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
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
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!
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?
Matador 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
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.