The realities of travel writing

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

So you want to be a travel writer? Here’s the reality…

Travel writing: the glamorous life?

There you are on the African savannah, notebook in hand, camera around your neck, bouncing through the bush in hot pursuit of the king of beasts. Later on you’ll be sitting around the campfire recounting the day’s exploits while sampling the local beer.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But to get there, you had to fly for a day and a half, squeezed into an economy-class seat between an apprentice sumo wrestler and a man whose personal beliefs forbid bathing. You spent a skin-slapping night on a flea-infested mattress, then had your bones rearranged on a bus bounding over a potholed highway. Your stomach hadn’t adjusted well to all the time and temperature changes, so you subsisted on bottled water and cookies.

And now, while others snore blissfully away, you sit in your tent scribbling into your notebook by lamplight, having cursed the flat battery in your laptop. The following afternoon, while others nap, you interview the driver and the cook. And on the day when everyone sleeps in after the late-night bush trek, you get up before sunrise to photograph the tawny dawn light.

Now, is that glamour tarnishing just a bit?

The realities of travel writing
While travel writing certainly has the reputation of being an alluring profession, 95 per cent of the job involves a lot of hard work. It’s gathering minute details on hotels, bus timetables, restaurants and walking tours. It’s researching which god did what, which ruler took over from whom and when, and what is signified by the curious ceremony that’s performed every third Friday in May. It’s waiting for planes and trains, buses and ferries, tuk-tuks and trishaws. It’s swatting mosquitoes and squatting over hole-in-the-floor toilets.

It’s eating alone night after night, while whispering couples glance your way with pity. It’s enviously eyeing the people languorously sunning themselves on the beach and realizing that you’ve got six more beaches to check out before lunch.

Being a travel writer can be lonely, exhausting and depressing. You’re always on the lookout for a useful anecdote or scoping an angle. You can’t ever let up, because you’re always working. And that’s just the traveling part. After the trip you have to sell your piece – and that can be a time-consuming and energy-draining process. Even if your work has been commissioned beforehand, you have to be patient until the editor finds time to read it, and you may have to rewrite your article substantially after they’ve done so.

Of course there are moments when it all seems worth it, and the rewards are many. But let us give you an honest, no-holds-barred picture of the challenges you might face, as well as some advice on how to make it all work for you.


Surviving burnout
Burnout is a major factor in the travel writer’s life. You grow tired of gruelling travel schedules; of airports, train stations and bus depots; of late departures and late arrivals; of packing and unpacking; of trying to drum up the enthusiasm to explore some new uncomfortable corner of the world; of juggling home life and road life. You have to strive constantly to balance fickle earnings with fixed expenses in order to pay your bills and maintain ongoing accounts. You have to set aside money for unexpected expenses and, in the USA, take care of your own health care. Both personally and practically, it can feel like you’re always playing catch-up.

It’s important to heed the warning signals, and to structure your life accordingly. One antidote is to take a purely pleasure trip at least once a year. If you find yourself burning out in the middle of a trip, try to turn off your mental note-taking machine for a morning and just wander at will, for pleasure, or laze on the beach. Most successful travel writers ground themselves by building in a certain number of months at home between trips; they catch up on relationships and bills, write the pieces they’ve researched, and recharge their batteries.


Dealing with rejection
Rejection is part of the freelancer’s life. To survive, you need to adopt a certain Zen attitude, and accept that your stories or proposals will often be rejected. Above all, don’t be derailed by the notion that a rejection is somehow personal, a fundamental rejection of you as a writer or, worse, as a human being. Editors are inundated with stories, the vast majority of which they cannot use; they choose the very few that happen to fit into the particular edition they are currently working on. Becoming a published writer is a job, and you have to approach it with a certain steely professionalism. Prepare your work by following the tips in this book, and persevere by continuing to write and submit your proposals and stories.

If you ever do find yourself sinking into the slough of depression, remember that virtually every writer, even the most legendary, has been rejected at some point in their professional life. For example, when he was starting out as a writer, the National Book Award-winning US writer John McPhee submitted dozens of story ideas to the New Yorker; each one was rejected. He persevered until they finally accepted one. A few years later he was a staff writer for that renowned magazine – one of the most coveted writing jobs in the USA. Rejection is simply part of the process. In the UK, many newspapers and magazines don’t have the time or staff to send you a rejection note and so you’re often left in limbo, not knowing what to do next with your unsolicited submission or proposal. To avoid this situation, it’s a good idea to send a covering letter with your article or proposal saying that if you haven’t received a response within one month for newspapers, or two to three months for magazines, you intend to submit it elsewhere. If you haven’t heard from the publication after this amount of time, write a courtesy letter or email telling them that you will now be submitting your story or proposal to other outlets.

In the USA, rejection notes, whether from newspapers or magazines, usually come in the form of either a form rejection or a personal rejection. A form rejection is a preprinted note or templated email, thanking you for your proposal, but letting you know that it can’t be used. While this method may seem very cold and impersonal, it’s just a practicality for most editors. Much as they might want to add a personal note, they simply don’t have the time.

A personal rejection is a printed or hand-written note, clearly addressed personally to you. The editor may write that, while they cannot use your submission, you should feel free to send in other articles, or that they liked your article but just published a piece on the same subject. Consider this to be a major victory, and follow up immediately with another submission or proposal, thanking the editor in your cover letter for the encouraging note they just sent you. If the editor opens the door a crack in this way, you need to keep pushing and open it further. Rejections can and do lead to acceptances. You just have to keep knocking – politely but persistently – on the door.

Form rejection letters are often used by book publishers, but if an editor does include any comments, you should review them carefully. Don’t bury your manuscript away after the first rejection. Bear in mind that most of literature’s greatest success stories were rejected by at least one publisher – and sometimes dozens – before making it into print.

Reproduced with permission from How to be a Travel Writer, © 2017 Lonely Planet


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