're ambivalent about.

Putting this writing online has other advantages, by the way.
For one, it could lead to random web traffic via search engines, which means that your work can, potentially, find readers beyond the 57 close friends you have spammed with the URL.
Related point. Most travel writers I know research a place before they visit. Research has the word "search" in it, remember? Going quickly, but unblushingly, past the corny word-play, search in this day and age has a simple definition, and it starts with G ends with e and frequently has many, many os in it. Travel writers include the folk at publications who commission work. 'Nuff said?
And yes, it gives you a simple way to actively showcase your writing. Instead of sending many attachments, you could, at the drop of a hat, email a URL that's engraved on your heart. (: Even the genuine space cadets remember their own URLs :)

Once you've developed some confidence in your travel writing, then send the permalinks of your best work to the editors you've targetted.

All the best.

0. Footnotes and introductory notes! We're getting posh, we are!

1. I have been asked to write travel-related stuff elsewhere, but when OT commissions me, they pay my expenses, which many other publications seem to think is needlessly pampering writers.

2. This, this, this and this, if you're vaguely interested.

3. I'll try and add some names of publications to this post later. In fact I'll try and add to this piece a bit. Right now, I need to sleep. If you have experiences with specific publications to share, please add them in the comments. Or mail me.

4. Good writer/photographers are rare. Publications love 'em. It cuts the travel bills in half. :).


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Thank you for the tute, kind sir. It is a reprise of a certain chat on G-talk. Most edifying.


Salil said...

I can't thank you enough for this advice, particularly as I'm trying to get somewhere in this area, both with pen/keyboard and camera.

And I'll take your advice re. the blog immediately for my travel writing/photography, and get started.

The Marauder's Map said...

The Telegraph has a Saturday supplement called Weekend which has a travel page. They don't pay for your travel expenses, but do pay for the article if it appears. Link below of one such story (this one is done by an in-house writer, though):

zigzackly said...

J.A.P., Salil,

Going by what I have been seeing, my work is done. Literally. There won't be any for me the way you guys are going.

Thanks. And here, to save anyone else the trouble is TMM's link, made clickable, a lovely piece on Amsterdam in the Telegraph.