21 tips for every aspiring travel writer

21 tips for every aspiring travel writer

15 things every aspiring travel writer should know
Travel writing isn't always free holidays, press jollies and fun in the sun. Travel journalism requires perseverence, an open mind and a lot of patience.

To be able to go on what seems like an incredible holiday and write about it when you get home… it sounds the dream, right? Having an idea go from pitch to publish is one of the most rewarding feelings, but requires a lot of flexibility and determination, along with a very open mind. If you’re an aspiring travel writer and are looking for some tips as you hope to get started in your dream career, keep reading…

Read. A lot.

I can’t stress enough how effective reading is. The more you read, the more your writing will naturally improve, and the more your writing improves, the more chance you’ll have of writing for your dream publications. You should regularly look to absorb writing from the best journalists out there so you can gain inspiration and see what type of content is actually published where. There’s nothing worse for an editor than receiving a completely irrelevant pitch.

Nail a niche

Travel writing is incredibly competitive and there are so many people out there looking to get published. Is there something you are particularly experienced in, such as skiing? Or do you know a lot about a specific area that doesn’t get much coverage? Even better, could skiing in this unknown area be a chosen niche? Nailing your niche early on is very important as this not only shows you know what you’re talking about, but it will eventually give you authority in your chosen field(s). It may limit you initially but once you get pitching to the right titles, you can forget about competing with thousands of others to write about your last holiday. It’s also okay to have more than one niche, but don’t have too many as it might make you look like a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Follow and engage with journalists in your expert fields

It’s important to build up a network of fellow writers as it gets your name recognised and they’ll often pass on invaluable tips. If you can get to know some of them well it may also result in work opportunities further down the line – a lot of writers work in network bubbles where they will refer or recommend other trusted writers to take on work they don’t have the capacity for. It’s a long game, but it’s certainly one worth playing. Networking events are also a good way of getting your name out there.

Also follow editors of your desired publications

It’s a good idea to follow editors on Twitter to make sure you are doing the right things before pitching. Some editors tweet when they are looking for pitches, others tweet helpful tips when it comes to pitching and others do regular call-outs for journalists. The bigger your professional network, the better your chances are.

Research before you travel, and travel to less obvious places

I can’t stress this enough either. If you’re serious about turning your trip into a paid job then don’t just turn up without any plans, and don’t just go where everyone else goes. At the very least, research the area and find out any quirky or interesting facts that you could use later on. For example: when I went to Poznań in Poland, I knew that there was a longstanding tradition that saw two mechanical billy goats appear from the Town Hall clock at 12pm to headbutt each other twelve times, and that hundreds of people flocked there daily to watch it happen. I also knew that there was a really cheap bar just a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, but that’s beside the point.

Be prepared to pay your way

It’s quite regular for me to hear things like…

“You’re always on holiday!”
“I want your job!”
“I’d love to go on free holidays!”

Believe it or not, myself and many other freelance travel journalists do pay our way, especially when starting out. We book the flights and accommodation ourselves in search of the stories that will make us the income. When a story is particularly interesting to titles, it’s up to me to make sure I’m recouping my outgoings, alongside money for my time. It’s often a risk, especially when freelance, so remember: this is a business, so you’ll want to make sure that your sole aim isn’t just to cover your outgoings. It’s possible to partner with tourist boards and hotels for free stays in return for mentions in your piece, however, this is only likely to happen once you’re a little more known in tourism circles, and you’ve had a had a relevant pitch accepted at a known outlet.

Carry a notebook with you

You can either carry a notebook or use a notes app on your phone, but it’s really important to keep track of anything story-worthy, or at least what you’ve been doing, even if you think your memory won’t let you down. When you’re back home, those simple notes will help you retrace your steps and piece together those all important pieces of your travel puzzle. A notebook will be more useful on adventure-type trips, or if your phone has a terrible battery, as it’s not exactly going to die on you. If you’re prone to losing things, make sure you write a note in the front of it with your details.

Get local advice

Following on from carrying a notebook, it’s incredibly helpful to find local advice. Whether it’s from the hotel concierge, your Airbnb host or tourist information, local people hold the key to all things unusual, quirky and hidden. I’ve tapped into local knowledge to land some of my most successful commissions. Write down what they say and try to extract as much information from them as possible. In your taxi from the airport, tap up the driver for as much information as possible – it’s a bit of a cliché but taxi drivers do hold a myriad of priceless local knowledge.

Find a unique angle

Travel writing isn’t as easy as coming back from a trip to Paris and writing about how great it was. Every title worth its salt has written about Paris a thousand times over. To stand any chance of having a pitch accepted, you need to dig a little deeper and find something quirky, unusual or unique that hasn’t been covered before. Hopefully, you will have researched your destination before arrival and as soon as you’ve dropped your bags off you’ll be on the trail of a killer angle to land you that gig. Instead of writing about a weekend in Paris, perhaps write about an up-and-coming local neighbourhood, or a trailblazing community-led project.

Take good photos, if you can

Travel writing and photography go hand in hand, so if you can take good photos that’s a massive bonus. Try to only submit photos that are taken on a camera, rather than a phone, as any accepted pitches will need images that are of a high enough resolution and edited to a good standard. Editors will be thankful and probably more likely to entertain your ideas if you can provide images of an area or subject that are not easy to find, but only offer to submit photos if your equipment is up to scratch and you know your way around Lightroom.

Know the point of your piece

Before you even think about pitching, you need to fully understand the point you’re trying to get across. What exactly is it you want the readers to take from it? Do you want them to be inspired to take a trip there? Do you want to educate them about a specific culture or religion? If you know exactly what it is that you want the end goal to be, you’ll find putting your story into words a lot easier.

Start small and work your way up

We all want to write for our favourite publications, but initially this probably isn’t realistic. Starting small and pitching ideas to local websites and magazines will really give you a good starting point when it comes to spreading your journalistic wings and soaring up the ladder. You’ll want to make sure that you are paid, but be aware that smaller outlet budgets are not exactly flush.

Study your chosen publication before pitching

Make sure you’re submitting the right type of story to the right publication. You can do this by spending some time reading travel articles on their website or in their magazine and making sure your idea fits the bill. For example, you wouldn’t send a pitch on quad biking in a Saudi desert to a travel magazine found onboard cruises, but you might send that to one with a younger, active audience that frequent adventure holidays. Focus on the publication’s tone of voice and delivery to ensure you can write to their audience. Making it clear that you have studied your chosen publication in detail will always give you a chance.

Pitch regularly

Pitching can be the bane of a freelance journalist’s life. All that time spent honing ideas, meticulously crafting emails and chasing up for – most of the time – rejections in the form of silence. It can be demoralising getting no responses, but persistence is key when it comes to pitching. You’ll want to make sure that you have a bank of content ideas that you are regularly topping up so that when it comes to firing those all-important emails you can be consistent in your approach. The more you pitch, the more success you are likely to have, but don’t adopt a scatter gun approach. If you can – realistically – only send three pitches each week, stick to that and make sure they are three excellent emails. If you fire out twenty average ones each week it’s only going to be a waste of yours, and the editor’s, time.

Be concise

Nine times out of ten you’ll have to win the editor over in the email subject. This means, in busier inboxes at least, your email may get deleted without even being opened. You’ll have to persuade the editor to open your email at first glance; therefore putting the subject line as “Germany” really isn’t going to do you any favours. However, “The secret German island home to less than 1,000 residents” may strike more of a chord. Your pitches will need to be to-the-point; a simple introductory line about yourself, along with a working title and a brief blurb will do. Do not, under any circumstance, send a first draft across as a pitch. That gets deleted immediately and is a waste of your time.

Be persistent, but not annoying

Unless the editor has specifically stated not to, it’s okay to follow up your pitch with a reminder email around a week or two later. Persistence is important but what’s even more important is not crossing the boundary into annoyance territory. If you’re repeatedly emailing to check if your idea was suitable and they haven’t got back to you, it’s probably not suitable for that outlet. That doesn’t mean it’s not suitable at all; it just means that editor didn’t like it. For pitches to magazines, expect to wait a little longer as their features can be planned up to a year in advance.

Understand lead times

While pitching to online publications can be fairly straight-forward in terms of lead times, pitching to newspapers and magazines is a different ball game. If you’re pitching something online that’s time-sensitive, you’ll want to make sure that you’re pitching it in a timely manner, i.e. if your story is about the 50th anniversary of a landmark, and that anniversary is in February, you shouldn’t be pitching it in February – try December. If you’re pitching stories to magazines, be very aware that they’re likely to have their next 6-12 months already planned out, with some slots filled by in-house writers. For Christmas travel ideas, it’s worth pitching around March. For summer holiday ideas, prepare your pitch in December. It may seem odd thinking in off-season but once you’re regularly pitching, this will be normal. Once you’re “in” at a magazine, some editors will let you know what they’ve got planned and when to pitch by.

Don’t pitch ideas to more than one editor at a time

Editors do talk to each other, so you’re going to look rather unprofessional if you’re whizzing out the same idea to twenty different publications. Fine tune your pitch to your preferred publication and await a reply. If you follow up after a few weeks and still don’t hear back, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not for them. This is why pitching regularly is so important as it ensures that you’re not waiting for a reply before moving on; if you have a handful of different pitches on the go at the same time, it makes your life a lot easier. If your story is time sensitive, make it clear in the pitch that you’ll be offering it to other publications if you don’t hear back by a certain date. If you’ve been told your idea isn’t suitable, look for other publications to take it to, making sure you’re crafting a new email each time. Don’t just forward it on.

Document your pitches and editors’ contact details

Something I wish I had done from the beginning was to document my pitches in a spreadsheet. Not only does this make it easier when it comes to following up, it also gives you an opportunity to check you haven’t pitched the idea to them before, and that you’re not pitching something that has already been rejected. A handy spreadsheet with all the emails you need will save you having to trawl through your inbox or search on Twitter for a contact too. This is something that you can expect to build up over many years and will often change as editors move jobs – don’t worry about having it all done at the beginning.

Pitch accepted? For goodness sake, don’t submit late

Always file your commission early. Always. And I mean always. Never, ever file anything late, as – unless you have a perfectly valid reason to file late – you’ll probably lose your chance with that publication. Try to agree a realistic deadline. Don’t do what I did early on and be so keen that say you can do it by tomorrow if it’s going to leave you flat out and risk submitting something not up to standard. Be open and honest, agree a deadline, stick to it and file early (with photos if possible) for a smooth and memorable process.

Host your published work in an online portfolio

After you’ve had your first few pieces published online, it’s a good idea to set up a portfolio. Not only does this make you look more professional, it’s an easy, aesthetically pleasing way of showing your work to editors you pitch to. They’ll need to see that you’re competent at writing, as well as an expert in your niche. This can either be a portfolio on your website, like mine, or a simple spreadsheet with links and titles in.

Good luck – I hope this article helps with your future travel writing endeavours!

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