Quentin Long gives us a no-holds-barred reality check about the supposed glitz and glamour of being a travel writer.
Every couple of weeks I get a lovely email from someone inquiring about how to become a travel writer.
That someone is usually a bright, enthusiastic and optimistic 18 to 23-year-old female whose parent’s advice to “do what you love” is still ringing in her youthful ears.
This fortnight’s email was from Tori Hyland in South Australia. Tori is obviously a very intelligent young woman because she also wanted to know if you can make a decent living as a travel writer.
Well, I did let her down gently… sort of.
If you want to make a load of cash, pick a new profession. The majority of people in travel writing are not wealthy, probably could not afford to do it without the generous support of a high-earning partner and their future earning potential looks likely to decline as opposed to grow. The economics of being a travel writer are not adding up and won’t for some time, if ever.
Travel writing is a competitive business
There are three universal loves that almost every aspiring writer wants to specialise in: music, travel and food. So it’s natural that there are an inordinate number of people out there trying to make a living out of travelling and then documenting it.
Result: not to sound negative, but there are far more travel writers out there than places to buy travel stories and support them. Worse is that the word rates (the amount paid per word) are dropping and the number of outlets buying them similarly shrinking.
Then there is the lucky dip of being actually employed by someone, ehm, stupid enough to own a travel magazine.
The last job ad we posted received in excess of 200 applicants… for an entry-level position… half of whom were seasoned writers.
That’s the truth and the outlook is not great.
What you need to realise before you jump in
To totally vaporise your bubble, it is no where near as glamorous as you think. By the time you are ‘proven enough’ to be invited to travel to the amazing places of the world, travelling by yourself is not fun.
How wonderful to be here in New York… by myself… jetlagged… without my best mate (the wife) to share it with… away from the kids.
It is 1am, you are in the cramped hotel room, knocking out stories after a full day note taking, shooting and eating… by yourself… and knowing you have to do it all over again tomorrow.
It’s definitely not a holiday. It’s lonely, anti-social, exhausting and emotionally draining. Almost all the travel writers I think of when typing this are single, childless and unhappy about it and their lack of income.
It is not a social profession; to make a barely meagre living means such long hours away from home it is not conducive to a long-term relationship let alone present parenting.
Seven steps to becoming a travel writer
So if that doesn’t dissuade you Tori, here are my tips on how to give yourself a slight chance of becoming a travel writer, making a living just above the bread line.
1. Write as mush as possible
Start a blog and make it a religious devotion to write as much as you can – at least once a week.
2. Learn how to take a photo
Pick up a decent DSLR camera and take a photo twice as often as you update your blog.
3. Study writing and or journalism
Enrol in a journalism course. Work as an intern as often as possible. Save every penny, spend it on travel and then blog on that.
4. Read read and then read some more
Read like a woman possessed, travel writing classics like our top 10 Influential Travel Books and anything else.
5. Read and observe the travel writing craft
Read everything as a critical reader and not as you; look to see what devices the writer has employed to tell a yarn. Why did you get lost in that story, what made you read on, what didn’t? Why did you get bored when?
Analyse the writing the devices in the copy. First person vs listicle vs guide – all very different styles and tones and therefore different skills. Some of our best writers can not write a listicle to save themselves while some of out best guide writers can not do a first person narrative.
6. Challenge yourself and ask for critiques
Challenge yourself; take the best piece of travel writing you have read lately, do the experience yourself and see how you would write it.
Or look at the subject of your latest blog piece and find other writing on the same experience and or destination. Start local where your knowledge is deepest.
That will reveal to you the challenges of evoking for a reader an experience that is honest, inspiring and just a little helpful.
Then hand it to someone you trust to tell you the truth (not your parents or partner) and ask them to read both and explain what they preferred and why.
7. Know who to talk to
Seek out places that may run your work in the interim. Do you know all the available places to have your work published? What makes a great story for them? What doesn’t? And reach out and see if you can make some relationships.
We do have intern programs run by the editorial department but they do require a commitment of time.
And maybe just then, you can hire me.