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Freelance Travel Writing: How to get started

February 6, 2011 · 19 comments

It’s the hardest thing. You look at other writers in papers and magazines, and you think, “Okay, I could do that. But how?”

Kicking off your career as a travel writer is a slog, no doubt about it. And there’s no easy way around it. It sounds glib, but it really is going to take hard work, a bit of talent, and about 100 times that amount of luck.

I got my start in journalism up in Brisbane, working as a junior writer at a suburban magazine called Brisbane News. That’s where I took my first clumsy steps as a travel writer, too (in between the real estate write-ups and “what’s on” columns), taking the odd junket as a trade-off for a crappy salary and writing about it for the magazine.

Those stories were nothing spectacular, but they were a start. What really got things going, ironically, was quitting.

I left Brisbane News to spend a year travelling. Before that, however, I managed to organise a meeting with the travel editor of the Courier-Mail, and he promised me he’d consider any story ideas I swung his way.

Things didn’t exactly take off from there – I was way too busy having a good time to pitch or write many stories – but I at least got a few published in full newspapery goodness (including one on the gorillas in the Congo, above), and I was away.

Next up was a move to Sydney, taking a casual job on the Sydney Morning Herald sports desk. Still not exactly every travel writer’s dream, but it did give me the chance to chat to a few of the people in the know, so that when I had the idea for the Backpacker blog, I knew who to go to.

Fortunately that idea was given the green light, and four years later I’m still writing it. It was a case of right place, right time, right contacts and right idea.

Obviously not everyone’s going to have those circumstances, and I’m always getting asked how people can get their start in the industry.

The good news is, all the tools are right there in front of you, in the form of a computer and an internet connection. If you want to get into freelance travel writing, you need to start a travel blog. Now.

If you really enjoy writing and have plenty of travel experience, this won’t be a problem, and it’s the only way writers with no experience can guarantee that their work gets published. Get on the net and publish it yourself.

That way when you start pitching travel stories to newspaper and magazine editors, you can point them in the direction of your blog to sample your writing. That’s got to be better than asking them to blindly trust your skills.

It also shows your travel experience, and your dedication to the writing craft, as well as your writing style.

There’s another benefit to kicking off a blog, too. If you’re good enough, you won’t even need those newspaper and magazine editors.

My mate Anthony has been running The Travel Tart for only two years now, and is already fielding offers from all sorts of tourism agencies to send him around the world for free.

Ant’s a great writer who’s dedicated to what he does and works hard on it, and he’s shown what you can do when you strike out on your own. Get involved, I say.

Do you have your own travel blog? Give it a plug below!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

David Whitley February 7, 2011 at 1:33 am

My standard response to the “How do you become a travel writer?” question is “Go to the job centre and look between trapeze artist and truck driver”.

I know very few people who have gone straight into travel writing. And I’m afraid people who are blogging and getting sent around the world for free don’t count – that’s still a hobby rather than making a living.

The most important thing is to learn how to write, learn what makes something a story worth publishing and learn how to find out information. Or the basics of journalism, if you like. Anyone can travel; travelling doesn’t make you a travel writer – writing, and being able to sell your ideas, does.

bengroundwater February 7, 2011 at 1:51 am

All good points David, but wouldn’t you acknowledge that blogging is a good way to practice the art?

David Whitley February 7, 2011 at 2:21 am

Sure is. Depends how good the blog is though. Most travel blogs are largely read by other bloggers (there’s an endless circle-jerk of commenting on each others’ posts and RTing on Twitter, irrespective of post quality).

There are some truly excellent travel bloggers out there, but the majority of travel blogs are dreadful (as will always be the case when there’s no barrier to entry). A sub-section relies on selling e-books about how to make money from travel blogging, even though they don’t make enough from it to be a viable business themselves. Others use it as a shop window, others use it to be able to make points they’d not be allowed to make in commissioned articles (I’m somewhere between the two – I sure as hell don’t make any money from it).

Without an editor on your back, you can get into lazy habits too – namely writing for yourself rather than the readership. That’s fine on a blog, but it’ll not get you far if you’re trying to branch out into paid work.

There is a myth that editors will only buy pieces from established writers though. Write something great, fit it to the format and word count of the publication you’re sending it to and let the editor see the whole piece on spec. If it’s really good and they’ve got budget, they may well buy it.

The key point still stands: being able to write is roughly 1,000 times more important than being able to travel. Going to Thailand/ Belize/ The Galapagos Islands, doesn’t automatically mean what you’ve got to say is worth reading…

Ben Alcock February 7, 2011 at 4:01 am

Blogging’s where I’m starting, Ben.

Eight followers and counting!

Great post BTW, you (hard working) lucky bugger.

Wendy February 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

I would def say not snubbing the smaller papers is key – getting articles published is a great way to build up your CV, especially if you are still doing a 9-5 in another career area. Community papers are always happy to have good quality submission on local tourist attractions, or else sites like Destination-traveler.com (which I manage) are a good place to have work published for free and start building up a portfolio and name for yourself.

Elise of Positive World Travel February 7, 2011 at 9:19 am

Thanks for the tips and pointers. We have been travelling around the world for over a year now and hope to one day get some of our writing published. We’ve had a few bits and pieces here and there, but who knows! Anyway, our site is: http://positiveworldtravel.com
Cheers :)

Empress Jo February 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I found this rather amusing to read. You probably wouldn’t remember Ben, but I emailed you precisely on this topic after one of your first SMH Backpacker blogs. You kindly wrote back with essentially the above tips, but it took me three years before I got off my lazy ass and did something about it.

Granted, my first blog is about food – http://the-empress-eats.blogspot.com/ – as I was cooking and not travelling at the time, but I’ve just started a new job in Switzerland and have consequently started a new blog – http://the-empress-exported.blogspot.com/ – on what it’s like to move to a new country. It’s closer to a travel blog, and I might actually get to the travel blog in the near future, but in the meantime, I am writing and sharing those experiences with those who care to read about them.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Kirsty February 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for the answers Ben!
I have recently started a Blog, not necessarily completely devoted to travel, but it will be more so from now on… its at http://theobsessionsofkirsty.wordpress.com/

Cheers!

Stu February 9, 2011 at 3:47 am

Interesting post and good tips! I’m a journo myself, not hoping to make a living out of travel writing but use it as a way to… extend the finances… on travels.
I think there’s two big skills people need – a basic understanding of what makes journalism different from writing, and the ability to sell a story/idea.
There’s so much more to writing than just crapping on about your experiences, it’s a skill you have to take the time to learn.
David’s spot on, my travel blog from my last trip was intentionally a personal one, I think people often don’t quite understand the difference.
Also, in my experience writing enough to make a living while travelling requires a big sacrifice in time – and last time I tried I failed dismally – that is, you have to take time out of your holiday to actually do the work. Way harder than it sounds!

Not to say it’s impossible though. Do a short course in writing, read loads of travel stories and see what makes them good, learn how to use the fancy camera and get some contacts before you leave (!!).

Brooke vs. the World February 10, 2011 at 2:45 pm

I have to agree with the comment above about a lot of travel blogs being a big circle-jerk and being selling ideas of making loads of money off blogging when they really don’t. It’s something I’ve blogged and thought about a lot in the past month.

As for me, I’ve never had any proper writing experience prior to blogging, but blogging and being active in the travel community is what helped me get my paid gig with WhyGo Australia. I’m in the process of trying to branch out of the small travel blogging bubble though most of us are stuck in at the moment… and it’s harrrrd.

And, I’m always up for a self-promo, so check out my blog at http://brookevstheworld.com :)

Patrick Veitch February 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Just started a travel blog after getting absolutely nowhere fast with my local paper here in Adelaide, and very keen to try and ensure my travel photography is an integral part of the equation.

My intention is to steer clear of the Lonely Planet school of ‘what to see’/’what not to see’, but rather, to try and describe impressions and feelings and flavours of places from a more personal standpoint. I’ll likely also share wildly inaccurate factoids and blinkered opinion, to at least some degree.

Warning: shameless self-aggrandisement ahead:

Blog: http://patrickveitch.blogspot.com
Photos: http://www.patrickveitch.com
Twitter: PatrickVeitch

Okay, safe to proceed. Hope to hear from you all soon.

Fleur Pedlar April 3, 2011 at 7:41 am

Hi! Loved reading your book- and because we actually have one (a blog that is) it is http://www.blog.pedlars.com.au/wordpress
Our family is heading to Europe for 6 months- 2 adults and 10 and 13yo sons. Riding bikes, camping and couch surfing. People think we are a little insane, at times we think we may have been in our planning this. Now I know we are not as mad as you (remembering that at least with CS we can read profiles!), however we are dragging our 2 sons along too! We fly to Heathrow bikes in tow on May 11, 2011. We have 12 months leave from work so we decided to travel, meet some nice people across the globe and learn some history from some very old countries. Sounds like we might just meet some nice people as you did after all. We put a post on a families welcome couch surfing site and have been amazed at the response of invitations. Pretty awesome experience already and we are yet to get there! Blog has some updates to go and more photos to add…
Cheers,
Fleur Pedlar

bengroundwater April 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Sounds like a great trip Fleur, good luck!

Sarah Bown May 9, 2011 at 3:44 am

Hi all,

Loved reading all of your comments, makes me feel not so alone in the trying world of publishing!
I’ve recently returned home from a 6 month University exchange to England and wrote a travel blog ‘Definitely, Maybe, Probably Not’ at http://definitelymaybeprobablynot.blogspot.com/ whilst I was away. Although I have returned home and have signed off on that particular blog, I really enjoyed it and am keen to try and get it out into the world. Anyone have any ideas as to where to start? I’m looking at trying to pitch my blog to the younger adult market, those who are trying out the amazing world of Europe for the first time.
Woud love any feedback on the work :)
Sarah

Rob June 23, 2011 at 12:31 am

I’ve always thought no one should be satisfied with their work until they can write like the (now, sadly) late Patrick Leigh Fermor (http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.com/). But it seems now the most popular “travel writing”, particularly on the web, is just lists:
9 Reasons to Visit Australia
10 Great Animal Migrations to Witness
10 Bluegrass Festivals for Summer

…are just some examples from a travel site I follow. These lists are to travel writing what prawn crackers are to actual prawns – with all the fluff and lifelessness that implies. It’s a miracle Ben can write anything substantial and get it published if that’s all people want to read. So I’ve got a sneaking suspicion if you fancy making money out of writing about your travels (or probably anything, these days) you’re setting yourself up for some disappointment. Better just to write what you want and if you end up with a few dollars you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
But then I’m just an engineer who’s written a few thousand words, so I’ll stand corrected.

Rob
(laosiran.wordpress.com)

bengroundwater June 23, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Hi Rob, I know what you mean about the lists, and I’m guilty of them as much as anyone with the stuff I do on the Backpacker blog. Trouble is, they’re the ones that seem to rate the highest – people like to argue, and a list is the easiest way start the argument…

Erin July 5, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Anyone know where I can find a list of the top ten list of top ten lists?

I am a little late to this conversation but just can’t help being facetious….

Sharon Dekkar October 26, 2011 at 6:59 am

I just found your site, better late than never. I have been traveling since June and was a little busy. I am starting at ground zero with this and any advice about my blog would be appreciated. Especially about how to get an audience of followers.
Thanks
Shazz

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