The truth about travel writing – PLUS: 6 surprising hacks

The truth about travel writing – PLUS: 6 surprising hacks

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So you want to be a travel writer. You’ve flicked through dozens of glossy magazine features, scrolled past hundreds of aspirational Instagram posts, you’ve read the success stories: that Irish guy who started with a $50 ad on his little travel blog and went on to earn $1 million in three years; that other guy who spends his entire life flying around the world to get frequent flyer points and blog about it. 

You’re struck by the thought: and here I am in an office cubicle, staring at a screen that’s WAY too bright. Where the hell’s the dimmer switch? Maybe I’m the dimmer switch. I should travel. I should do that. I want a million dollars while traveling the world

And then you read the warnings. You have to be lucky. You have to be good. Scratch that – you have to be great. You have to work hard. HARD. Travel writing is glamorous. But only when it doesn’t suck. 

Here’s the bad news: some of that is true. Travel writing is probably the most competitive of the freelance writing niches you could get into, which means the pay is middling to low, on average. And it’s not all fun and frolics on beaches with cocktails. Travel writing is as much about providing accurate, reliable information as it is poeticizing your observations and interpretation of a place or experience. So it is a job, not just a holiday. And editors get dozens of pitches every week and month, making it tough to stand out, especially if you’re new. 

Here’s the good news: there are thousands of travel publications around the world and they publish thousands of articles every day. Some of them pay well, up to a dollar a word or more. And, with a little bit of insider knowledge, it is possible to stand out, win commissions and make a decent living as a travel writer, even when you lack experience at the start. 

I’ve commissioned and edited travel stories for a decade. I’ve learned how to tell if an email pitch fits my needs within three seconds of reading. Often I need go no further than the subject line. That’s not an exaggeration. And if it doesn’t – DELETE. I’ve also learned what types of pitches speak to me, the ones I buy and why. I’m the first editor I know who’s put this stuff down and you can find it all on my blog – giving you all that info from the editor’s side of the email divide. 

Below I’ve laid out a few simple pointers I think new travel writers, or those considering entering the space, should bear in mind. Below these points is a link to around 100 travel publications that have freelance budgets. 

This might sound odd but … 6 surprising truths about travel writing

1. You don’t actually need to travel to be a travel writer 

A great tip if you’re new to travel writing, are looking to get a few bylines and articles posted for your portfolio and/or don’t have the finances or time to travel extensively, is not to travel. Sure, if you live in Chicago your aim as a travel writer may be to travel anywhere but Chicago and write about it. But for every magazine, website or newspaper based elsewhere, Chicago could be an exotic destination worthy of a story. And you could be the person to write it. And while you’re starting out you have to take the jobs you can get!

These could be jobs for titles based in Chicago, other titles based in the US, or international titles for which travel to Chicago might be costly. Do a good job and you could become their go-to Chicago correspondent. Get a portfolio built up, and you can now market yourself as an experienced travel writer to other publications that are happy to hear pitches about other locations. 

2. You don’t actually need any experience to be a travel writer

When pitching for journalistic stories especially (as opposed to content marketing posts or blogs) the most critical part of your pitch is your idea.

What story are you hoping to tell? Why is it important, and why now? How does it fit your target publication’s mission? And why are you the person to write it?

If the answers to these questions are good enough, particularly if you have access (to events, people or places) that others don’t, and you present your idea professionally and in a way that suggests you know how editors like to work, your editor will not be too concerned about your experience and credentials.

Of course, to get ongoing work and repeat commissions and retainers (the golden egg of freelance writing, where you get paid a set amount each month to deliver a certain number of stories), you need to write well and deliver an accomplished article.

But a great idea targeted at the right editor at the right publication will very often find a home, regardless of what you’ve done before. 

3. You can get travel writing jobs simply by changing your email signature

If you are convinced that you want to be a travel writer, that is how you should present yourself. So change your email signature from ‘Freelance writer’ or ‘Travel blogger’ or ‘Wannabe travel scribbler, maybe’ or whatever other vague and insecure title you’ve given yourself, and from now on be a ‘Travel journalist’ or ‘Travel writer’.

This is about merchandising and marketing yourself as someone that editors can trust and will want to work with. 

4. You don’t need a large network 

Thanks to Pitchwhiz! It’s very easy these days to find all the titles, and their commissioning editors, that buy travel articles. I set up Pitchwhiz as a one-stop shop for freelance writers, and there’s plenty of other information online, including on my blog, showing how editors like to be pitched and giving other insights into where and how to find work. 

5. A place is not a story idea

Too many times I’ve been ‘pitched’ by writers, both experienced and new, with something along the lines of: ‘Hi James, I’m going to Cambodia next week – would you like a story?’

This is a terrible pitch because it fails to actually promote anything that might be of interest. Cambodia is a place, it is not a story idea, and when pitching editors you need to present them with real stories you can write. 

6. Your story lives and dies by its headline

If the idea is the most critical part of your pitch, the headline is the most critical part of your idea.

First of all you need to include a headline or working title in your pitch. Many people don’t. This is a signpost that encapsulates your idea and tells your target editor in six or eight or twelve words why this story could be for them. It also shows that you understand the core angle or theme of your piece, and will (hopefully) deliver an article that doesn’t stray too far from that theme.

Editors are always thinking about headlines, especially if they work online, because the headline is the key sales mechanism for getting eyeballs. On all websites and social media feeds, dozens, maybe hundreds of stories fight for a reader’s attention, and he or she will select what to click via the headline. So spend time on this. This is why we need a story, and not just a topic when we pitch. 

Soaked up all those pointers? Here’s a link to many travel publications, both print and online, along with their author guidelines and fees where available:

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