This post is a little inside baseball about travel writing. It’s a follow-up to my semi-ongoing series on travel blogging that started with this post, continued with this one, and will now (probably) end with this post here. To me, the crux of all online endeavors is good writing. With so many blogs out there, if you can’t write engaging stories, you’ll never get anywhere! So today, I want to introduce one of my favorite travel writers, David Farley, who is going to share 11 writing tips for fellow bloggers and writers out there! Here’s David:
I always thought that once I started writing for glossy travel magazines, I could relax a bit because I’d “made it.” Nope! Then I thought that once I began penning pieces for the New York Times, I could say I was successful. Not. At. All. OK, maybe when I had a book out, published by a major publishing house, things would get a bit easier for me. I wish!
Writers, in some way, are a sorry lot. Rarely do they ever look at something and say “perfect!” Maybe for a moment — but give a writer a day and he or she will come back to that same article and find dozens of mistakes. Writing is a craft you never perfect.
We’re always striving to be better. Creatives tend to be perfectionists. Writing requires you to keep learning and improving.
But that’s good, because that drive makes writers improve their work. And only through practice and effort do we end up with the Hemingways, Brysons, Gilberts, and Kings of the world. (Matt says: I once heard that until the day he died, Frost never loved “The Road Not Taken.” He was constantly reworking it!)
If you’re a travel blogger, you probably started off not as a writer with a journalism background but as a traveler looking to share your experience. You probably didn’t have any formal training or someone to peer over your shoulder and give you advice.
So today I wanted to share 11 tips that will help you improve your travel writing or blogging. Because the world always needs good writers — and good writing helps get your story heard more! These tips, if followed, will better your writing and make a huge difference in the reach of your writing!
1. Read. This is number one. because whenever a budding writer asks me how they can improve, it’s my first piece of advice. Read good writing. Absorb it. Let it sink into your soul. Don’t think it’s possible? When I was first starting out, I was sick one weekend, so I spent three days lying in bed reading every page of that year’s Best American Travel Writing anthology. After I finished, I opened up my laptop and started writing for the first time in days. What came out surprised me: it was the highest-quality writing I’d done to date. And it was all because I was absorbed in good writing and it filtered through me back onto the page in my own writing.
(Matt says: Here’s a list of my favorite travel books.)
2. Do it for love. Maya Angelou wrote, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” Don’t get into travel writing for the money — after all, that would be totally unrealistic. And please don’t gravitate to the genre because you want free trips and hotel rooms. “Instead,” Ms. Angelou added, “do [it] so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” Or, in other words, strive to become such a good writer that the editors of all the publications you have been dreaming to write for can’t ignore you anymore.
3. Don’t be attached to linear writing. You need not compose a piece from beginning to middle to end. Sometimes that’s not the ideal structure of the story. Sure, maybe you’ve already figured that out. But if not, it’s OK to just get a few scenes and paragraphs of exposition down “on paper.” Then you can step back and take a look at the bigger picture and rearrange what you have, figuring out the best way to tell the story.
4. Tap into your own sense of motivation and drive. The students of mine at New York University who have been most successful were not always the most talented in the class. But they were the most driven. They’d read enough quality writing and thought about it — understanding what made it so wonderful — that there was just something about writing that they got. They weren’t born with that understanding, but ambition drove them to seek out better writing and then to think about it, to analyze what made it good (or not so good). Drive also inspires future successful writers to go out on a limb, to render themselves vulnerable, by reaching out to more accomplished writers to ask for advice, or by introducing themselves to editors at events or conferences. Don’t be shy! Standing in the corner quietly won’t get you as far as putting your hand out to introduce yourself will.
5. Try to figure out what gets your mind and writing flowing. Let me explain: I can sit down at my laptop and stare at a blank Word document for hours, not sure how to start a story or what to write about. Then I’ll respond to an email from a friend who wants to know about the trip I’m trying to write about. I’ll write a long email with cool and interesting anecdotes about my experience and include some analysis about the place and culture. And then I’ll realize: I can just cut and paste this right into the empty Word doc I’ve been staring at for the last three hours! Several of my published articles have blocks of texts that were originally written as parts of emails to friends. The “email trick” might not work for everyone, but there is inevitably some trick for the rest of you — be it talking to a friend or free-associating in your journal.
6. Understand all aspects of storytelling. There are two types of travel writing: commercial and personal essay (or memoir). In commercial travel writing, you should make the various parts of the story an intrinsic aspect of your knowledge: from ways to write a lede to the nut graph, scenes, exposition, and conclusions. For memoir and personal essays, know what narrative arc means like the back of your typing hands. It helps to get an intuitive understanding of these things by paying attention to writing — to reading like a writer — as you read nonfiction (and travel) articles.
7. Don’t stress if your first draft is shit. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And he wasn’t kidding. I find this true when I’m writing a personal essay or travel memoir. I write and I write and I write, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m putting down on paper. What’s the point of this? I ask myself. Why am I even doing this? But here is where patience comes in: eventually, the clouds part, the proverbial sunbeam from the heavens shines down on our computer monitors, and we see the point of it all: we finally figure out what it is we’re writing and how to best tell that story. It just happens like magic sometimes. And not all at once: sometimes it’s bit by bit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But as I mentioned, patience is key, because we never know when that divine magic is going to be activated. But sit around long enough and it will happen, I promise you. (Just be cautious when taking Hemingway’s other writing advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.”)
8. Write what you know. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell,” said writer Neil Gaiman, “because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”
9. When you’re finished with a draft, read it out loud. Preferably, print it out and read it out loud. This will allow you to better hear how the piece sounds, and unacceptable segues and clunky sentences or turns of phrases will jump out at you in a more obvious way.
10. Always get another set of eyes on your writing. While all writers make mistakes, it’s harder to spot them without an editor. Editors are very important, but they don’t necessarily have to be someone with formal training. While hiring a copyeditor is always great, if you can just get a friend to read your blog or story, that might be good enough.
It’s even better if you have someone who doesn’t know about travel. I have a friend who doesn’t travel much; she reads all my blog posts because she helps me make sure I include the important details I might have skipped. See, when you’re an expert on something, you often fill in the blanks in your mind. You go from A to C automatically; step B becomes subconscious. And when you write, you skip step B because it seems so obvious. Getting someone who doesn’t know the steps will help ensure you include explain everything in your post and don’t leave your readers going, “Huh?”
11. Finally, learn to self-edit. This is where many people go wrong. They write, they read it over, they post. And then feel embarrassed as they say, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I missed that typo.” You don’t need to be master editor, but if you follow a few principles, it will go a long way: First, write something and let it sit for a few days before editing. After your first round of edits, repeat the process. Get another set of eyes on it. Print out a checklist of grammar rules to go through as you edit. (Note: Matt created one here for you.) As you review your work, say to yourself, “Did I do this? Did I do that?” If you follow the cheat sheet, you’ll catch most of your mistakes and end up with a much better final product!
Writing is an art form. It takes a lot of practice. When you’re a blogger out on your own, it can be harder to improve your work, because you don’t have an experienced voice giving you tips and advice and pushing you to be better. If you don’t take it upon yourself to be better, you never will be. However, even if you aren’t blessed to work under an editor, these 11 tips can help you improve your writing today and become a much better blogger, writing stories people want to read!
David Farley has been writing about travel, food, and culture for over twenty years. His work has appeared in AFAR magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, and World Hum, among other publications. In 2006 and 2013, he won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for magazine articles he wrote. He has lived in Prague, Paris, and Rome and now New York City. He is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity and was a host for National Geographic. He teaches writing at Columbia University and New York University.
If you’re looking to become a travel writer or just improve your writing, David and I created a detailed and robust travel writing course. Through video lectures and examples of edited and deconstructed stories, you’ll get the course David teaches at NYU and Columbia (without the price). If you’re interested, click here to learn more.
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