How I got started in freelance travel writing

How I got started in freelance travel writing

In 5th grade, a travel writer came to visit my class in rural Wisconsin. He talked about spending francs in Paris and exotic Africa. Some of my classmates seemed bored, longing for recess, but I was enthralled. Better still, he was paid to write about his experiences. I’d never heard the term travel writer before that day. To me, it was a small miracle that such a career even existed. I vowed I would grow up and become a travel writer. Of course, reality and fear eventually kicked in around high school. I pushed aside the idea of travel writing as a childhood dream, something only a few lucky people could do. I went to college to study social work and considered myself fortunate that I’d been able to study abroad twice.

Fate intervened. Before graduation, I rekindled another forgotten childhood dream: The Peace Corps. Without my social work degree, I never would have been accepted and sent for two years to work with youth in Paraguay.

Long term volunteering abroad

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Megan milking a neighbor's cow in Tavapy Dos, Paraguay

Peace Corps was where I began to hone all the skills I now rely on as a “professional traveler”. Beyond learning Spanish and a few swear words in the indigenous language of Guarani, I figured out that people in other countries aren’t dangerous. I learned to stay in strangers’ homes, eat their food, and talk to them. I figured out how to use public transportation, deal with stomach upsets, and prevent my stuff from being stolen. I learned that even when the worst things happen, (like the time I got diarrhea in prison), I could bounce back and turn it all into a great story. I got used to being homesick, expecting the unexpected, and going with the flow. I searched out the unusual and the overlooked because that is where all the good stories are.

Travel writing began to creep back into my consciousness. But fear still reigned. I would never be a good enough writer. I was a good traveler; I had proved that in Peace Corps and then on a subsequent trip to Southeast Asia and China. But maybe, just maybe, I could write a travel memoir about Peace Corps and Paraguay?

Learning to write about my travels

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Megan in Belize, with a barracuda she caught line fishing off Caye Caulker.

I did a surreptitious Google search for “travel writing courses” and came across MatadorU, a program offered by the publishers of Matador Network, one of the largest travel magazines. The more I researched the program, the more I liked it. MatadorU was backed by National Geographic Traveler and had laid the courses out in an approachable way. It looked like I could take the course from anywhere in the world, which was good, because I was finished with Peace Corps and essentially homeless. I’d been accepted to a graduate program for social work in New York City, but wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Again I had to choose between pursuing my dream of becoming a travel writer, or relinquishing it in favor of a safer, more conventional path.
I signed up for MatadorU thinking I could learn a lot about travel writing for my book before proceeding to grad school, without any plans for trying to become a freelance writer. The first thing I had to do for MatadorU was set up a WordPress blog. I loved how easy this new platform was, but I was so terrified of someone stumbling upon my (bad) writing that I used a fake name, “Mega Woo”. With each week’s lesson, my skills – and confidence – began to grow. I wrote a piece about being married in the Peace Corps and was absolutely shocked when a Matador editor emailed me and offered to buy the piece for Matador. A few weeks later I was invited on a press trip in Cabos, Mexico. Then I sold another piece. I was doing it, I was travel writing!

 Don’t go it alone!

Ever wish you had a good friend who was already established as a travel writer, and could show you the ropes and introduce you to the editors, press agents, and publishers you’d need to know to succeed?

matador125 How I got started in freelance travel writingMatador Networks’ Travel Writing Program is run by one of the largest travel publishing companies—the very same companies you’ll need to pitch to launch your career.

Unsurprising then that some of the most successful travel writers got their start studying with this course. It will teach you everything you need to know to launch your career as a travel writer. But more importantly, the contacts you make there will open doors to getting those all-important first published bylines.

Becoming an official freelance travel writer

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Megan paddling on Belize's New River in Cayo

But I still had that pesky graduate school admission to think of. I moved to New York City and found a walk-up on the Lower East Side. I sat in my window every night until three, writing. I went to the grad school orientation and looked over my class list, but my heart wasn’t in it. I contacted the school and deferred my application. Then I told my parents. They weren’t surprised. Neither was I. I started pitching like mad, realizing I wouldn’t be able to count on student loans to pay my rent. I had to take jobs babysitting and work as a coat check attendant. I didn’t care. I was completely free to do what I wanted for the first time in my adult life. The 5th grader inside of me was so proud.

Still, the 27 year-old with the student loans and Manhattan rent was a little nervous. And occasionally a little voice would ask, ‘who do you think you are?’ I ignored it. I went to the New York Times Travel show with an editor from MatadorU and met the publicists who worked with the Belize Tourism Board. I was on a short list to become a writer-in-residence in Belize. The publicists were very impressed with my Peace Corps experiences. A week later, I signed the contract. I’d be traveling in Belize for three months and writing about my experiences. I found a subletter for my apartment, packed a backpack, and tracked down that travel writer who’d inspired me in 5th grade. I owed him a huge thank you.

 How I got started in freelance travel writing

About Megan


Megan L. Wood is a freelance travel writer and full-time free spirit. She's lived and worked on five continents, and still feels like Paraguay is home.

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10 Comments

  1. Hey Megan!

    I stumbled across your site while doing research for one of my own blog posts, and I have to say, this is very inspiring! I’m going to NYC for the first time this summer, and taking the travel writing course on Matador U when I return. Once I graduate college, I’ll be setting off on my own round-the-world journey.

    I wanted to wish you luck, and say how nice it was to see others succeeding at the same dream I have! It lets me know then that it is indeed possible.

  2. Meghan, I like your ambition and have slated travel writing and photography as my next move (thus coming across your write up). I would be interested in discussing with you a bit more about your experiences and process if you will drop me a line.

    Cheers
    Chris

  3. Hi Megan,

    I stumbled across your website while looking for travel writing courses offered in my area. I’m currently in my last year of high school and dealing with the pressure of choosing a career I may have for the rest of my life. Travel writing is my dream job.. I don’t think I would ever have to dread a day of work if I had a career in it. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to raise the money you need to travel and some information on whether those who purchase your articles help pay for your trip. Thanks for such an inspiring blog!

  4. Hey megan.. i am just sixteen. and i want to travel the world. i dont think my writing is good but yes.. your article has motivated me a lot! :D thanks a ton :)

  5. This is just what I needed to read today. I feel fully invigorated and inspired to write more. Thanks Megan!

  6. Hi Megan,
    You are extremely inspiring and I have an aspiration to become a travel writer.
    I don’t think my writing is to bad and it would be an honour if you could read a piece for me?
    Thankyou,
    Eleanor.

  7. cabins in branson mo |

    Writing has led you to wonderful places. I hope I can write as good as you someday! I will try practice my my writing skills!

    Rose

  8. Savannah Pennington |

    Thank you so much for writing your story on how you became a travel writer because I,too, am interested in going into the Peace Corp and extremely passionate about being a travel writer. I didn’t know about Matador U and I now plan on doing it as well, once I get my college degree, considering I’m just about to graduate high school. There’s so many risks and doubts I have about not making it or coming out of the Peace Corp and not having a place to live or work, but your story inspires me and gives me hope that anything really is possible. :)

  9. Melissa Murphy |

    Hi,

    I’m wondering if the courses with Matador U are only for people living in the US. I am an Australian citizen living in London. Are these courses for anybody?

    Regards

    Melissa

  10. Hey Megan,

    Great inspiring article! I just wanted to say that we are always open to helping freelance travel writers who been to Africa and want to share their experiences.

    Kindest regards

    Andrew

    Just a happy guy who loves Africa
    http://www.AfricanOverlandTours.com

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