Nope that headline’s not the start of a joke. Although perhaps it should be … punchlines in the comments, please. But actually it’s about something else. I ran a pitching workshop for travel writers recently at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (highlights video coming soon…) and I asked the group this question: what’s the difference between a travel writer and a war reporter?
The similarities are clear: they both travel to distant parts of the world and write about them to educate the rest of us back home.
But clearly there are some major differences too, and I asked this question to make a point.
Besides the topic and danger to one’s life – although that comes into it – I think the difference is this:
The war reporter, or let’s broaden it to investigative journalist, writes because he or she wants to use their time to inform the world about things they think are important. They’re thinking about what they can do for the industry of journalism, what they can do to educate people who are ignorant of the facts, help people who are powerless or under-represented, and maybe make the world a less ignorant, better place.
What are you doing to add value?
The travel writer often decides to be a travel writer for what travel writing can do for them. It’s about the travel and the free hotel rooms and hacking through lush forests and kicking back on beautiful beaches and so on – things that make their life more comfortable, imaginative or exciting (without getting shot at).
I’m not saying travel writers are selfish, self-oriented takers – or that there’s anything wrong with choosing a livelihood where the risks are low and the goal is to provide for yourself and family. And I’m being simplistic too. Obviously the war reporter or investigative journalist may be motivated by glory and money and adventure as well.
But I think this is a point worth considering if you’re an existing or wannabe travel writer, because often people have a misconception about travel writing.
Travel writing is not in fact about swigging free drinks on gorgeous beaches, throwing a few words down into your journal and being paid handsome sums of money for your thoughts. To be a travel writer, a successful one, you need to hustle, you need to work, and you need to prove your worth to your editors time and time again.
And that’s the moral of this little missive – ask not what your editor (or your next travel writing gig) can do for you, ask what you can do for your editor.
Editors love their backs being scratched
It’s about motivation and providing value.
One way to provide value is to offer to help source pictures. Another is to make sure your pitch is solid, and has an angle. Saying to an editor ‘I want to write a piece about Mozambique because I’ve never been there before’ is not going to win you that assignment (unless you can somehow convince your editor that ‘A first-timer’s guide to Mozambique’ is a story worth running). Your angle needs to be about Mozambique itself, or about travellers going to Mozambique.