How I Broke Into Freelance Travel Writing
Breaking into freelance travel writing is not so different from breaking into other types of journalism. Start with small jobs, such as articles for your local newspaper, and gradually work your way up. As your portfolio builds, you can attach clippings of your past work to the pitches you make to editors. Markets that pay a dollar a word can offer a steady living as you get involved with press and media trips that take you across the world. As your list of clients grows, you can bolster your career by starting a blog and pitching book ideas to publishers such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Finally, you become a Harvard professor and retire comfortably, living out the rest of your days sipping martinis on a private beach. Right?
While I’m not exactly qualified to cover the last two steps, I do make a comfortable living from freelance travel writing and can offer some sound advice for beginners. For starters, you need to learn how to tell a story and develop your own voice as a writer. Without a doubt, the best way to do this is to write stories about where you live. While this is much more exciting if you live in, say, San Francisco and not Chandler, Arizona, writing about the places you know offers a variety of perks. For one thing, you already know a bit of the history and culture and, if you’re lucky, you may know people who can give you an inside perspective on local events.
I got my start in travel writing by showcasing local theatres, restaurants, museums and hiking trails for newspapers in Asheville, North Carolina. While the pay wasn’t great, it got me thinking about how to describe places to my reader in an inventive way. It also gave me permission to be a tourist in my own home: asking questions about the architecture or noticing trends in cuisine and fashion that I normally wouldn’t. Even if my home town wasn’t such a mecca for artists and outdoor enthusiasts, I still would have managed to dig up hundreds of story ideas. It’s easy to forget that even in such glamorous destinations as Paris or Buenos Aires, there are still regular people living regular lives. While a local landmark or hiking trail may not be news to you, it still counts as a tourist destination for outsiders.
After publishing a few articles in the local paper, I began seeking out better-paying markets that specialize in travel. Thanks to the global recession and upward trends in internet publishing, many print markets have been driven out of business. Unfortunately, that includes thousands of regional magazines and newspapers that travel writers used to could count on for their income. Luckily, I caught this trend early and began to research magazines that had both an online and offline presence. The best of these include AFAR, American Way, BETA Magazine, and Backpacker, all of which pay up to a dollar a word.
Despite the steady rise in work, I began to feel as if I’d reached a plateau. Many of my editors wanted real-life experience in international destinations, and I had never left the country. Gradually I began to formulate plans for a three-month backpacking trip in Europe that included jaunts through Ireland, France, Italy and multitude of other countries. Since I wanted absolute freedom in my itinerary, I decided to save money on my own and shunned opportunities for media trips and tourism assignments that might have shouldered some of the cost. Until this point, it was still questionable whether or not I was a masochist. By now, the debate was settled. Needless to say, saving five thousand dollars on a beginner’s freelancing income was a miraculous feat, survived only with the help of bulk supplies of Ramen noodles.
Nevertheless, I saved the money and took out a credit card, and in early 2009 stepped aboard a plane to Ireland. I had pitched a few potential stories to editors, but my most important decision was starting a blog for daily travel updates. I can’t stress this enough for up-and-coming travel writers. Thanks to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, travel bloggers can reach a wide audience of subscribers and keep them hooked. Some advice I wish I’d received early on was to think of my blog as a novel-in-progress. That means finishing each
entry with tomorrow’s itinerary, a question, or a tantalizing quote that keeps your readers coming back. This works the same way as cliff-hanger chapter endings in a novel, and your readers will faithfully clamor to read each day’s update.
Use your blog to help keep notes of descriptions and other details that you’ll want to remember when you’re writing later on, and always add images to complement your story. After learning these techniques and others, it wasn’t long before I developed an audience that couldn’t wait to hear what happened next in my journey. Later, when it came time to write a book, I used my blog entries to form the outlines and began condensing the different posts into chapters. I considered this a win-win situation: while I got to keep notes, garner exposure, and build a loyal following, my readers got to live vicariously through my experience. This is the key function of the travel writer. You are not only a storyteller, but a conveyor of excitements; boldly plundering each experience and passing it on to your reader in an effort to introduce them to the world outside their lives.
After three and a half months I returned to the States and got to work publishing articles for different markets. I used resources such as the Writer’s Market books and Craig’s List forums to find private clients, and began writing for online publishers such as Trails Travel, Golf Link, USAToday, and The Washington Times Communities. Thanks to some personal networking, I also began editing for travel publications such as Adventure Traveler Online, all while maintaining a healthy schedule of traveling and writing.
Before trying to break into freelance travel writing, it’s best to ask if the travel writer’s life is right for you. Do you love having freedom over your work schedule? Do you love visiting new places, and finding new ways to tell old stories? Do you feel a certain bravado about watching your day unfold on your own terms? If so, then it might be worth your time to take a stab at travel writing.