Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Exploring Venezuela - Canaima National Park, en route to Angel Falls
They very first thing I did after quitting my job last September was to attend a travel writing course. Before the idea of 25before25 came around, I’d wanted to start a travel blog, but had decided there was probably little which was unique that I could offer. Most travel bloggers these days are less blogger and more vlogger and Instagrammer, which wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go in –my strength lies more with the written word, I’m a little camera shy.
Instead, I decided to name travel writing as one of my 25 careers, and to see if I could find out more from a professional angle, rather than through the world of social media and YouTube. The trouble was, I had no idea where to start. Whilst I’ve always written detailed journals about the places I’ve been, the minute I get back they sit there and gather dust, waiting to be pulled out for the next time.
Hints And Tips
So, forever a good student, I signed up to a course which gave plenty of advice on how to structure articles in an industry standard way and how to pitch to editors. The first sentence is the hook and should draw the reader in, this could be anything from a single word, for example “Cannibals!”, to a line. You need to write to provide information as well as to entertain, so need to think carefully about how to weave facts into a more anecdotal narrative. It’s about showing, rather than telling, your audience about a place or experience, using all five senses, so it is almost effortless for them to imagine what you’re talking about. Good images help though, of course. Wherever possible, avoid cliched language – nothing should be beautiful, pretty or scenic. Too many mountains are snow-capped and beaches are palm fringed. Finally, you need an angle not a destination, so think about what could make your piece different.
For pitching your ideas to travel publications, don’t aim for the top straight away, start building credibility by targeting the lower end. Follow up pitches that you’ve emailed, with a phone call a few days later – editors are often inundated so calling means they will be more likely to fully consider your idea. Don’t pitch more than one idea at a time, and if you’re very new it might help to send the completed article as an attachment too.
What Came Next?
The Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan, to give you an idea.
Inspired, I went straight home and started writing my first travel related article about a trip to Turkmenistan from a few months before. I was quite happy with the outcome, which I published on 25before25 and got some good feedback from readers. Encouraged, I drafted my pitch email and sent it to every travel publication I could think of, and sat back to wait for a reply. A couple of days passed - nothing. So I followed the advice I’d been given and made a few phone calls. Crackly voices made promises to thoroughly read the articles I’d sent. A week later, still nothing. Disappointed, I got caught up in all the other careers I was trying out and figured I’d try again when I had some spare time.
Fortune out of coincidental misfortune followed. Months before, I’d booked to go to southern India with a friend and as luck would have it, two days before we were due to fly out, Prime Minister Modi caught India (and the rest of the world) by surprise by cancelling two of the most commonly used bank notes overnight, which was 85% of the money in circulation. Whilst this caused havoc for tourists, it was an absolute disaster for poor Indians, most of whom saved their money under the mattress rather than in a bank. It did, however, provide an opportunity to write about a topical issue in a less touristy part of India. This time I had more luck, a magazine which specialises in independent travel accepted the article, printed it and sent it out in their newsletter! I still get click-through traffic to my blog from it nearly a year later. Then Huffington Post agreed to publish it too and took me on as a freelance blogger, which means I’m now able to publish any opinion or comment piece through their platform.
Kathkali dancer, Kerala state, India
I put the piece on Turkmenistan up on Huffington Post, once I was give the OK, and decided to send it to the travel company that organised the trip. Then something I’d never dreamed of happened. The travel company liked the piece and asked if I’d be willing to go on another trip with them and write about it.
Um, yes. Yes I would.
I did a real-life victory dance. Then I signed up to go to Venezuela…
Six months and a major step in the direction of a Venezuelan civil war later, I published a series of six articles about the country on 25before25. I sent the best couple round to several travel publications and supplements. Again though, no takers. This time, it was because my articles didn’t sit neatly in any category – they weren’t News and they weren’t purely travel. What made matters worse was that no national level travel publication will use anything that promotes tourism in a country which the FCO has advised against all travel. There is an ethical and possibly legal liability – understandably. I realised this myself after I got a few messages through my website from readers now thinking of going.
I’d been given a bit of an impossible task.
I cannot express how much I enjoyed the ‘research’ and writing parts of being a travel writer – they are my two greatest passions combined. However, it does not make for an easy career. Pitching to editors is hard and there are absolutely no guarantees of anyone saying yes. Good writing is a given, but an understanding of the market and editorial requirements are also essential and this is harder to come by and something I still have a lot to learn about.
There are also major practical issues, mostly to do with money. If journalism generally is known to be badly paid, travel writing is a whole new level. Unless you are the next Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson, earning a living solely from travel writing is simply not going to happen. A healthy dose of reality I think, sadly.
Filling out the boxes, I was surprised by how few it ticked. It’s made me think that whilst I love it, it is more likely to end up being a passion project rather than a realistic and reliable way to make a living, even as part of a portfolio.
You can read all of my travel articles here.