Travel writer Sharon Kelly provides advice and tips on how to get a travel article published. Sharon has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines including Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Times, Independent, She, Company, Cosmopolitan, Arena. She is also the co-writer and creator of Brief Lives, a BBC Radio 4 drama now in its eight year.
There are very few jobs which are more fun than being a travel writer. I mean what’s not to love about being paid to travel the world. And there’s the rub – many, many people, writers and non-writers alike want to get in on the act. So here are some tips on how to get that elusive commission.
First and foremost, before you even put pen to paper, think about what is the unique selling point of your travel piece. Newspapers, magazine and online travel sites are overwhelmed with proposals – yours needs to stand out. Your goal is to give insight and deliver a new perspective on a destination.
For example, I recently wrote a piece on Vietnam and Cambodia for The Sunday Telegraph. I knew the paper had covered South East Asia numerous times before but I had an angle – at 54 I was returning to backpacking after a 30 year hiatus. They loved the idea.
I’m going to use my article to give some examples of how to proceed once you’ve got your USP:
Write in the first person, past tense (in the main) and make your story a personal account, interwoven with facts, description and observation. You’re taking the reader on your personal journey.
Many writers start their piece with a strong – but brief – anecdote that introduces the general feeling, tone and point of the trip and story. I used the anecdote of my ripped jeans:
‘This catastrophe led to a sequence of events that would reduce many a middle-aged woman to tears and an immediate flight home. But not me. How I laughed when I tried on a kaftan that made me look like the not-so-small sister of the late Demis Roussos, how I giggled with the tailor as he measured my behind, and how I howled, hysterically, when he produced an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an operating theatre. On the upside, he did manage to patch my jeans. If there’s one piece of advice I would give any woman travelling to Indo-China it’s, if you’re over a size eight, make sure you have enough clothes with you.’
With this story I wanted to give a flavour of what to expect from my journey, my attitude and some of the problems you face when backpacking at 54.
Show not tell. Mike Carter, Guardian contributor and author of One Man and his Bike says:
‘An important rule of creative travel writing is to show, not tell, wherever possible. Readers want to feel as if they’re eavesdropping on a conversation, or being shown something secret and magical. People don’t like being told what to think. If a child wearing rags made you sad, for example, describe the child, their clothes, the way they carried themselves. Assume readers are sentient. If you write it well, they will “feel” what effect the encounter had on you. This is much more powerful than saying, “I felt sad.”’
You need to paint a picture. I could have just written about the roads in Hanoi being very busy but instead I described it like this:
‘Along with millions of other mopeds (some carrying live animals, monks and whole families), a large number of buses, lorries and taxis but a distinct lack of traffic lights, we whizzed through the dilapidated, charming, mildewed city that is Hanoi, only slightly slowing down at crossroads or roundabouts, where my guide would say: “Shut your eyes now, lady”.’
Read as much as you can about your destination before you arrive, and don’t just read the guidebooks. This way, if you see something unfamiliar or peculiar, you’ll have a better chance of understanding the reasoning behind the custom. And check your facts!
Do not start at the beginning of your trip. Cherry pick the best bits and don’t get bogged down in boring details. You need to achieve a balance between a bone-dry, fact filled, article and a stream of consciousness.
Avoid clichés like the plague! Try to come up with original descriptions that mean something. Or subvert clichés, such as ‘I got out by the skin of my legs’ or ‘who’s been dragged through a Gardenia godefroyana hedge backwards.’
Finally, a word advice from Don George the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications:
‘In 25 years of travel editing, the biggest mistake I’ve seen writers make has remained the same: they don’t know the point they’re trying to make, so they can’t possibly communicate it. When you sit down to write your tips and tales from the road, ask yourself: what do I want the reader to learn from this? What’s the take-away? Then craft a tightly constructed piece that leads, step by step, to that lesson-point. Do this, and you’ll have made a significant leap along the travel writer’s path.’
Good luck and bon voyage!