What I Love About Being a Freelance Travel Writer
Like other freelance writers, I’ve always felt a slight feeling of nausea at the thought of working a nine-to-five job. Every day I wake up and go to my desk knowing that my creativity and articulation are the only things paying the bills. Although it can be a little frightening – especially during tax time – I find it exhilarating to watch the day unfold on my own terms. If a story isn’t making sense on paper, I just go for a hike or take a stroll to a local café and try again. If, at three AM, I get a great idea for a story, I send a quick e-mail to an editor and wake up the next morning to a brand new assignment.
Perhaps the biggest perk of being a travel writer is the license for guilt-free adventure. Whether it’s dancing with a local señorita or performing “detective work” at a neighborhood pub, being a travel writer gives you permission to experience each destination to its fullest. Contrary to popular belief, readers can sense when a writer is padding a story or using fluff clichés. I’ve heard more than one editor remark about tossing stories in the waste bin as soon as they see stock phrases such as “quaint”, “nestled”, or “resembling cardboard cutouts”. In other words: you have to truly experience the place you’re writing about if you want to write a good story.
As a freelance travel writer, your job is to find new places and tell new stories in a way that stains the reader’s imagination and makes them long to go where you’ve gone. I love this. It’s why I get out of bed in the morning. And because it’s nearly impossible to write an accurate, engaging story without experience, it forces me to get my head out of the guidebook and pay attention.
Which brings me to another reason why I love freelance travel writing. More than any other type of journalism, travel writing actually requires you to have a good time. I once tried to write a story about a weekend trip I spent in Dublin on the way to a writer’s conference. Due to logistical issues, I found myself constantly on the phone with conference staff and had no time for exploring the city. I was so preoccupied that I barely had a sip of Guinness in the airport before boarding my flight to Mali. Later, when I tried to write about my trip to Dublin, all I could summon were descriptions on how dreary the rain was.
One of my favorite trends in travel journalism is the recent boom in “experience tourism”. More and more readers are wanting stories about places that engage them both physically and mentally, with activities like ecotourism, volunteer work, and immersion. Instead of playing the role of tourist bystander, modern travelers are yearning to become important to the places they go. For me, this means even more opportunities to break the surface and connect with different people and their cultures. My favorite example of this is a week I spent volunteering at a work camp in Aix-en-Provence, France, that involved piecing together old Roman walls that had been buried for five centuries. After a day’s work everyone would reconvene on the patio for a bottle of du vin rouge while sharing our stories around a small fire pit. In addition to learning hands-on skills in masonry and excavation, my French vocabulary doubled, and I made some lasting friendships with the locals and other volunteers.
Thanks to conferences such as the annual New York Times Travel Show, travel writers can now talk directly with representatives of the tourism boards for different countries. Since practically every country profits from tourism, most travel shows have representatives just waiting to accommodate writers who can tell their story. One of my favorite aspects of travel writing is taking assignments from developing countries located in Africa, South America, Asia, or Eastern Europe. Since most readers are unfamiliar with these countries, you start to feel like you’re in unchartered territory. Why?
Because every travel writer and their cousin has written some blurb about cafés in Paris or coffeehouses in Amsterdam. But I don’t know anyone who’s written about, say, competing in an axe-throwing tournament in the Scottish Highlands, or witnessing a 2,000-year old shamanic ritual on an island in Lake Baikal, Russia. As a travel writer, you get paid to find that unique place or story and fully experience it with all your body.
And then comes the writing. With all of the allure and adventure of the job, it’s easy to forget that travel is only half of the job title. Being a travel writer means spending hundreds of hours crafting paragraphs and searching for the right words. It means sitting at your desk and revising stacks of pages for synapse and imagery, trying to find the best way to tell your stories. Fortunately, most successful travel writers have a passion for writing, and tend to find the act of filling pages to be as exhilarating as the traveling itself.
Of all the perks of the travel writer’s life, the writing is undoubtedly my favorite. It makes you see places and people in a different light, and keeps you searching for new ways to express yourself. As Natalie Goldberg famously said, writers live twice: experiencing each place one time in the flesh and another time on paper. I can’t imagine a better way to live.