Introduction | Step 1: Planning | Step 2: Research | Step 3: Writing | Step 4: Editing
Step 3: Writing
Don’t look too hard for your ‘style’
Many writers spend years trying to find their ‘voice’ or ‘style’. This is fine if you’re writing fiction, but for travel writing, be yourself. The best voice is an authentic one. It’s also easier to maintain.
What’s the ‘coat-hanger’?
Whatever you’re writing, the ‘coat-hanger’ is that little nugget of information, advice, truth, or a cultural curiosity or central observation that the article, paragraph or blog post ‘hangs’ on. Identify that first, then build the piece around it.
The coat-hanger is not whether you liked a place. If you’re blogging, give the reader something they can use. If you’re writing, tell the reader something they are unlikely to read elsewhere.
Secundus Inter Pares
Travel writing is more akin to fly-on-the-wall documentary making than video blogging. Most travel books are written in the first person but the writer’s presence is secondary to the location and the people they meet. With some notable exceptions (Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’Rourke are exceptional), the best travel writers play the role of a very polite guest at a dinner party; only speaking when spoken to but feverishly writing everything down under the table. The very worst travel writers see themselves as the stars of their own reality TV show.
Don’t tell the reader what the tiger is thinking
“And as the tiger and I stared at each, we shared a moment.” No, you didn’t. The tiger was just waiting to see whether it had to kill you. You didn’t communicate telepathically, and you didn’t connect on some prehistoric level. Leave the anthropomorphism to Disney.
The same applies to people. ‘He smile was tinged with sadness’ is fine, but ‘He smiled like he was thinking about his son so far away’ is not. Even if the preceding conversation had been entirely about this man’s estranged children, putting words into people’s mouths is lazy writing. It is also unfair to your subject.
Some time around the 1970s, travel writing changed from being about the place, to being about the people. This means you’re going to have to spend some time, probably a lot of time, with your subjects. Writing good characters is not an easy task. You can be observational, conversational, or both. The best way to learn how – as always – is to read how others do it and work out your own approach. (You could do a lot worse than start with Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar.)
Be concise. You can start by writing with abandon. Get it all down. Then take a machete to it, followed by a scalpel, followed by a pair of tweezers. How can you write it more clearly? Harold Evans used the example of a fishmonger’s sign, which read ‘FRESH FISH SOLD HERE’:
‘The fishmonger had a friend who persuaded him to rub out the word FRESH – because naturally he wouldn’t expect to sell fish that wasn’t fresh; to rub out the word HERE – because naturally he’s selling it here, in the shop; to rub out the word SOLD – because naturally he isn’t giving it away. And finally to rub out the word FISH – because you can smell it a mile off.’
That said, there is nothing wrong with a long sentence. Alain de Botton’s philosophical sentences can take up whole paragraphs, but their structure and punctuation mean they are still readable. However long your sentences, understanding them mustn't require any more mental agility than a short sentence.
Avoid cliché: majestic mountains, squalid conditions, bustling markets. If you suspect you’ve seen an adjective/noun combination somewhere else, find a new way to say it. And watch out for hyperbole: “It was then I thought ‘I’m going to die.’” Did you? Did you really?
Don’t try to impress the reader with your extensive vocabulary. If your reader doesn’t understand your seven syllable word, that word has failed in its one and only task: to convey meaning.
Use normal language. Why is it your ‘home’ but a local’s ‘dwellings’ (or worse, ‘abode’)? Technical terms need to be explained (flying buttresses for example), as do foreign words.
Think about the images your writing creates for the reader. A photographer might move a few feet to the left so the image includes a rock or the rock obscures a rubbish bin. Writing is the same. Look at your writing through a camera lens and see what the reader sees. If the picture your words have created lacks detail (or is too busy when it would benefit from being simpler), see what you can add or delete. Think about changing lenses occasionally too. You’ll need a wide-angle to describe a mountain range, but once inside the sherpa’s hut, you’ll switch to macro.
It’s or its? There, their or they’re? Is it myriad stars or a myriad of stars? Getting things like this wrong just tells the reader that you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re a pianist with a pencil, and there are bum notes. (It’s myriad stars. Myriad means ten thousand. You wouldn’t say a ten thousand of stars. That said there are two acceptable approaches to using myriad: delete it, or shoot yourself.)
Consistency in punctuation is also important. How do you introduce a direct quote? With a comma? A colon? And are you going to use apostrophes or inverted commas? (For more on grammar and punctuation see Style Guides at the bottom of this article.)
Travel writing is non-fiction. There’s a strong possibility that if the reader is interested in that destination, they may well be reading your work in the very location you’re describing. Make sure you get the colours right.
It’s very useful to keep records of the journey. Train times, ticket prices, the names of hostels and how much they cost, the time it took to get from A to B. It’s non-fiction writing, so it needs to be accurate. You don’t want to describe the sunset seen from the JanShatabdi Express as it barrels across Maharashtra, only to be told later that that train actually leaves Mumbai at 5am. My method is a spreadsheet on my laptop which I update daily.
First Lines/The Hook
Few travel writers begin with the taxi ride to the airport. They start with a ‘hook’; that first sentence that grabs the attention:
“It’s mid-morning in late August and I’m sitting on a rock in the middle of the Bering Strait.” Michael Palin, Full Circle
“Nothing spoils a good lunch quite like the threat of a hand-grenade attack.” John Gimlette, Wild Coast
A first sentence should make us wonder what happens next:
“At 11.10am, one hour and forty minutes out of Gatwick, our captain announced, in a bright and chatty voice, ‘You’ll have noticed we’ve changed direction’.” Dervla Murphy, The Island That Dared
“The sign on the gate says DO NOT STEP ON THE BULL OR FEED THE POISON IVY and it’s not kidding.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk through Portland, Oregon
Displacement or alienation is a common theme:
“I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.” Colin Thubron, Among the Russians
“I’m not a yoga kinda guy.” Tim Cahill, Hold the Enlightenment
Mystery, or the mystical, also transports us from our armchair:
“It was in the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla that I met my first Sufi.” William Dalrymple, City of Djinns
“In my grandmother’s room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.” Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia
There is also the kind of first sentence that contains everything you need to know about pacing, and strong final words, and is a snapshot of the character of the writer.
“I was seized by the idea of writing this book while sitting on a rotten little beach on the western tip of Crete, flanked by a waterlogged shoe and a rusted potty.” Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another