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Travel writing used to be very different. Take Henry Morton Stanley for example. He was a 19th Century, Anglo-American journalist who spent a significant chunk of his thirties traipsing around Sub-Saharan Africa searching for the noted Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone.
“Draw £1,000 now, and when you have gone through that, draw another £1,000, and when that is spent, draw another £1,000, and when you have finished that, draw another £1,000, and so on — but find Livingstone!”
An interview with Livingstone would have been a surefire seller. He could best be described as an archetype of Bear Grylls and Edmund Hillary, having plotted the extent Nile river and ventured deep into the strange, unexplored heart of Africa. In Victorian society, he was legendary. And the New York Herald would happily pay up for an exclusive.
Needless to say Stanley was one of the most celebrated travel journalists of his era. A well paid journalist at that. He lived in an time when editors could justify spending unconsciable amounts of cash just to send a writer to exotic locales.
Things have changed since then. For the most part, newspapers are strapped for cash. The glory has long since faded. The champagne has run dry. First class flights and five star hotels have been replaced with hastily re-written press releases and grubby motels. Sadly, most newspapers are moribund shells of their former glory.
That’s not to say that your dreams of being a travel writer are scuppered. With a bit of luck and hard graft, you too can be a Bryson. A Bennet. And yes, perhaps even a Plimpton. Get your immunizations, pick up a phrasebook and buy an absurd hat. I’m about to tell you how to travel the world on the back of your writing.
Write. And Then Write Some More.
Before Twain penned ‘A Tramp Abroad’, he found himself in less distinguished roles. His career began with working for small, regional newspapers in the Southern United States. At the age of 15, he was writing humorous articles for the Hannibal Journal. Not long after, he found himself writing for a small newspaper in the dust and desolation of pre-Vegas Nevada. You have to start somewhere, I suppose.
It wasn’t long until he was recognized for the charm and flair that was inherent in his work. The charm that we all became familiar with when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school. Twain soon found himself being sent of on assignment to Southern Europe and Hawaii, where he dispatched regular stories detailing his travels. This became the foundation upon which he would build his career. The rest, as you say, is history.
Don’t let the success of Twain fool you. Becoming a professional writer is a hard slog indeed. Before finding yourself at a stage where your words have monetary value, you have to develop a style and a flair. You have to develop a readership. You have to write.
So, what do you do? You start a blog of course! Write about the places you’ve been to. The food you ate. Tell stories. Convince the reader that they too are traveling with you. Convince them that they too are seeing, smelling and hearing everything that you are.
Perhaps the best example I can give to exemplify this advice is Fell Out Of The Nest; a charming collection of stories written by Ben Robbins, a Briton living and teaching in South Korea with his girlfriend.
His lucid, powerful articles are accompanied with expertly taken photographs that contrast the stark differences between the sprawl of urban Seoul and the loneliness of rural Korea. With each article, you are pulled deeper and deeper into a world of Osan booze-ups and bowls of Kimchi as you gain an understanding of what it means to be an expat in one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Perhaps the lesson you can take from Twain and yes, from Robins, is that the first step in becoming a writer is obvious. It is to write.
Learn to Pitch Like a Pro
Being a professional writer is a bit like winning the Hunger Games. For every Katniss Everdeen, there are many more people who simply didn’t make the cut.
That’s not to say that these people aren’t good writers. That’s not even to say that they can’t write good articles. They probably can. But being a good storyteller is only half of the battle. You have to know how to be able to pitch a story to an editor. Despite seeming stuffy and from another era, it’s important to stress that these rules don’t apply to print, but also to digital publications.
There are a few rules to follow when trying to sell a piece:
1. Explain why the piece is timely or relevant. If you were writing a piece about the Liverpool International Music festival, you could pitch it within the context of it being a brand new music festival in a city with a historical pedigree for producing great bands. The important thing is convincing the editor that the article you’re pitching is right for his magazine.
2. You should also give a sample paragraph written in the style of the website or newspaper that you are pitching to. This is incredibly important. The Sun won’t publish something written in the style of The Guardian, and vice versa. Before sending a sample paragraph, it’d probably be prudent to make sure you have an idea of the readership and tone of the publication you wish to write for. Have a read through some earlier articles or blog posts.
3. Finally, make sure that you don’t forget to send some examples of prior work. An editor won’t give a writer the time of day if they aren’t prepared to show off some of their earlier oeuvres.
By following these simple steps, the odds of your proposal being binned by an overworked and overstressed editor are significantly reduced.
Know Who to Pitch To
Furiously typing into an Olivetti as you fight off dengue fever. The likes of Hunter S Thompson have curated this reputation of travel writing with the likes of The Rum Diary. But it’s not all typewriters and quinine tablets. You actually have to market yourself.
So, if you’ve got a killer portfolio and a powerful pitch, you now just need to find out who to send it to. This can be an arduous task. You first have to identify a site that accepts pitches, and then find out who in the organization you would be best contacting.
It’s not unheard of for digital and print publications to have armies of freelance writers. These come in all shapes and sizes, and are easy to identify. If you can identify a trend of posts being written by different authors as well as conspicuous advertisements, you’re likely looking at a site which engages the services of freelance hacks.
It therefore goes without saying that the editors of these publications are used to getting unsolicited pitches. Some sites have multiple section editors, and you should contact the one who is relevant to the story you’d like to write. Go through the site. Have a look on LinkedIn. Find the right editor, and send him your winning pitch!
Cultivate A Following
Graham Hughes is a native of my hometown of Liverpool, England and is perhaps the closest thing to the Most Interesting Man from the Dos Equis adverts.
But who is Graham Hughes? You may know him from his popular Reddit AMA. You might have watched his YouTube Videos. You might read his blog. You may have even watched his TV show which he created for Lonely Planet.
Aviophobia has done wonders for his career, allowing him to become one of the few people alive who has travelled to every UN member country without having stepped foot onto a plane. Especially impressive considering that he did this on a shoestring budget of $100 per day.
It goes without saying that social media has been a massive part of his adventure. Every step of the way, he kept his corps of dedicated readers informed via his Twitter handle about his exploits, be it getting locked up in the Congo or rubbing shoulders with the premiers of small Pacific island nations.
This tried-and-true combination of blogging and social media has done wonders for Hughes’ career. Since ending his travels he now spends his days speaking at TED conferences and trying to make it in Hollywood.
The success of Hughes shows the importance of communicating and engaging with your readers. You can make them part of the story. They can follow you each step of the way, as you bumble through exotic locales. Without a doubt, having a social media presence is the most powerful and effective vehicle to do this.
Travel on the Cheap
When you first start out as a writer, you’ll soon discover that working out the value of your work is hard. After spending years toiling away unpaid on ‘portfolio pieces’, you’ll be shocked as to discover that some people aren’t completely alien to the idea of paying you for your labor. When asked how much your rates are, you’ll likely freeze up, unsure of what to say.
The National Union of Journalists thankfully have some guidelines when it comes to what to charge for your work. Despite being incredibly UK centric (it’s a British union, after all), it gives you an idea of what you can expect to be earning. Maybe, there’s one for your country as well…or even a market report?
From that, you can extrapolate the types of travel spots where you can expect to go. It goes without saying that some places are cheaper than others. Research where you’d like to visit, cost it up and see if your writing would cover the cost of an expedition there. I’ve found that WikiTravel is an accurate and dependable resource when it comes to costing up a vacation.
There are few careers that are more rewarding than writing. There are few pastimes that are more rewarding than travel. It’s rare that the two intersect. Only a lucky — nay exceptional — few have managed to build a career out of the two.
Do you have any advice on making it as a travel writer? Have you ever been paid to see the world? I’d be delighted if you could leave me a comment below telling me all about it.