It’s midnight in a jazz club in Paris. Women in polka-dot dresses and men in two-tone shoes swirl across the dance-floor, jitterbugging to a swing band. I’m scribbling down notes for a newspaper article and chatting to a singer from the band. Earlier today, in a studio across town, I interviewed a famous wildlife photographer for a glossy magazine. And tonight, for a weekend paper, I’ll be staying in the Left Bank hotel — a former brothel — where Oscar Wilde died. It’s been an amazing weekend. I’ve got three travel articles from it and somewhere down the line there will be some writing fees, too.
That’s the dream that many travellers have — of being a writer, turning their journeys into stories and getting paid to travel. Can it be done? Absolutely. Is it fun? Judge for yourself. So how do you go about it?
One way of getting your foot in the door, is to enter a competition. Finding yourself short-listed for, or indeed winning our Travel Writing Competition 2015, and seeing your work published in one of the UK’s most successful travel magazines, could transform your love of writing into a career.
All you’ve got to do, is submit 400 words on an inspirational travel experience. And these words, of course, should be words that will get you noticed, something any aspiring writer knows is not as easy as it sounds. But follow my top 10 tips on how to be a travel writer and you could be on the road to success.
1. Travel before you travel
The key difference between going on holiday and going on a writing trip is that the latter has a purpose — you’re there to find the right material for your story. You need to plan before you go: what’s your theme (or ‘angle’); what places and people do you need to visit to deliver that theme. If your theme is jazz in Paris, then research the best nightclubs, contact a musician for an interview, find the concert hall where Juliette Gréco fell in love with Miles Davis while watching him from the wings. These are the building blocks of your story.
2. Get lost
Once you’re out there, new avenues will open up. The cafe waiter knows a secret nightclub, you spot a signpost to a vintage record shop… These are gems you can’t find unless you’re on the ground. Follow rumours and hunches, lose yourself in the territory and go beyond the guidebook.
3. Make friends
Very few travel stories are empty of people. Characters bring a location to life. Make sure you meet people who suit your theme, spend time with them and ask questions about their world. A chat with a chanteuse in her dressing room after the show is a wonderful scene to write and adds a certain electricity too.
4. Never stop taking notes
Your objective while on the road is to catch material, those things you notice or experience — events, sounds, quotes, colours, smells. If you catch them at once in a handy pocket book, then you’ve got them preserved. The more detailed your notes, the more you have to write about.
5. Write like a camera
Ah yes, finally the writing. This is the hardest —and finest — part. At a certain point it’s just you and a blank computer screen. And a deadline. And writer’s block. Just browse through those copious notes and start to describe what you saw. Take us to that place. Walk us through those streets. Pretend you’re a movie camera picturing a scene, and then the next scene, and the next. Step inside the scene yourself. Don’t be clever, be there. It can be as simple as that.
6. Make a shape
Travel articles are tiny miracles of structure. They often start with a bang — a vivid moment, a fascinating conversation, a tantalising glimpse. The ‘intro’ paragraphs are the way in, so read lots of good examples and analyse how they work, then assess how the middle plays out the theme, how the ending wraps things up. A good story shape is essential if you want to get published.
7. Ignore the quality
Chances are that a lot of what you write will disappoint. It’s true for beginners, but even for old hands this feeling never leaves you. Don’t listen to it. Keep on writing, keep dropping those words onto the page. At least you’ll have something that you can rewrite. And you might just find that the flow takes you with it, right to the quality that you want.
8. Cut like crazy
Never be afraid to lose words that aren’t working. You might have spent 20 minutes crafting that perfect sentence, but if it isn’t doing a useful job then bin it. The more you hone, the sharper the writing that’s left.
9. Pitch to the market
Every magazine and newspaper has its own preference for topics, style and length. Do yourself a favour and check this out before you start pitching to editors — or even writing. A quick browse can save you a lot of grief.
10. Believe you can do this
Most articles you read in travel publications are written by freelance travel writers — people who started as beginners, learnt the ropes and built a track record. The difference between the professionals and you may only come down to practice, perseverance and time.
Enter our Travel Writing Competition 2016 for your chance to appear in National Geographic Traveller and win a 17-day trip to Madagascar!
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)