Introduction | Step 1: Planning | Step 2: Research | Step 3: Writing | Step 4: Editing
Step 1: Planning
Know what you’re going to write about before you start.
Travel writing is not sitting down at the end of the day and writing about what happened. That’s your journal. We need to wake up in the morning knowing what we’re going to write about that day.
To do this we need to know what we’re aiming for before we leave home. It’s not enough to hope the destination will be generous enough to give us something to write about. Even if it does shower us in stories, our writing needs a theme.
A theme provides structure, and once you’ve done a little research, you’ll be able to see what kind of structure best suits your project. One writer visited six ‘dark tourism’ sites (including Cambodia’s Killing Fields, North Korea, and Dealey Plaza) over six chapters. Another bought a horse in Ireland and rode it to Palestine, following the route the Crusaders took. He alternated chapters of his own journey with chapters covering the history of the Crusades 900 years earlier. Decent themes offering solid structures.
Some themes are little more than an excuse to write a book. Want to write about European football? Travel overland from Lisbon to the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow. Want to write about the USA? Walk the Mason-Dixon line without deviating more than a mile from it on either side. If you are imaginative with your theme, you can create a journey that appears constraining to the reader, but leaves you with the flexibility to find your stories (if you're going to walk the Mason-Dixon line, you make damn sure beforehand that there is enough to write about within that two mile margin you've set yourself).
There’s also nothing wrong with choosing your destination, then thinking up a reason for being there. One Kiwi author cycled home to New Zealand from London because – he said - he wanted a proper meat pie. This is like taking the dog for a walk so you can have a cigarette, but it gave the book a purpose, a route, and a flaky-pastry end point that the reader knew they were heading towards.
A country isn't a theme (unless it’s a very small one). India is far too diverse to cover in one volume, and the more of the country you don’t include in your writing, the more your theme is ‘incomplete’. If you are going to to choose a geographical area as your theme, make sure you have something which joins the dots.
In the same way that a film director will storyboard a scene before turning on the camera, a writer will ‘block out’ a book before they start their journey. Blocking out creates a general outline of what each chapter will contain, who will be interviewed, where that research will take place and so on. These bullet points aren’t restrictive. New ideas and interviewees will present themselves and can be incorporated into the plan – you can even go off on the occasional tangent - but it’s important to have a map for the book that can be explored without losing sight of the theme. It’s also a useful 'To Do' list. If you reach the end of your journey and realise you should have interviewed A, or visited B, or taken a photo of C, going back can be very expensive.
Treat your Writing as Work
Being a professional anything means treating it as a job. A travel writer’s day involves interviews, time on the phone setting up more interviews, a lot of reading, some very long journeys, and frequent conversations with people who turn out not to be interesting enough to be included in the finished article or book. You also need the discipline to stay at your desk until that day’s writing is done.
Some writers write in the morning and edit in the afternoon. Some work through the night. You know whether you’re a lark or an owl. Think about when your brain is at its most focused, or creative, or critical, and plan your writing and editing accordingly. (It’s worth noting that the majority of successful writers and artists were early risers.)
Set Achievable Deadlines
A blog is a great way of developing an audience while you’re researching and writing a book, and an engaged audience is more likely to read (and buy) the finished product. However, in order to blog effectively, you have to post regularly. Christopher Hitchens wrote a thousand publishable words a day. If you set yourself a goal of three blogs a week, will you be able to find the stories and maintain a reasonable level of quality? And will you have enough time left over to actually write the book? When time and quality go head to head, time wins.
Don’t rush it
Research takes time, as does the writing. Don’t aim to spend a week here and a week there and be home in time for tea and medals.
Give your interviewees as much advanced notice as you can. You can’t expect to set up an interview in the morning and be back in the bar for happy hour. The chances are your interviewee will be on leave, or in a meeting, or just not interested in talking to you. Some interviews lead nowhere. As the clock ticks down, you still haven’t got any useable quotes, and it doesn’t look like you’re going to get any. On the other hand, one interview can turn into several as your helpful interviewee introduces you to lots of other people you should talk to. An apparently innocent conversation over a beer can lead to a friend of a friend of a cousin who lives a hundred miles north of where you are. By the time the barman has called last orders you’ve rearranged your whole timetable and are busy packing ready to get the first bus north in the morning.
Flexibility must be built into your plan because the best piece of advice any roving journalist will give you is this: Say ‘Yes’ to everything!
The difference between travel writing and travel blogging
The difference between travel writing and travel blogging is often the difference between writing that is good, and writing that is good enough. This is not to say one is better than the other. Comparing travel writing to travel blogging is like comparing Ulysses to the Lonely Planet Guide to Dublin. They perform different functions, and are read for different reasons.
A travel blogger focuses on a niche subject that interests a specific audience (travelling with my kids, city breaks on a full-time job, travelling with a disability), and it’s the content, rather than the quality of the writing, that attracts subscribers. The more niche the blog (Taking city breaks with my disabled kids whilst holding down a full time job) the more that blogger will have that corner of the market to herself, and the greater her chances of achieving the holy grail of travel blogging – monetising her site.