Friday, August 29, 2008

So you want to be a travel writer?

On Wednesday night I gave a guest lecture on travel writing to a postgraduate class at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I thought some of you might be interested in reading a little of the advice I gave the students. So here it is. Enjoy!

Along with fashion model and rock star, travel writer certainly ranks high in most people's perception of glamour jobs. After all, what could be more glamorous than hotel hopping your way around the world on someone else's dollar? Before you all quit your day jobs and sign up, let me set you straight about a few things. Being a travel writer is not nearly as fun or as glamorous as it seems. In fact, it is a lot of hard work and often done for very little financial reward.

People imagine that being a travel writer my life is like one long holiday, where I spend all my time sitting on a beach, sipping a cocktail and tapping away at my laptop every now and then. Don't I wish! On the contrary, while everyone else is sunning themselves on the beach, I spend my days running around between tourist offices, attractions, restaurants and hotels, talking to numerous PR people, while frantically scribbling down notes and drawing up maps. What's worse, I'm usually dripping in sweat and wearing the same smelly clothes that I've been wearing for days on end. Then, come the evening, if I have any energy left, I usually end up alone in my hotel room typing everything up. Hardly glamorous at all!

Travel writing of course has its perks otherwise no one would do it. Over the last eight years it has taken me to some amazing places that I never dreamed I would visit and given me the opportunity to meet and learn about people that have challenged my way of thinking and opened my eyes to the world. Travel writing has also provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life: I had dinner with a real live Count in his castle in Transylvania in Romania, I island hopped my way around the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece all in the name of research, I spent five days in the mountains of the Transkei in South Africa as one of only two outsiders invited to witness an inauguration ceremony of a Traditional Healer, and last year I travelled to Libya to attend a small dawn service on Anzac Day to honour the Rats of Tobruk.

Mind you on the downside, I was almost arrested in the breakaway Republic of Transdneistr in Moldova for arriving at the border crossing half an hour late and on my most recent trip I wound up spending three days in hospital in Jamaica after picking up a severe case of salmonella food poisoning from something I ate in Cuba. But, even though I still have no permanent base and continue to live out of a backpack, I wouldn't change a second of it.

What does it take to become a travel writer?

Apart from loving to travel and being content to live the life of gypsy, to be a travel writer you also need a few other very important qualities and skills:

  • 1. This should go without saying, but you need to be able to write well. You need to be able to write in a way that transports your reader to the region or place you are writing about. They need to be able to see it, feel it, smell it and breathe it.

  • 2. Going hand in hand with writing well you also need a sharp eye for detail. You need to be able to observe details about a place and its people that other travellers might miss.

  • 3. You also need to be well-organised because travel writing of course involves travel; usually within a very limited time frame and budget. So you need to be able to organise your itinerary in such a way that you cover every aspect of a place quickly and efficiently without missing out on the details.

  • 4. You must be able to think quickly on your feet. Travel is never smooth – flights get cancelled, your luggage might go missing, attractions might be closed – so you must be able to work your way around any curve ball that is thrown at you.

  • 5. And finally, you must be a good salesperson because to be a successful travel writer you need to be able to sell your story ideas to editors and publishers.

Where do you start?

Write what you know: You don't need to travel overseas to be a travel writer. Take a closer look at the town where you live now. While you might not find the local flower festival exciting, but someone, somewhere in the world will. So who better to write about it than you?

Find your voice: You need to write with your own voice, not imitate someone else’s. By writing about your own personal experiences, your voice will begin to develop. And as you nurture and develop your voice, the articles that you write will stand out.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

This is great advice. I love it when established travel writers openly discuss the business... it helps to demystify this process, and I'm definitely taking notes.

Kim Wildman said...

Thanks Christine. By the way, I love your blog. Also your idea to start up a National Travel Writing Month was inspiring!


Lara Dunston said...

Agree! Great tips! but you really need to be spending your evenings out checking out restaurants and bars and local entertainment - you can type up your notes on the plane!

Kim Wildman said...

Yes, I often spend my nights checking out restaurants and bars as well - it really just depends on who I am writing for and what I am writing about. I'm definitely over the serious night clubbing I did back in my Lonely Planet days! On this last trip since many of the places I stayed at were in National Parks or on plantations, I'd often take my laptop with me to the lodge's restaurant/bar, so I could at least feel like I was part of the fun.

As to writing and flying, I always intend on writing up my notes then, but I am usually so uncomfortable, or tired, that I just never seem to have the energy to do it. Though, since I had a driver for much of my last trip, I did manage to write up quite a bit while I was in the car.

Wendy said...

Hi Kim,
Thanks for debunking some of the myths. When I am wearing my travel photographer's hat when on the road there is rarely time to rest and kick back. The best light is usually when everyone else is still waking up or relaxing at the end of the day. Much time is also spent waiting for the right conditions. And if I'm in a big city evenings are spent hauling around a tripod capturing night photography. It's a labor of love.

Anonymous said...

Hiya Kim. How did the speech/ lecture go? I know you were nervous about it beforehand.

I hate public speaking - I'd have probably raced through mumbling from notes. It'd have been appalling.

Kim Wildman said...

Hi Wendy. I can't imagine carrying around a full photographer's kit while travelling. In fact, I actually downsized my camera gear this last trip and did away with my SLR and multitude of lenses in favour of a smaller more compact camera. Mind you, it still had a 500mm zoom lens so I was pretty happy.

Hey David. The class actually went very well - I know I could have done the presentation itself better (a few nerves and a couple of forgotten points), so there's certainly room for improvement. But, the students asked me heaps of questions. In fact I was only meant to have been in the class for 45 minutes all up, but ended up staying the whole 2 hours. At least I didn't put them all to sleep!

By the way, I just stumbled across your 1001 tips for travel writers - great idea. You're pretty quick at putting them up though, so what happens once you reach 1001? ;-)

Anonymous said...

What happens when I reach 1001? I'll let you know in three years' time :)

Trying to do four or five a week at the moment - something to do in those off moments where I don't have net access really. But the ultimate plan is to just be able to point people to it instead of trotting out the same old advice again and again when people ask for information about getting into travel writing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim, Thank you so much for sharing this piece of gem. Looking forward to read more of your adventures and of course tips on travel writing.

Kim Wildman said...

Hi Ashish. Thank you so much. I'm very happy you found my my advice useful.