Putting Your Travels into Words
Whether it’s gazing into the Grand Canyon, racing through Bangkok in a tuk-tuk or climbing atop Uluru, something on your travels will almost certainly inspire you to pull out a notebook and start writing. An idea will take hold in your head and you’ll spend weeks struggling to shake it off. “When I get home,” you think, “I’ll use these experiences to become a travel writer!”
This isn’t necessarily a bad plan. The problem, however, is the fact that almost every other gapper comes home with the same idea. That’s why newspaper travel editors and guidebook publishers are forced to devote so much of their energy to keeping afloat on a sea of story ideas, pitches and uninvited manuscripts. It just keeps coming; somehow, you’ll need to stand out from all the others. It’s not easy becoming a travel writer…
In this feature we’ll give you the inside track on how to rise above the rest and get your work in print. There are three stages which you will need to address – the idea, the pitch and the job – here we tackle each in turn. Before that, however, a warning: while this advice might help you to get one or two articles in print, it would take a good deal more effort to forge a sustainable career as a travel writer. If that’s your intention you should consider going to journalism school.
Forming an idea
Every article needs a hook. A hook is an event or theme on which to hang the piece. For this reason, your ideas must be specific and targeted. It doesn’t matter how well written your article on Alpine skiing might be, no-one will publish it in June. Why? Because no-one’s thinking about skiing in June.
So first, your idea must be linked to the calendar. Second, your idea should have some extra angle which dictates its relevance at a particular point in time. If you feel like writing a piece about the Rio Carnival, you’ll need to sell it in time for it to coincide with the carnival. Here’s a better example: say you want to write a piece about Hemingway’s Cuba. It’s a great idea. But save it for the great man’s anniversary.
Another way to create a hook is to hang a piece on something newsworthy. Have you noticed the rash of features on New Zealand lately? The release of the movie The Lord of the Rings, set in New Zealand, triggered those.
Finally, it could just be that you’ve found a great story. Perhaps you met and interviewed the oldest mountain guide in the Himalaya? That would sell. The idea is crucial: if you don’t get this right, you’re wasting your time.
Selling a pitch
Once you’ve developed some ideas you’ll need to pitch these to an editor. This means you need to persuade someone to take your story. There are some rules here.
Research the publications you plan to pitch to:
Does your idea look like the sort of thing they would go for? Can you match that publication’s style? Have they run something similar recently?
If they have, don’t pitch. They won’t cover old ground for a couple of years. Pitch three ideas together to give the editor some choice. Don’t pitch an idea to more than one editor at the same time; you can only sell a piece once, then you don’t own it anymore. If you pitch the same idea to two publications and both accept, you’re in a tricky position because only one can actually have it.
Pitch in a professional manner
Don’t send whole stories but just short outlines. Write an eye-catching covering letter. Make sure there are no mistakes in your letter or outlines. Print on good paper. Address your pitch to a person – not a publication – and make sure you’ve got that person’s details correct. In magazines you’re looking for the commissioning editor or features editor. In newspapers, you’re looking for the travel editor.
Doing the job
Once you get to this stage it becomes serious. You’ve developed a great idea, pitched it and had it accepted. Now you have to do the work. The first time you write for an editor is crucial. You will need to be better than their regular contributors – who get lazy – to stand out. But if you do stand out, they’ll ask you back. If the piece isn’t good enough, they won’t use it and you won’t get paid.
So listen carefully to the brief the editor gives you. If the editor simply says “sounds like a good idea”, press them. Ask for guidance; get them to tell you exactly what they want. Then scour old copies of their publication and learn their style and their method of presentation. If their pieces have, say, five separate ‘factboxes’, make sure you send at least five.
In short, your work will need to be perfect – the right length, clear, accurate, no errors and it must meet your brief in every way.
Do all that, dear gapper, and you’ll quickly make a name for yourself. When you do, don’t forget who got you started!