I often dreamt of going back to Bath, to my old uni, to pass on my own words of wisdom (or lack there of). So, when last year I actually did get invited to come back to my “alma mater” and give a lecture on travel writing, my first thought was, wow, the Bath Spa Creative Writing department are really scraping the barrel this year.
When I asked some TEFL teacher friends for public speaking advice though, I got, “establish your credentials”. So…
boring life story
I’ve been writing for the travel industry for over six years now, and have done a fair bit of travelling –including putting down roots in Japan, Bulgaria, the Australian Outback, and Barcelona, where I’m now the English Copywriter at one of the world’s biggest travel companies.
But basically, I think I’m here because I make a living doing what I love: travelling, and writing about it.
Not too many years ago, I was a creative writing student at Bath Spa, sitting in that very room, quite possibly listening to a lecture on travel writing.
After that I hit the road – a naïve young graduate, trading reviews of hostels, bars and casinos for a bed and a beer.
When I got back, I had to search for a “real” job. It seemed I was qualified to be something called a “Copywriter”. But what the hell was “copy”? Or “SEO”? Or all these other new words that kept popping up? Hands up if you know what SEO is and how it’s done. (More on this later.)
After much Googling of terms, and a spot of bar work (“bar work” being the coolest possible way of putting it) I eventually got my “big break”: living it up in Varna, Bulgaria, with a rag-tag band of expat writers, churning out articles for a digital marketing firm that may or may not also have been a people trafficking organisation.
Since then, I’ve spent many a year working remotely from the road, picking up freelance work on the side, running this blog… I even once did a brief stint managing a backpackers’ hostel.
How to start a travel blog?
Do you have a website or blog? A travel blog? If not, do you want one? Hands up if you really don’t want one.
I used to hate the idea of travel blogging, but it has worked for me. It acts as a portfolio to showcase your writing, and, it took a couple of years, but nowadays I get regularly contacted by potential clients. Persevere, and people will find you.
It was here at uni where Mimi Thebo taught me the importance of writing to a target reader, and where Doug Chamberlin (Toy Story 2) told me, “go with your gut. Tell the story that you want to tell.” In fact, both are equally true. When your target reader matches the story you want to tell, that’s when you have your style, your voice, and, in this case, your blog. Even if your audience is just “people like you”, having that clear in your mind, you’ll always know what you’re doing and why.
To find your niche, just cross travel with something else you love, like fashion, exploring abandoned buildings, being a mum, or – in my case – getting smashed. (It’s really amazing how few blogs there were about travelling and drinking.)
Do a bit of keyword research and “competitor” research. Like a tattoo, it’s worth thinking long and hard about the name and the general concept before you make the big step. The amount of times I’ve had a great idea for a tattoo and said to myself, “okay, if it’s really that good, you’ll still want it in a few months”. Needless to say, I do not have any tattoos.
If in doubt, go with your name. While you might not want to travel forever, your name’s unlikely to change. Unless your parents really fucked it up the first time around, or whatever you’re up to is about to earn you a spot on the witness protection program, or you’re female.
Once you’re sure on your idea, get yourself a domain. (Not a sub-domain on Blogger, WordPress.com or Tumblr.) I use WordPress.org, and GoDaddy for the hosting, and my only complaint with GoDaddy is that they jack the price up once they’ve got you. If you’re serious about your idea, which you should be, I’d recommend getting 10 years up front at the introductory discounted price.
Actionable travel writing tips
Take someone’s question or problem, like “How to get to Machu Picchu by local transport without a tour?” or “Where the hell am I supposed to get a drink in Brunei?” (you can get this from a Google search) and answer or solve it, making it entertaining enough that they want to keep reading even once they’ve got what they came for. This overlap between what the reader wants and what you want is where good writing happens.
Keeping a travel journal
When you’re constantly on the move, you have to write it down then and there. At least the next day. Three days and it’s gone.
I still recommend good old-fashioned paper and pen over a laptop or smartphone. While it seems like every banana farmer in Costa Rica owns an iPhone these days, and there’s no shame in being a “digital nomad” or a “flashpacker”, this stuff is valuable. If I travelled with a laptop, I’d have missed out on all my best travel experiences. I wouldn’t have been able to put my trust in strangers, take risks and step into the unknown, which is what provides the very stories a travel writer needs.
Really, it depends on your destination. (Japan is a very different place from Salvador de Bahía.) Remember, it can be cheaper to use an Internet cafe everyday for several months than to buy even the cheapest of laptops.
Writing is more than just writing
Take a look at these two pages…
They’re both exactly the same piece. Which one are you more likely to read?
I don’t want to say it’s true that nobody reads on the web these days, but it’s certainly almost true. People barely even scroll down. The sad truth is, it doesn’t matter how nice your travel writing is, if it’s on a crappy site.
The look and feel of your content is as important as the content itself. Add quotes, images, videos, lists, interactive content like this quiz.
Learn how to code CSS and HTML to style your writing and attract the audience it deserves. (It’s free and only takes the best part of a weekend.)
Failing that, you could try seducing a technical person, and while you’re at it, an artist or designer…and an SEO.
SEO stands for “search engine optimisation” and is basically the “art” of getting your writing found on Google. There’s a huge section of the net devoted to it, but to sum it up in one slide, you basically just need to put the “keywords”, or “search terms” (remember that question your piece is trying to solve or answer?) in as many of these places as possible:
The days of “text-spinning” software and bargain-basement articles from India (or Bulgaria) are behind us. The real “trick” to getting your content on the first page of Google is…creating good content – content that people stay on your site to read and interact with; content that makes people want to come back for more. For that, companies need writers, like us.
To be honest, you barely need to maintain a blog anymore. Not to say that writing a tweet (like a good title or lead) is easy. But it’s certainly less time consuming than a blog post. Some advice for building a social media following?
- Use images.
- Don’t lose your human touch.
- Be patient, it can take years. Don’t worry about “rejection” (unlikes and unfollows). Not everyone is your target audience.
Anyone can recount the information the tour guide gave them at the Taj Mahal. Travel writing is about taking the reader on a journey, capturing a sense of place, for which you need unique experiences, beyond “the sights”. As my man Kerouac so eloquently put it…
By “useful cliches”, I mean “Top 5…” articles, “How to…” guides, infographics, etc. Some companies will ask you to write that way, and others will ask you not to, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason they’re cliches. If done right, they work.
By “reverse racism”, I mean: “Rajesh, the hotel manager, was surprisingly hygienic…” Basically, if you’re an incurable racist, you’re probably not cut out for travel writing.
Don’t overdo it on the adjective front. Just because they’re called “descriptive words”, doesn’t mean they’re the only way to describe something. Instead use clauses or new sentences (in the active voice), with nouns and verbs. For example, instead of “narrow alleys”, use “…cluttered the walls as they bent in towards us, pressing us into the crowd.”
“Then as the sun went down it seemed to drag the whole sky with it like the shreds of a burning curtain, leaving rags of bright water that went on smoking and smouldering… I saw the small white ship, my last link with home, flare like a taper and die away in the darkness; then I was alone at last, sitting on a hilltop, my teeth chattering as the night wind rose.”
– Laurie Lee. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Want another sad truth? The memory is shit. Take a look one seat ahead and two across. [Remember, this presentation was aimed at a hall full of creative writing students, but I feel there’s some words of wisdom in here for the rest of us too.] How well do you know that person? What’s their work about? What’s their name? Okay, their surname? If you don’t know now, how are you going to look them up in three years when you need to plug your novel? How are you going to ride on the coattails of their successes?
It’s not always the loudest, most “memorable” people who go on to become the most successful. (Especially true in the realm of writing.)
Go home now, get on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, add everyone in this room (and all your other classes for that matter). If you’re not on LinkedIn, get on there. You’re going to have to do it when you leave anyway, so why go out there with no contacts when you can already have 150? Don’t forget most of your lecturers are already published authors, with connections. Wink, wink.
What else have I got for you?
Read, read, read. Follow and subscribe to blogs. Not to all of them. You need to start finding “your people”. It can be hard at first, but once you’ve found one, you can ask them who they read, who inspires them. Never judge a blog by its homepage. Check the content, the themes and viewpoints that appear again and again in their work… Oh, I see we’re out of time.