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Intro to Travel Writing 101

Sojournlist was designed for both the introductory writer as well as the experienced. We are by no means the final word or experts in the field, but we have some insights that perhaps others do not. I’ve gained the following knowledge from my experience in photojournalism. I started out as a photojournalist in the military, after a handful of years writing and working alongside writers, I grew tired of the starving artist life and became an accountant. I eventually found myself as the awkward CFO of a Travel Magazine. That being said, my partner and wife, who is a dental hygienist, consistently blows my mind with her writing and her social media skills.

What is an Article?

An article comes in many forms, informative news story, a compelling, inspirational story, a feature story, a blog, a listicle, a how-to…

Think Walter Cronkite’s, “And that’s the way it is.” Or think Hunter S. Thompson and just let a combination of drugs and stream of thought lead the way. Or you can find yourself somewhere in the middle.

All articles start with a lead or an introduction. In a news story, how-to, or listicle type article, a lead concisely answers who, what, why, where, and maybe how. The remainder of the article is pretty much laid out in order of importance. In a news story or listicle, place the most crucial information at the top and the least important towards the bottom. Structuring an article this way ensures a reader that quits halfway though retains the essential information.

A how-to obviously follows the steps of the process. A news story doesn’t necessarily need a conclusion. In travel writing, you could simply say, for more information, visit this website or call this number. A listicle could simply conclude with the last item on your list. A how-to can finish with the final task, or you can add extraneous information or congratulate the reader on their undertaking. It’s all up to you.

In a feature, inspirational or promotional article, the lead is usually a bit more attention-grabbing. It’s entertainment. It’s a chance to flex your creative writing muscles. You can follow the same general format as a news article or something else. It’s up to you.

What to Aim for in Travel Writing?

You should always aim to tell a story. Most of us aren’t exciting or talented enough to write a story that is entirely about ourselves. The best stories involve other people. It’s those people who matter. It’s the curator of the museum or the random person you meet along your way that made your trip more interesting just as much as it is your accomplishments and your experiences.

In 2002, I apparently wrote an article about a friend of mine in Puerto Rico. I have no recollection of writing the article. I have no idea what it was about, but nearly twenty years later, he told me he has that article hanging on his wall. I was shocked. I regularly wrote articles about my friends. It was a chance to hang out with them during work hours. I didn’t think much of it, but that article was a significant point of pride for him.

The added benefit of including others is that they are now an interested party. You’ve acknowledged them and their hard work. You noticed them and took the time to write about it in a manner more substantial than a tagged social media post. I cannot overemphasize how much this matters to people.

Write similarly to how you talk, but not really. 

When you get back from a trip, have you ever excitedly talked about a hotel room having all the amenities? Did you ever excitedly tell someone that your room came with an Iron and an Ironing board? My bet is no. Nobody cares.
Have you ever had this conversation after returning from a trip?

Friend: How was your trip?
You: Great, we stayed at a hotel located in the southeast of the city with easy access to public transportation, which enabled us to easily abscond into the city and experience everything the city had to offer.

That would bore your friend, and it would bore readers. Plus, nobody uses the word abscond.

You know what you do talk about that people enjoy? Did you make an “Oops, I’m a dumb tourist mistake?”

Avoid hyperbole. Don’t tell us the sunrise was stunning, or the meal was terrific. That does nothing for the reader. Show us exactly why it was stunning or unusual with words. Hyperbole is excellent for photo captions but leave it out of articles.

Maybe you aren’t sure how to leave hyperbole out? If you aren’t an expert in cuisine, art, or sunrises, someone else is. Your lack of expertise isn’t a barrier to writing an article, it’s an opportunity. Ask the cook, or the curator, or ask a local resident you notice appreciating the sunrise why they appreciate it.

Avoid clichés like the plague. Avoid regional idioms. It drives readers up the wall.

For example, a group of friends and I wandered into a lair of Scientologists, promising a free tour of a really cool looking mansion in D.C. We never wound up taking a tour. We did, however, take a 200 question personality test. One question asked, “if I had ever kicked the brick?”

All of us looked up simultaneously confused, asking each other, “What did you answer for question 186? Is that like stubbing your toe or something to do with illegal South American exports? Is it okay to cheat on a personality test?”

I’m proud to say that I am the sole person in that group of friends who didn’t walk out the proud owner of several over-priced books.

What to write about and what to do with what you write?

Start small, start local. You know that place you’ve driven by a million times, but never visited? Pay the entrance fee, ask for some quotes, grab the tourism pamphlets by the exit for your next ideas.

You don’t need to start by writing an article about skydiving into the mouth of a jungle cave. Sure, that stuff is exciting, but it’s not super accessible for the average person.

Odds are that you won’t successfully pitch an editor on your first article. Put your blog online, make your own blog site, use our site, use both. Create various social media accounts and share your work.

Stick with the social media you’re familiar with or good at. Social media is time-consuming. We’ve placed most of our effort into Facebook and Pinterest. We have an Instagram we’ve been working on, and in all honesty, our twitter is pointless, and I have no intention of getting on TikTok or Snapchat.

Contact the places and people you wrote about and send them the article. Reach out to the local destination marketing organization via email. Send them your article or blog and ask them to share it. They are usually pretty happy to share an article promoting them. You can find those organizations by typing Visit Washington, Travel Oregon, Tourism Dallas, Experience this, or Destination that into the Google machine. Find the agency, scroll to the bottom of the page to the contact us information, share the article with them through that. Check out their social media pages and hashtags and use those when posting it online. That alone will drive your traffic up significantly.

Once you’ve been writing for over a year, join various travel writing organizations like the International Food Wine Travel Writers Association or the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance. They not only provide conferences that will help you improve a variety of essential skills, but they’ll also help get you on lists for hosted familiarity tours, AKA Fam Trips. Treat fam trips like business trips, be grateful and appreciate. Work with the Destination Marketing Organizations or Businesses responsible for hosting the trip and coordinate their goals and mission with them. Use their hashtags.

Seriously, they are your friends. Work with them.

Most Importantly, do not lie for them. If something didn’t interest you, don’t write about it. Odds are they have something that would interest you. Honesty is important because your readers aren’t stupid. If you lie to them about how amazing a place is and they visit, and the place turns out to be a disaster, you’ll be blamed. Your credibility is vital to your future as a travel writer, and it’s crucial to the DMO’s looking for writers to cover their goods. Your credibility is paramount.

Treat your writing like a business from day one. Keep your receipts, but don’t be overzealous. If you take your family to a theme park and you write about it. You can expense your ticket, not theirs. Write off your food, not theirs. Even if you write about family travel exclude their costs from your writing. It’s easier to swallow that bill now than to sit through an audit. Trust me, I’m also an accountant.

This is part of a multi-article series, where we break down everything from WordPress to Social Media Marketing. We will interview a variety of more experienced travel writers, photographers, and marketers, providing honest advice as possible free from the influence of affiliate marketers.

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Written by Corey Dembeck

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