Want to break into travel writing? If you think that holiday of a lifetime might make a cracking travel mag read or you’re planning on packing a laptop to write about your time walking the Inca trail – read these 7 tips by the UK’s top travel writer and journalist, Simon Calder – travel editor of The Independent newspaper and frequent commentator on TV and radio.
1. Decide what ‘travel writing’ means to you
Travel writing’s a huge topic so before you start typing, decide what kind of travel writing you want to do. For example, do you want to write for newspapers, trade publications, a monthly travel magazine, post reviews online or write travel guidebooks or literature?
You’ll also need to think about what angle you’re going to write from. What are you interested in? Are you going to write about the travel industry itself, about traveling with kids, adventure travel or gastro travel? And don’t just think travel publications either – most family, parenting, consumer and fashion publications all have travel slots you might be able to approach.
2. Know the publications you want to write for – inside-out
Once you have an idea what you’re going to write, you need to get to know the publications you want to write for really well. There are no real shortcuts here – read them from cover to cover and do your research. Make sure you
know the kind of topics, regular features and themes they cover and the types of subjects, countries and places they’ve featured in the past.
The last thing you want to do is pitch a topic that the magazine or newspaper has just written about or that they don’t have a slot for – remember, they’re looking for new, relevant content and fresh perspectives at all times. They’re also looking for writing that’s in their style and that their audience is going to love reading.
3. Write small pieces first – then build up
A lot of new travel writers begin by penning very large, complex pieces and pitching these to publications. That’s all fine, but those kind of pieces are very hard to sell unless you’re a well-known writer with a strong track record. In my opinion, it’s far better to start small and build up.
Most publications have small travel columns or frequent small regular features to fill and thinking about how you can write for these is always a good idea. Also, many of these slots appear in every edition so you know that the travel editors have these spaces to fill every week or month – that means that you stand a better chance of getting in. If you can show that you can deliver copy on the smaller pieces to deadline, to length and with few mistakes you might be asked to write longer articles. Every travel editor wants a “safe pair of hands”.
4. Make it pitch perfect
Either before or after you’ve written your piece, you’ll need to pitch it to publications. To do that, you’ll need to find out who commissions new pieces. Typically, travel websites, magazines, newspapers, etc, will have a travel desk you can call and ask. Find out whether commissioning editors prefer pitches by phone or email as that can really help you make the right approach.
Don’t send blanket, standard emails to lots of different publications – that’s a real no-no. Try to tailor each pitch to that publication’s interests. For example, if you think your piece would be perfect for The Independent’s ‘48 hours in…’ slot, tell them why. Make it obvious that you’ve read the publication, understand the audience and the slot you’re pitching for.
5. Explain what makes your perspective unique
When you’re pitching, also make sure you explain why YOU are the right person to be writing about this particular topic at this particular time. For example, don’t phone up and say “I’m going to Finland do you want a piece on it?” explain why you are going, what YOU plan to experience and why YOU are the perfect person to write about it. Most travel writing needs a peg – why are you wishing to write about this particular destination or theme right now?
This is also important if you want to write travel literature or a travel memoir. If you’re not a celebrity, it’s hard to break into this sector. As a first time author, you’ll probably need to have done something extraordinary – floated down the congo on a fridge – to pique a publisher’s interest.
6. Find a new angle and make it newsworthy
There are trends in every industry and it’s no different with travel writing – so try to write pieces that tap into these trends. For example, there are a lot of older travellers or solo travellers at the moment – new destinations are always popular. Could you write something about these?
Also, people are increasingly interested in ‘experiences’ rather than just country-visits – so, try to find a new angle on a destination. Don’t just write about going to Iceland, write about seeing the Northern Lights whilst being pulled by a dog sled – for example.
Also, if you’re writing for newspapers, in particular, think about how you can tie in your story to a wider news event. For example, I’m due to travel to America soon to write about a solar eclipse that’s happening over the summer.
7. Make it visual with photography and film
Today, I’m afraid it’s not good enough just to be an excellent wordsmith. Magazine and newspaper editors increasingly want travel writers to give them high quality photos to accompany their stories in print and on their websites – so get good at taking shots when you’re away.
It’s even better if you can make short, one to three-minute films to accompany your words – this can be very simple but it needs to be well edited and professional. If you’re say, selling a piece about mountain biking in Norway and have an accompanying film, it will be much more appealing to an editor. Unfortunately, you won’t get paid more but you and your piece will stand out from the crowd.