How do you become a travel writer? What is bad vs. good travel writing? Professional freelance travel writers and guidebook authors answer your most frequently asked questions about becoming a travel writer. I’m the Adventurous Writer – an experienced freelance magazine writer, blogger and published author – but I’m not a “travel writer.” I’m a writer who travels and writes.
There’s a surprisingly big difference between being a travel writer or journalist versus a blogger who writes about traveling. It took me over 10 years of freelance writing and professional blogging to figure out that difference — which is why I waited until now to start my newest blog, Travel in Faith: Tips and Tools for Travel That Transforms You.
As you read through these frequently asked questions (FAQ) about travel writing you’ll quickly see the difference between professional travel writers or journalists versus bloggers who travel and write. Hobby travel bloggers are in a different category altogether! Which are you? Even better: what type of writer do you aspire to be? There are benefits and drawbacks to all types of travel writing.
“The drawback of travel writing comes when the traveling seems part of a job — something to get done rather than something to do — and one cannot embark on it with the freshness and excitement of a possibly life-changing adventure,” says bestselling writer Pico Iyer, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations. “Then, often, it’s time to stay home or write about something closer to home…Traveling is about freshness and going out into the unknown; if it starts to become known, if you begin to have too clear a sense of where you’re going, or if it even begins to resemble a routine, then you have to rethink what you mean by ‘traveling.’”
10 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Travel Writing
If you have a question about being a travel writer or blogger that isn’t answered in this list of frequently asked questions, ask in the comments section below. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll find it and bring it to your house with a cup of tea. Or I’ll just share it here. 🙂
- Are writer’s conferences worthwhile?
- What is good travel writing?
- How do you write good travel writing?
- What is bad travel writing?
- How do you become a travel writer?
- What are the most common mistakes travel writers make?
- What is the downside of travel writing?
- What is your best advice for getting a travel book published?
- Do travel writers need literary agents to get published?
- How much does a travel writer get paid?
The first blog I started — over a decade ago — was this one! Writing Blossoms, originally Quips and Tips for Successful Writers. This was my favorite blog until I started Travel in Faith; I’ve written hundreds of articles about freelance writing and making money blogging. This list of Frequently Asked Questions about travel writing is by far the longest article I’ve written on this blog, although 11 Most Popular Types of Magazine Articles – Print & Online is close.
Travel blogging is new to me. I’ve been researching and learning a lot about writing and traveling lately, and decided not to hoard all the tips! These are the best answers to the most common or frequently asked questions (FAQs) about becoming a travel writer, journalist or blogger.
So You Want to Be a Travel Writer
When I first started freelance writing, my most pressing question was about writers conferences. Should I invest in a conference? What was the point, since I could read books and blogs about the business of being a writer? Traveling to Maui or New Orleans or even Surrey, BC (which is relatively close to where I live in Vancouver, Canada) is expensive! Writing conferences typically cost hundreds of dollars. Add airfare or gas, hotel expenses, food, and extras such as pre-conference workshops or professional editorial help for a book manuscript, post or pre-conference tours or side trips…and you could easily spend over $1,500.
Which leads me to my first FAQ about travel writing…
1. Are writers conferences worthwhile?
Yes — but it depends on what you expect to get out of the writer’s conference. It’s important to find a conference that matches your needs and plans for your writing career. Look at the list of speakers, editors, writers, publishers and travel bloggers attending the conference. Do they align with your writing goals? If you want to be a “lone wolf” travel writer (not the most effective way to build or sustain a travel writing career), you wouldn’t enjoy a writing conference. But if you want to network and build relationships with other travel writers and bloggers, you’ll find conferences valuable.
If you want to get more bang for your buck — and have more fun — from a writer’s conference, talk to and interact with with magazine editors, book publishers, literary agents, and travel bloggers. It can be intimidating for new writers (and introverts) to talk to professionals in the publishing industry, but it is the most important thing you can do at a conference. I especially enjoy the meals; in fact, the first time I met my literary agent was in the buffet line at a writer’s conference!
I met my literary agent at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference in California. My first book — Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back — was published by Bethany House because my agent sent the editors my book proposal. But the value of writing conferences is that writers can meet publishers and editors, pitch their book proposals, and even get published without an agent as the intermediary.
There is a downside to going to writer’s conferences, though. Sometimes writers leave feeling physically exhausted, socially depleted, and professionally overwhelmed by all the people and information. Especially introverted writers! Before you attend a conference, read 4 Tips for Dealing With Discouragement After a Writing Conference.
Speaking of travel writing conferences — I’ll be at TravelCon 2020 in New Orleans this year! I’ve been to six or seven conferences for writers, but this is my first travel-specific one. TravelCon is “the place to learn the business of travel media.” Writers will improve in the four major areas of travel: video, photography, writing, and blogging. Maybe I’ll see you there?
2. What is good travel writing?
“Good writing is fresh, with observations that are clearly personal,” says Andrew Bain, author of the Lonely Planet A Year of Adventures and Lonely Planet Experience Spain. “Every place on earth has now been written about, so what is it we are trying to achieve by adding to the pool? It can only be our own insight.”
“Much of the best travel writing is offered by Graham Greene and D.H. Lawrence and, these days, John le Carre or David Mitchell in their novels just because they are driven by a curiosity about the world — other cultures and other people — and because they have refined and developed that curiosity so that they can seize other places and people quickly; they have trained their instincts,” says Pico Iyer, author of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.
“These are travelers who are consistently eloquent and perceptive on place, as opposed to those like Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, who stumble into an experience so transcendent and moving that they give voice to what they know is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.”
“I think one should write, as nearly as possible, as if he were the first person on earth and was humbly and sincerely putting on paper that which he saw and experienced and loved and lost…with careful avoidance of hackneyed words and the like.” – Neal Cassady (travel mate of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road).
3. How do you write good travel writing?
“Travel writing should emulate the best techniques of fiction: character, action, plot, foreshadowing, dialogue and payoff,” says Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. “Character and dialogue are especially important, since they bring the story to life. Think about it: do we enjoy Seinfeld or Cannery Row or American Pie for the setting and descriptions? Of course not — we are drawn to their characters and what the characters do and say. Thus, be an extrovert as you travel, and color your story with the people you meet. Provide action and dialogue, setup and payoff. Draw the reader into the story with these elements.”
“Learn another language,” says Daisann McLane, who wrote the ‘Frugal Traveler’ column for the New York Times travel section. “Two would be even better! Learning a foreign language is the best way to break through the wall between you and the place you are writing about. There’s a quantum difference between a piece that is written by a writer fluent in the language and culture, and a piece written by someone who’s just dropped in.”
“Good travel writing is done by good writers who travel,” says Stanley Stewart, author of In the Empire of Genghis Khan: An Amazing Odyssey Through the Lands of the Most Feared Conquerors in History. “It is not enough to have swum through piranha-infested waters to the source of the Amazon. You must be able to write well to convey that experience. When you have learned the craft of writing, you can take a stroll through your own suburban neighborhood interesting, even exciting. Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story — narrative drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation. Make it personal. Let the reader know how the place and the experience are affecting you.”
“Travel writing, more than any other kind of writing, has to transport you, has to teach you about the world, has to inform you, and, ideally, has to take you into deeper and deeper questions about yourself and the world,” says Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. “The writer’s job, as Milan Kundera once told Philip Roth, I think, is to get the reader to see the world as a question. And travel writing has to hold your attention, first, and then take you into a dialogue between yourself and the world that tells you something new about both and grips you more powerfully than any other dialogue around.”
4. What is bad travel writing?
“A chronological recounting of events is usually not good,” says Tim Cahill, author of several travel books, including Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park. “There are exceptions, of course. People who can’t find the story and hope description will carry them.”
“Guidebooks that send me down the wrong street, looking for a restaurant that closed five years ago!” says Paul Clammer, author of several travel guidebooks including Haiti (Bradt Travel Guides).
“Bad travel writing is done by travelers who mistakenly believe they can write,” says Stanley Stewart, two-time winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year Award. “Bad travel writing is littered with cliches, inept narrative timing, and clumsily portrayed characters. Too many travel writers seem to believe that the journey ‘makes’ the story. It doesn’t. In the end, anyone can travel to Timbuktu but only a few people will write about the journey well. Bad travel writing is just bad writing.”
The most important tip for good travel writing is to write. Do you write in your journal every day? If struggle with writer’s block, give yourself the gift of motivation! Read Travel Gift Idea: 10 Best Travel Journals for Solo or Group Treks.
5. How do you become a travel writer?
“Win a prize,” says Rory MacLean, author of Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India. “I’m not being flippant. There are dozens of travel writing competitions run by newspapers and magazines. Researching and writing a travel article forces you to focus. Winning a competition opens the door to literary agents and publishers. Alternatively, marry the son or daughter of a newspaper baron.”
“There’s no substitute for writing, if you want to be a writer,” says Pico Iyer, author of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. “In travel writing the main thing you have to address is what you can say — how you can approach Kyoto or the Pyramids or Machu Picchu — as no one has ever done before, and as few could do today. What do you bring to the dialogue you conduct with these immortal places? But the main [way to become a travel writer] is just writing — for your friend’s blog, for the non-paying alternative newspaper in town, for magazines that may never dream of hiring you, or even just for friends and family.”
“Develop an area of expertise, so you can really sell your skill set to editors,” says Clammer. “My foot in the door was Afghanistan (a Lonely Planet travel guidebook), but it could equally be something like trekking or regional food. You need something on your resume to help you stand out against the competition.”
“If I was starting out today, I’d try to write for a year or two,” says Tim Cahill, author of several travel books, including Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park. “I’d check out such magazines as Writer’s Digest Guide to Magazine Article Writing for appropriate writer’s conferences. These are meetings where professional editors lecture and look at your work, and where you will meet publishers and agents. Book Passage, a bookstore in Corte Madera, north of San Francisco, hosts a travel writers’ conference. I attend almost every year.”
Blog. You become a travel writer by starting a blog, traveling, and writing. Every. Single. Day. And if you’re lucky (because you travel, work hard, and write every day), you will start making money. You might even learn how to make money writing travel articles for your own blog! I’ve written for big and little magazines, newspapers, churches, hospitals, websites like MSN and Yahoo, and even book publishers. Nothing compares to making money from my own blogs.
6. What are the most common mistakes travel writers make?
“Writing first-person journals rather than travel stories,” says Canadian travel writer Margo Pfeiff. “Stories are best told through the writer’s eyes; the writer’s perspective and personality should come through in the telling, but the writer should not be the focus of the article.”
“The biggest travel writing mistakes are to do with accuracy,” says Paul Clammer, author of several travel guidebooks including Haiti (Bradt Travel Guides). “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, no reader will forgive you if you write that the train station is on the opposite side of town. Everything else flows from the accuracy of those facts you collect in the field.”
“First, writers assume readers will be as interested in their travels as they are,” says Rolf Potts, author of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. “Second, they stick too hard to chronology instead of telling a story. All the worst stories are just a bland recounting of events.”
7. What is the downside of travel writing?
“Travel writing is rewarding in so many ways, but it’s not a job that really has a career ladder,” says Clammer. “You’re always hustling, so if you get in, make sure you enjoy the hustle. Oh, and never try to buy a house when you’re in the middle of a research trip in the Indian Himalaya.”
“Poor pay, a little too much travel early on that wasn’t good for my social life or my love life,” says Cahill.
“Distance from family and friends,” says freelance writer George Dunford. “I was working in Singapore when my aunt died and missed her funeral, which is impossible to replace. You spend a lot of time away and it can be hard to stay in touch with people as their lives change.”
“There’s no security in a freelance travel writing career, and that can be really scary,” says Daisann McLane, who writes regularly for the National Geographic Traveler magazine. “On the other hand, when you travel to so many different places and you see how people live outside of your little bubble, you realize how ridiculous the very idea of security is, from a global perspective…When I catch myself freaking out about my lack of a 401(k) plan, I slap myself back with a reality check: most people in the world don’t have anything to catch them if they fall except their will and determination to press on.”
8. What is your best advice for getting a travel book published?
“Take every opportunity to travel and be sure to write about it along the way,” says Mara Vorhees, author of various guidebooks such as Lonely Planet Pocket Moscow & St Petersburg. “Stay abreast of the latest technology. There are always new tools that make your job a little easier. Use technology to develop your brand as a travel writer. Becoming known as an expert in your field can open doors for bigger and better writing opportunities for writing travel guidebooks.”
“Publish with the local newspaper, in the weekly travel section,” says Cahill. “This allows you to travel, to write, to work with professional editors and understand, from the get-go, that travel isn’t a high-paying career. Lately, with newspapers laying off journalists right and left, this is a wide-open market for freelance writers.”
9. Do travel writers need literary agents to get published?
I’ve only had one literary agent and one traditionally published book, but I think it depends on the match between writer and agent. If you’re kindred publishing spirits, it’s heaven! If you and your agent aren’t on the same page, it’s hell. Or just a black hole. After my first book was published, I sent my literary agent a book proposal for a second book. She forwarded it to the editor of the publishing house. They loved the title (Your Heart Changes Everything) but wanted to see how my first book sold. It didn’t sell well because I didn’t promote or market it; I didn’t want to dwell in loss. I wanted to move forward into travel and faith! I never heard back from the literary agent, the editor, or the publishing house. I was disappointed because I thought I’d have more of a relationship with a literary agent.
Most published authors say having a literary agent is vital.
“I have an agent,” says Cahill. “They are important for books. You can get one by submitting a query letter and/or manuscript to the list of agents who accept manuscripts found in the back of Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published. A literary agent is familiar with contracts (which are, in my case, 80 pages single spaced). In the contract, the publisher takes everything. An agent knows what can be crossed out without a fight, how much of a fight a deletion will entail, and what clauses the publisher will not delete under any circumstances. You need this expertise. Otherwise, believe it or not, a publisher will screw you.”
“I think [a literary agent] is invaluable,” says Andrew Bain, author of the Lonely Planet A Year of Adventures and Lonely Planet Experience Spain. “Publishers receive so many manuscripts, and the endorsement of an agent may be the only way to get your manuscript read. It tells the publisher that the manuscript has already been considered by someone whose opinion they hopefully respect.”
“An agent is vital,” says Rory MacLean, author of more than 10 travel books. “To find one scan the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook or look up the name of your favorite travel writer’s agent and approach him or her. Books submitted directly to big publishers often go unread.
Are you trying to get your book published? Read 17 Reasons Book Manuscripts Get Rejected by Publishers.
10. How much does a travel writer get paid?
“I [make money as a travel writer] by diversifying,” says freelance writer George Dunford. “I teach travel writing and writing for the web, which is a great way to get out of the office. I write journalism and reviews for newspapers and magazines. I try not to get tagged as the ‘travel writing guy.’ These days I work more in content strategy — looking at how websites can get better at talking to their audience.”
“To be honest, for the first [travel] book the numbers rarely add up in terms of an income,” says Rory MacLean, author of Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe. “ But if you’re serious about writing, you just have to take the risk. I was lucky. My first book, Stalin’s Nose: Across the Face of Europe, made the UK top 10. It meant that the advances paid for my second and subsequent books have been enough to survive on.”
“I sell stories before deciding on a trip so that I know I will make a reasonable return for my time spent on the road,” says Margo Pfeiff, a Canadian writer and winner of various travel media writing awards. “I syndicate my travel stories to a number of newspapers and magazines that do not have overlapping circulations. My photos increase the size of my pay checks and I also write for non-travel publications that pay higher word rates than most newspaper and magazine travel sections.”
Freelance Writing Pay Rates for Newspaper and Magazine Articles is one of my most popular articles on my Writing Blossoms blog. The pay rates — which haven’t changed for decades — are for a variety of media outlets. As a freelance writer for magazines, I earn anywhere from 50 cents to one dollar per word. I generally don’t write for less than 50 cents a word, but it depends on the magazine or organization.
One last thing you need to know about travel writing pay rates
How to be a Travel Writer (Lonely Planet) was the source of the travel writers and authors’ answers to my frequently asked questions (FAQ) about writing. If you’re serious about becoming a travel writer, don’t just rely on travel blogs or writers’ websites for tips and inspiration.
Buy a book about freelance writing and make challenge yourself: you will earn back the cost of the book before the year is out. This will give you motivation to learn as much as you can about travel writing, keep sending query letters, and take risks you might not otherwise take.
Here’s what the Lonely Planet guidebook says about freelance writing pay rates for writers: “Very few US-based freelance writers make more than $100,000 per year; the vast majority earn in the vicinity of $15,000 to $40,000 a year. A very good scenario would see you being lucky enough to receive six assignments from major magazines in one year. If each assignment was for an article of 3,000 words, and the magazines paid an average of $1.50 per word, that would come to $4,500 per story and a grand total of $27,000.”
And, to be realistic, few new freelance travel writers would earn $1.50 a word. A top magazine such as National Geographic Traveler or Conde Naste might pay a new freelancer $1 per word; smaller magazines with lower budgets might pay .10 cents a word.
But wait, there’s good news! Travel writers aren’t limited to writing for travel magazines. Reader’s Digest, for example, has a lively travel section. Read 10 Things You Need to Know About Writing for Reader’s Digest.
Your thoughts, big and little, are welcome below. If you have any tips or tools for travel writing, please share. We love tips and tools 🙂