Travel Writing

Travel Writing

“Travel writing is essentially a dialogue between a person and a place, and the dialogue is only as rich as what the person brings to it — the extent to which that person brings the weight and intensity of his questions or his hauntedness or his uncertainties. All of us when we’re traveling have remarkable encounters and feelings and experiences, but the reason that we cherish certain writers is that they are bringing something to these places that none of us could ever have expected.”–Pico Iyer, from “A New Kind of Travel for a New Kind of World.”

What makes for compelling travel writing?

We can talk about the tools of the craft, but it begins with a passion for the place. Whether you’re writing a long narrative story or a two-paragraph description, readers need to see your passion. Travel is an escape, a fantasy in a way. Your job is to make it come alive for the reader, even in those small moments.

The Most Important Tip:

Read. A good writing day follows a good reading night. Read travel stories. Read other blogs. Read critically. Look at the bones of a story or post. See how the writer built the piece. Don’t be afraid to use one you like as a model.

The Basics

No matter whether you’re writing for a new web site, a blog, or a major publisher, accuracy trumps all. If you get it wrong, you have no credibility with the reader. Double check everything. Names, addresses, titles, descriptions.

Accuracy doesn’t stop with Spellcheck, though. Be true to the sense of the place. It’s more difficult to be accurate with your perceptions and descriptions, but that yields the kind of compelling travel writing that attracts readers.

How can you evoke emotions and create that anticipation?

1. Pick the low-hanging fruit — events, celebrations, anniversaries, lists, etc.
2. Take the road less traveled. Sure, readers want to know about the most popular dates, spots, times, etc. But what about the least popular? Those can be made appealing, too.
3. Find characters. Tell their stories. People relate to people.
4. Find places — not just a city or an attraction, but a building or a natural formation or a secret hideaway. Tell their stories as if they were characters.
5. Write about all the senses. Is there a quiet place worthy of a post? A fragrant place?
6. Steal from others. If you see a good post or a good story, adapt it.

If you are able to visit a place, you will take notes, of course. If not, you will rely on a wealth of information online. Don’t rely on just one site. Yes, go to the site for the destination. But also go to Trip Advisor and other crowd-sourced travel sites and see what people are saying. Pick up the phone if you need more information and call locals or the Convention and Visitor Bureau or the Tourism Board.

Think Like a Storyteller
It’s hard to put this in words, but you become a better travel writer by teaching yourself to see things and think about things from different perspective. For instance, a trip to Alaska to view bears that yields little action — and few bear sightings — can be transformed into a compelling story by writing about the quirky small towns you visit, far from the cruise ship routes.

A story about visiting the hot spots in a city like New York is common. Less common would be a story exploring a city by walking one of its main streets. For instance, a story has movement and emotion if you are walking Broadway through New York’s Manhattan taking readers from Wall Street to Harlem and introducing them to characters along the way.

Yes, you are a character in your stories. But find people to help you with the story, find the characters that help define a place, the chef, the shopkeeper, the guide, the bartender. Don’t stop there. Make the place be a character showcasing its charms.

It has been said that a travel writer is an historian, geographer, archeologist, sociologist andan autobiographer. Use all of those in your writing. But the last — your voice — helps make your words stand out from the rest.

Be descriptive. Be authoritative. Be specific.

Don’t just say you will hike through beautiful countryside. Take the reader there. Meanders is more descriptive than walks. Sizzles evokes more than burns. Buy The Synonym Finder by Rodale and use it.

Use action verbs. Use compelling adjectives. Put people in a place. Have them not only see it, but smell, hear, and feel it.

Read this from a story about Katmandu:
“I throw open the curtains, and there is Katmandu: a sprawling Seussian city where prayer flags extend from wacky tower to strange veranda to tilting spire-of-uncertain-purpose. Beyond Seuss City, the Himalayas, pure, Platonically white, the white there was before other colors were invented. In the foreground is the massive, drained, under-repair Hyatt pool, in a field of dead, dry Hyatt grass, and a woman tending to the first of an endless row of shrubs in a vignette that should be titled Patience Will Prevail.”

Ok, catch your breath. Yes, it’s a long description. But there’s a rhythm to it and, most importantly, if makes you feel like you are standing there, looking out onto the tableau, the stunning and the ordinary. It puts you in that place in seconds.

Take this example:
The Dominican Republic comprises the eastern two thirds of the West Indian Island of Hispaniola. Situated to the west of the Dominican Republic is the nation of Haiti . The Dominican Republic consists of a land mass of 18,675 square kilometres which houses the countries population of 8,129,734 people. Over 73 percent of the Dominican Republic ‘s population are of Spanish-Indian background.

It doesn’t exactly make you crave hopping on a flight.

Instead, try this:
Christopher Columbus landed on the island that is home to the Dominican Republic in 1492 and soon established what would become the oldest European settlement in the Americas. So it’s not surprising that in addition to its breathtaking coastlines and rainforests, the country has a rich, diverse history. It is also the top golf destination in the Caribbean with more than two dozen designer courses, including five designed by the legendary Pete Dye.
All that sunbathing, golfing and ziplining will work up an appetite and the country has a unique blend of native, African, and Spanish influences. Sit down to an inexpensive meal of Locri, a paella, washed down by what locals call Vitamin R, the island’s signature smooth rum. Want something fancier and more modern? The island is home to fine dining of all kinds, from Italian to Mexican, yes, Mexican. Work off those calories with a night on the town, dancing the merengue, the official dance and music of the Dominican Republic.

Here’s a description about a winery tour.
Over three full days and two nights, you will fill up on fine wine, go on several winery tours, enjoy a classic afternoon tea at the beautiful Butchart Gardens, learn about old Victoria on an Inner Harbour walking tour, and feel the wind in your hair on inner-island ferries.

It’s ok, but how could it be more evocative?
Tell me what kind of fine wine. Describe one of the wineries. Tell me a few of the things readers will see on the walking tour.

Remember to connect with readers through all of the senses. Evoke fine wine by describing the taste and the aroma. Evoke the ferry ride by describing the wind and the sea air. Show people what they will see and make them feel the experience.

Vary Story Styles
Travel stories fit into many formats including:

– Lists.
Stories like the 20 best waterfalls in the world, a piece full of description. A list of the best, underground locations. Or the best secret islands, a nicely written piece that opens with a nod to fictional islands. Or a fun, mouth-watering (depending upon your taste) list of foods at state fairs. Or a list explaining how you know you’ve been to Rio.

– Service pieces. One example would be how to visit Sydney on a budget by, for instance, taking the ferry as a cheap way to see the architectural highs of the Inner Harbor.They give the reader advice, whether it’s how to save money, how to pack, or the best ways to spend 24 hours in a location. One good example is how to research historic inns.

– Short blog posts.
Concise, catchy, and often with eye-grabbing graphics. Some good examples can be found in Jungles in Paris and The Traveling Light.

Personal takes on traveling, often with an unusual perspective. Many of these offer some sort of revelation or follow a quest, like the woman who became a birder after visiting the Galapagos or one traveler’s quest for quiet.

Longer narrative stories.
Pieces about new places to explore like Cuba or new ways of seeingfamiliar places. Take the writer who goes with her new husband on a hike into the White Mountains of New Hampshire or going into the Australian outback to “muster” – gather – wild horses, a uniquely local experience that teaches as much about the place and the people as any tour.

Design Matters.
Make your stories pop by using beautiful pictures, white space, sub headers, and the occasional video. Give readers multiple points of entry. Check how Sidetracked combines great images with great words.

Writing Longer Stories.

A few tips:

1. The lede matters. Make that first sentence or that first paragraph sing. Work on it until it grabs the reader by the lapels and pulls him into the story.
2. For some stories set a scene with the lede. Or dig yourself six feet in and pull in the reader with you.
3. Transitions, even in short posts, are important. They keep the reader moving forward. Work on them.
4. For longer pieces, set the scene, and then create a nut graf that’s a road map to the rest of the story. What’s a nut graf? It’s the reason readers should care about the story.
5. FOCUS. Give me more about less.
6. Use dialogue. A bit of repartee moves the story along and gives it energy. See the examples in the Baltimore and Alaska stories below.
7. Read your first draft aloud. It helps. Really. Feel when the rhythm isn’t right. If you stumble reading the words aloud, they need work.
8. Rewrite. The first draft is never the final draft. Step back and read the story as if it was new to you. Always sleep on a piece of writing before sending it off or publishing it so you get a day of perspective. Cut the excess. Add compelling details.
9. Print and read the final version. Looking at it on paper often helps you catch errors.

Examples of Ledes That Work.

Diving in and bringing the reader with you.

It’s 2 a.m. on an Uptown New Orleans street corner, and taxis are descending by the dozen to drop off passengers at the music club Tipitina’s. A sidewalk bartender pulls drafts, while a purple catering truck pedals grit fries, goat quesadillas and catfish po’boys. I’m here for the night’s hottest ticket: a sold-out performance by Galactic, a hometown funk band that in 2007 started collaborating with nationally known progressive rappers.


I’ve come to New Orleans during its annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, but this week I’m trying to break out of my jazz rut. During earlier visits, I’ve always zeroed in on a handful of favorite acts, like the buttery trumpet tunes of Kermit Ruffins. This time, I want to soak up the other music this place has to offer—the blues, gospel, rock, and funk that fill out New Orleans’ musical canon.

Use a quote.
“Wildly and unreasonably happy.” That’s how author Nevil Shute’s heroine felt as she arrived in Darwin in his postwar classic, A Town Like Alice. Today, Darwin feels even better.

Start with a beginning scene.
At the Buddhist temple of Gesshoji, on the western coast of Japan, the glossy, enormous crows are louder—much louder—than any birds I have ever heard. Crows are famously territorial, but these in the small city of Matsue seem almost demonically possessed by the need to assert their domain and keep track of our progress past the rows of stone lanterns aligned like vigilant, lichen-spotted sentinels guarding the burial grounds of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan. The strident cawing somehow makes the gorgeous, all-but-deserted garden seem even further from the world of the living and more thickly populated by the spirits of the dead. Something about the temple grounds—their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines—makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardeners are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths.
Summarize a place using telling details.
Who says you have to rough it in Australia? Most of Australia may be a desert but its wealth of tropical rainforests, animal life, and aboriginal heritage does not make it any less of a thriving metropolis.

As a matter of fact, the fusion of wildlife and city life will only make your Australian tour all the more interesting. Gaze at the dingo, the kookaburra, the spiny anteater, the wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, and the koalas in the morning, drop by aboriginal settlements in the afternoon, and catch the most recent play at the Sydney Opera House that same night. Visit all of Australia’s World Heritage sites, snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, or go to any of Australia’s beaches and national parks. Then, energize yourself for each outing with the steaks, chops, fish, and roast lamb that typifies the Australian meal. In Australia, an outback and a city awaits! You can find many Sydney holiday ideas on the internet before your next vacation.

Use humor with scene setting.
Uh oh, man,” Frat Boy says turning to eye me. “It’s the cops. We’re busted.”
It’s only 9 p.m. on Broadway in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood. Still early. But already a late night for Frat Boy’s liver, and it’s affected his vision. I bear no resemblance to the guys from “Homicide,” despite my black coat and black Doc Martens, the boots of bobbies.

I’m just investigating why Frat Boy and buddies are clustered around a fancy-looking telescope. The reason turns out to be Herman M. Heyn, a white-bearded sixtyish gentleman with twinkling eyes beneath a knit sailor’s cap. He is Baltimore’s Street Corner Astronomer. It says so right on the telescope. In this case, the waterfront corner is near the raucous Admiral’s Cup, where beer has disappeared into Frat Boy like light into a black hole this evening.

NUT GRAF Somehow, I’m not surprised to find him here, sharing his heavenly passion. Baltimore seems just the right stage for a character like Herman Heyn. CharmCity has more than its share of offbeat actors who have prowled its waterfront and held court in its bars and restaurants. Frank Zappa, Edgar Allan Poe, Babe Ruth, Billie Holiday, H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald called it home. Imagine a movie with that cast by another native, filmmaker John Waters, the director of decidedly offbeat flicks like “Serial Mom” and “Hairspray.”

“You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style,” Waters once wrote. “It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”

Be direct.
Peru is one of the top adventure destinations for 2015, and it’s a great choice for an amazing family expedition. While Peru is best known for mystical Machu Picchu, this richly diverse country offers even more to explore. In its Sacred Valley, families can go white-water rafting on the Urubamba River, ride Peruvian Paso Fino horses through small communities, and mountain bike along dirt roads to visit ancient salt mines and Incan archaeological sites.

Autopsy Stories You Love.

What does that mean? It means opening them up and seeing the bones of the story, understanding how it works.

Here is an example, a Pico Iyer story about Alaska. In all CAPS you will find a guide to how the story is structured. Note how he moves back and forth between scenes and background exposition, between chronology and context. The story moves forward through time, but the journey is not just through Alaska, but through his perceptions. Go to the link to the story and, using the prompts below, you can see what I mean.
Alaska’s Great Wide Open

A land of silvery light and astonishing peaks, the country’s largest state perpetuates the belief that anything is possible
By Pico Iyer
Smithsonian Magazine
November 2009


We were flying what seemed only inches above a slope of the 20,300-foot-high Mount McKinley, now more often called by its Athabaskan name—Denali. Below our six-seat Cessna was a glacier extending 36 miles from the great peak…..

But Alaska was celebrating its 50th anniversary—it became the 49th state on January 3, 1959—and the festivities were a reminder how, in its quirkiness, the state expanded and challenged our understanding of what our Union is all about. …

Alaska plays havoc with your senses and turns everyday logic on its head.

You don’t come to Alaska for its cities, I started to understand, but for everything that puts them in their place. An Anchorage resident pointed out a reindeer sitting placidly in a cage in a small downtown garden maintained by an eccentric citizen.

“Your first piece of wildlife!” my new friend announced with pride.
“Actually, my second,” I countered. “I saw a moose grazing by the road just outside the airport, coming in.”
“Yeah,” he answered, unimpressed. “I saw some whales while driving up here. A bear, too.
One of them just mauled a woman who was going for a hike in my neighborhood park. Right next to my house.”
“In the outskirts of the city?”
“No. Pretty close to where we’re standing right now.”

The next day, the same matter-of-fact strangeness, the same sense of smallness amid the elements, the same polished wryness—and the way these played off scenes so majestic and overpowering they humbled me—resumed at dawn
A quiet place, I was coming to see, teaches you attention; stillness makes you keen-eared as a bear, as alert to sounds in the brush as I had been, a few days before, in Venice, to key changes in Vivaldi. …. She showed us how to “read” the skull of a caribou—its lost antler suggested it died before the spring

What this sense of unending expanse—of loneliness and space and possibility—does to the soul is the story of America, which has always been a place for people lighting out for new territory and seeking new horizons.

“You need around 2,000 feet of water to land a floatplane,” one of these sharers of wonders told me my first day in the state. “You know how many bodies of water with at least that much space there are in Alaska?”
“A thousand.”
“Ten thousand?”
“No. Three million.” And with that he went back to driving his bus.

I’ve lived in the American West for more than four decades, but I began to wonder if I had ever really seen—or breathed—true American promise before. Every time I stepped off a boat or plane in Alaska, I felt as if I were walking back into the 19th century….

Roughly three out of every five visitors to Alaska view the state from their porthole as they sail along the coast. Many visiting cruise ships embark from Vancouver and head up through the Inside Passage to the great turquoise-and-aqua tidewater sculptures of Glacier Bay, the silence shattered by the gunfire sounds of chunks of ice ten stories high calving in the distance. For days on the ship I boarded, the regal Island Princess, all I could see was openness and horizon. Then we would land at one of the wind-swept settlements along the coast—Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan.

Alaska’s central question is the American one: How much can a person live in the wild, and what is the cost of such a life, to the person and to the wild?

Here is one last quote to ponder:
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett.
In the best of situations, your words will do that for readers. You will make them see differently and aspire to share in the place you’re describing, to go away, and come back changed.

Date posted: 30th June, 2015

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