The art and science of pitching travel articles

Here’s a little Q&A I did with Christine Peets, freelance writer, blogger, and writing instructor, about what writers should focus on when pitching travel articles.

What makes travel writing different from other types of writing in terms of what the writer needs to consider when pitching a story to an editor?

JD: The most important thing is aligning your pitch with your selected publication’s voice, style and favored topics.

I’m writing a small e-book about this topic at the moment, so it will be hard to capture everything I say in a few lines, but let me sum up a few key general points.

Be concise: A few months ago I received a 1,000-word pitch, with a 300-word follow up an hour later, for a piece that would only run to 800 words. That’s just nuts.

Online vs print: Online publications generally tend towards generating traffic. Print publications are more nebulous, but will be attracted to pieces that have great imagery. Tweak your lines accordingly.

Find an angle: Make sure your story IS a story, not just a description of things. To paraphrase a famous travel editor retort to a pitch: “Hainan Island is a place, not a story idea.” What’s the angle? There’s nothing wrong with injecting a point of view. In fact I encourage it.

Where’s the use? Why would your target publication’s readers care about this story? What do they get out of it? Service info? Cultural knowledge and background? A few laughs? These are all valid reason to run a piece.

Details: If you are pitching a list of ‘Hanoi’s 10 best cafes’ then I would want to see at least 3 or 4 of those cafes mentioned in your pitch, with the reasons they’re on the list. Similarly rather than tell me you will interview “an owner of one of the downtown boutiques,” tell me you will interview “Paul Yang, manager of Barzooka in Central and Elena Smith, co-owner of Jane’s Jewelry in Quarry Bay. Smith was recently named Asia Jeweler of the Year by Forbes and is a nonstop fountain of strong opinions.’”

Since a “travel” story may be appropriate for other magazines, and not just a travel publication, how should submitting the stories be handled?

JD: One of the major flaws of bad pitches is that they haven’t been tailored to appeal to a specific publication. Just like you should tweak and rewrite certain elements of your CV when applying at different employers, you should tweak and adjust pitches for different publications.

• Are you pitching for an online or a print publication?
• Do you know the specific editor to pitch, and the kinds of stories they like to publish?
• Have you researched the publication’s recent archive of features, checking headline styles, standfirsts, voice, favored topics and image use?
• Have you checked they’ve not run a similar story to yours in the recent past?

All of these things (and more) will have an influence on how you should modify and customize your pitch for each potential client.

What makes a good travel writer: someone you want to work with often?

JD: In a word, a pro. Someone who takes their work seriously, who takes my time seriously, who hits deadlines, submits clean copy, does their research, triple fact checks their piece, and is willing to go the extra yard to make sure I get what I want from their writing. This could be doing an extra interview should I think we need one, or helping source images etc.

What advice would you give to an aspiring travel writer?

JD: Write honestly. Easier said than done. Many starting out in travel writing feel the need to think of themselves as exactly that – “travel writers”. In fact there’s no such thing as travel writing, there is only writing, and your subject happens to fall into the travel genre. The problem with being a “travel writer” is you could fall victim to what Martin Amis calls “herd (or heard?) writing” – trying to write how you think a travel writer should write (based on all the “travel articles” you’ve read to date). This can lead to pieces dripping with cliche and full of the kind of fluffy, quaint prose designed to sell places and destinations, rather than report on them.

Do travel editors consider work you’ve published on your own blog (travel or otherwise) as “previously published?” Should you tell an editor that you’ve published the story you’re pitching, or one like it, on your blog?

JD: Absolutely yes and yes. Assuming the editor sends you a contract or work agreement of some form, it will probably contain a clause about being the exclusive owner of the work or something similar. In some cases you’ll be allowed to publish the first paragraph or two on your blog with a link back to the online article for the full story. The reverse can also happen. The first travel blog I ever contributed to (http://travelmag.co.uk/) doesn’t pay (boo) but will unpublish a post if a paying publication is interested in running it.

Is there a difference between travel writing and travel blogging?

JD: There is certainly a difference between professional travel writing and amateur travel writing, or commercial travel publishing and blogging.

In past years I would hear “blog” and think of the kind of post, or website, written by a single person, to entertain and/or inform their families and close friends about some experience they had or are having. Posts would generally take the form of first-person narratives, with little to no deep research, rarely including interviews with other subjects and would be generally quite one-dimensional. These blogs still exist of course. They’re intimate and highly personal accounts of the author’s experience but often offer little context, essentially like extended postcards.

In the last few years bloggers have realised blogs are no longer private endeavors, and what you post can be seen by anyone with an internet connection, including future potential clients and employers. So the game has been upped and blogs are inching closer to the professional standards demanded of bigger digital publications.

But I do think there is still a pretty hefty gap between the posts you’d see on most travel blogs and what you’d see on a mainstream commercial site. It’s a line I see too many times as a travel editor: “I have this great blog that gets hundreds of pageviews a month, and would love to pitch you some ideas!”

Some bloggers are good enough, usually because they’ve had journalism or reporting experience elsewhere, to be able to do this successfully. But most editors will wince at a pitch like this.
Blogs can be a great tool for showcasing your work, your photography, your writing – but they need to be good, and generally one pair of eyes, the same that wrote the piece, is not enough to create a great feature.

What type of travel stories do you like? Are there some you don’t like?

JD: As an online editor, I like stories that drive traffic to my website. There are limits of course. Any travel site could probably double pageviews, short term at least, by putting pictures of scantily clad bikini babes with every post. So you do need to consider your brand too. Here’s something I wrote to my writers while I was at CNN Travel:

1. Lists do well. 10 best… 10 worst… 10 sexiest… 50 most delicious…
2. Superlatives do well. The best … The most unusual… The baddest… The loneliest….
3. Great galleries do well
4. Most importantly, stories that have a broad and potentially international appeal do well. Yes we want to write as insiders, but we also want to write in a way that will intrigue and or inform the outsider. Broad, well written, thoroughly researched and balanced stories are more likely to generate more hits.

I hate stories about spas. The only way I’d assign a story about a spa would be if I was working for AsiaSpa magazine, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

Thank you, James.

Christine Peets is the owner of Captions Communications. She lives and works in southeastern Ontario, Canada, with her husband Jim, who provides great support and excellent photography for Christine’s work.

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