Travel writing is one of the most coveted careers on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to be paid to travel the world, drink cocktails by the pool of a five-star resort and eat in Michelin-starred restaurants?
Of course, the reality is often very different. For every five-star resort, there’s a dodgy motel and for every Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s a questionable roadside stall. But if you love to travel and you love to write, it’s a dream job. Here are some tips on how to get paid to travel the world.
How did I break into travel writing?
Let me take you back to 1994…
This is me on my first day at work. Let’s not dwell on the fashion crime that is my tie (or my alarmingly bouffant hair, for that matter) – I’ve just finished a degree in Computing and IT and am about to embark on a career as an IT consultant.
For a while, I enjoyed it. It was social, it paid well and consultancies can make you feel good about working 80-hour weeks. But after eight years I realised this wasn’t what I wanted to do – or how I wanted to dress – for the next 30 years.
I had no idea what I wanted to do instead so I took some time off, travelled and read a bunch of career self-help books I swore I’d never go near. They turned out to be surprisingly helpful and they made me realise two things:
1) I loved travelling
2) I loved writing
While visiting my parents in the UK, I strolled into the lounge room and casually announced that after months of deliberation that I’d finally figured out what I wanted to be: a travel writer.
Imagine their reaction.
They were – to put it mildly – concerned. I had no experience. I’d never studied journalism. I didn’t even like English at school. And I was giving up a secure, well-paid career with good prospects.
Undeterred, I returned to Australia and gave myself six months – if I didn’t get something published in that time, at least I’d tried and could always go back to IT.
So I started writing. And to my surprise, I started getting published. Little things at first, in backpacker magazines and airline inflights, then larger features in newspapers. Soon publications started commissioning me and – to cut a long story short – ten years later I’m now a full-time travel writer.
Why is this important? Because I want to provide an insight into my background, which as you can see is not in the least bit literary or creative.
The life of a travel writer
So what does my life look like now? It’s difficult to describe it without sounding smug but the reality is that companies pay for me to travel and publications pay me to write about it.
Highlights over the last few years include scaling Wayna Picchu in Peru, a six-day white-water rafting adventure in Patagonia, on the Futaleufu River, and climbing Mount Kinabalu, south-east Asia’s highest mountain, in Borneo.
One of the biggest benefits of being a travel writer is that I can work from anywhere, so each year I divide my time between Sydney, New York and Europe.
In summary, I feel like I’ve got my dream job…I get paid to travel. And I genuinely believe that, providing you have an aptitude for writing, anyone can do this.
Why do I believe that?
Because of this:
“The great thing about travel writing, particularly at the newspaper level, is that it’s pretty much a meritocracy. If your stuff is good, you’ll get published and recognised. As an editor, I don’t care where (or whether) you went to college, what your resume looks like or whether you’ve previously had a dozen cover stories in National Geographic. All I care about is the manuscript you’ve sent me. If it’s good, I’ll publish it. If it’s not, I won’t.”
John Flinn, former travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing.)
How encouraging is that? John doesn’t care what you studied or whether you’ve even been published before – he’ll judge you on the story you submit. I can’t think of many careers where that’s the case. You can’t become a doctor or lawyer next week, but you can become a travel writer.
But how do you break in? Surely you need to have worked on a publication? And don’t you need to be a good photographer?
Let’s tackle some travel writing myths – five common misconceptions that exist about the travel writing industry.
5 Travel Writing Myths
1. You must have a journalism degree
Many of Australia’s most respected and awarded travel writers didn’t study journalism. They’re just good writers. In my opinion, you either have an aptitude for writing or you don’t.
Sure, if you want to work on a publication, you’ll need a relevant qualification, but as a freelancer, it’s pretty much a level playing field. An editor will judge you on the story you submit.
2. You need to be a good photographer to be a travel writer
Not true. I didn’t take photos when I started and it didn’t hold me back. If you look at the newspaper travel sections you’ll see a lot of the pictures come from image libraries such as Getty and Lonely Planet. They have thousands of incredible pictures taken by professional photographers all over the world. It’s unlikely you’ll have been somewhere they haven’t.
3. You can’t make a living as a travel writer
I know lots of full-time writers who manage to pay their rent and feed and clothe themselves. It’s certainly not easy – you need to write a lot – but it’s not impossible.
One warning: the pay is terrible. I’m a lot poorer now than when I was working in IT, but I’m a hell of a lot happier. Do not for one second go into this for the money.
4. A ‘No’ from an editor means it’s not good enough
You submit a story to a publication and the editor replies “No thanks”. At this point it’s all too easy to think: “It wasn’t good enough. Why am I doing this? I can’t write. I’m going back to being an IT consultant/accountant/ landscape gardener….”
But just think for a second why they might have said no. It might be because it’s not good enough, but it also might be because they published a similar piece two months ago, or have a similar piece waiting to run.
Editors rarely tell you the reason they’re declining something so it’s all too easy to jump to the “I’m not good enough” conclusion.
I’ve sold dozens of stories that were rejected by one outlet only to be published elsewhere without a single change.
5. You need to read lots of “How to be a travel writer” books
Resist the temptation to put off writing until you’ve read every “How to be a travel writer” book in the local bookshop. Now this may seem like an odd thing for someone who runs workshops for aspiring travel writers to say.
The reality is that the people who go on to be successful after taking my course already have an aptitude for writing. What they get from the course is detailed feedback on their writing (something I would have given my left arm for when I was starting out), ten years’ worth of hard-learnt tips and tricks, and the confidence to actually do it.
“The only training for writing is writing – and reading and reading and writing some more.”
Pico Iyer, British novelist
5 Travel Writing Tips
Here are five tips to help you get published:
1. Don’t pitch ideas, just write the story and send it in
Until you’re established, an editor is never going to commission you to write a story if they haven’t used you before. Why would they? You’re an unknown quantity. So, rather than emailing, “I’m thinking about writing a story on X”, just write it and send it in. If they like it, they’ll use it. If they don’t, they won’t.
Once you’ve done this a couple of times, and the editor starts to trust you, then you can start pitching ideas.
2. No attachments
Don’t send your story as an attachment. Instead, include it in the body of the email. To open an attachment, the editor has to double-click on it, wait while it’s virus-scanned and then download it to their computer – all time they could be spent doing something else.
Make it as easy as possible for an editor to read your story. If the story is right there in the body of the email, literally staring them in the face, it’s almost impossible for them not to read the first line.
3. Start small and work up
Tempting as it might be, don’t send your first story to the New York Times – it is highly unlikely they will publish it. Choose an outlet that suits your style and runs similar types of stories.
The newspaper travel sections are a good starting point because they need a lot of content each week and will publish a wide variety of styles. Most of the people who have been published after taking my course had their first story in a newspaper.
4. Get to know the publication
Get familiar with the outlet you’re pitching to. Buy a copy of the magazine or newspaper and figure out the types of stories they publish, the style of writing they prefer (serious/humorous/first person/third person?) and whether they’ve already run something on that subject.
No matter how well-written your story is, an outlet is never going to publish it if it ran a similar one last week. Or if it’s on a subject it doesn’t cover (the magazine Australian Traveller – which surprise, surprise is about travel within Australia – gets sent international stories all the time).
Providing you can write, there is one quality which will determine whether you make it as a freelance travel writer: perseverance.
I know so many good writers that aren’t published simply because they haven’t persevered. And I know a lot of editors who’ve told me they eventually published someone because week after week they kept popping up in their inbox.
You will get rejected. Probably a lot when you’re starting out. And how you react to it is crucial. If you let it get to you and give up, you’ll never be published. If you shrug it off and carry on, you’re still in the game.
If you really want this life; if you want to be paid to travel the world perseverance is what’s going to get you there.
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
Richard Bach, American author
Safe travels and Good luck!
Rob McFarland runs workshops for aspiring travel writers and many of his students have gone on to be published.