A question I get asked a lot is 'How can I become a travel writer?' Well, becoming a travel writer is pretty easy – you just need to travel and write – but becoming a paid travel writer is another matter altogether. Here are some tips on developing your travel writing skills, as well as some general advice on how to turn your skill into cold, hard cash.
Developing your Travel Writing Skills
I reckon the best way to become a travel writer is to become one. As with all jobs, people are only going to pay you to write if you are already writing and being published, so it's the good old chicken and egg story again. It all boils down to contacts, hard work, and a healthy dose of luck.
Given this, the first thing to do is to write. Writing is the best way to improve your craft, and is pretty much the only way to go unless you've been born with irritatingly precocious skills. You don't have to go travelling to write, but you do have to be disciplined; there are millions of writers out there who never get beyond the stage of keeping a travel diary, and pretty much everyone thinks their own writing is brilliant... but there aren't many successful travel writers, and the reason is that we all improve – bit by bit, and slowly – by actually writing. If you write regularly for six months, then you'll notice the improvement yourself, and by then you'll be more motivated to keep on writing.
If you're travelling and you want to develop your skills, you might like to try the following:
Try to write regularly: When the world is fascinating and there's always something to do, writing regularly can be a bit of a pain, but you'll never regret it. At the very least you'll end up with a memento of your trip that you can read when you get back, and if you do make it as a travel writer, you'll end up with a book full of research notes that you can convert into articles.
Try to write about everything you see: Initially you'll end up writing about things that look different to home, and possibly things that look the same. But by writing about these things you'll start to develop your descriptive skills, and before you know it you'll begin to spot more things that make you think, and you'll start to look at the world from a writer's perspective. A good writer can write a side of A4 about a washing machine and make it interesting, but it takes time to develop this sort of skill, and writing about everything you can possibly think of is a good way to start.
Ask other people: When you feel confident enough, you might like to get some other people to read what you've written. On the road people are pretty likely to be complimentary, but ask them to be honest; even though criticism hurts, it is the only way to improve. If you don't know what your readers think, how can you appeal to them?
Have fun: Whatever happens, write because you enjoy it. For travel writing to work it needs to be written by someone with some kind of spark, be it a sense of humour, a love for the area they're writing about, or even a hatred for what they see... it doesn't matter, as long as the spark is there. If you try writing and simply can't stand it, then what you write will suffer, but this isn't a reason to stop, it's a reason to continue to develop your writing skills so you can write about what you feel. But if there's no feeling to start with, that's a considerable hurdle!
Just do it: You can't become a travel writer without travelling and writing, after all...
Making Money from Travel Writing
To be completely honest, I'm not the best person to ask about making money1 from travel writing, but here are a few words of advice that I've been given by those who have.
When you've written some articles you're proud of, send them to travel magazines, newspapers with travel supplements (the weekend papers are good), or even free magazines that are available to travellers (in the UK there's a good one called TNT, and I'm sure other countries have an equivalent). Getting something published is the first milestone – then you can use those published articles to try to get more work – so be prepared to publish your first few articles for nothing, or for a pittance, just to get some published work in your portfolio. A large part of getting a break is down to luck, but if you don't send people your writing, it obviously won't get published.
It might help to publish some of your stuff on the Web, so it can act as a portfolio of your work; that's one of the ideas behind this site. Don't publish everything, though, as most publishers aren't interested in articles that have already been published elsewhere, and that includes anything that's already appeared on the Web.
But above all, don't lose hope, because if you give up, you'll never become a successful travel writer. If you're a good writer, and you believe in yourself, then the chances are higher that you'll get a break. It just takes time, luck and perseverance.
Finally, here's a quote that I think sums up my approach to travel writing rather well. I thought I'd share it with you.
'Are you retired?'
'I'm a writer,' he said.
'What do you write about?'
'Travelling mostly, I guess,' he said. 'I go places and see things and think about what I see and then I write about that. There are lots of writers who do that.'
'You mean you would write about what we're seeing right now?'
'Why would anyone want to write about this? Nothing is happening.'
'There's always something happening,' he said.
Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M Pirsig
1 OK, I make a tiny profit from my Land's End to John o'Groats book on the Kindle store, and I make a pittance from my Android, iPhone and iPad applications, but once the costs are deducted, it's only enough to buy me a couple of pints every now and then, so it's not exactly a steady income. I've made a reasonable amount from selling articles that I've written while travelling, but they've all been of a technical nature, rather than travel writing, which is an important distinction. Instead, I earn my keep from more traditional means (which pay much more handsomely than writing ever could), and I leave the travel writing as a hobby – and I actually prefer it that way. I can write whatever I like, whenever I like, and to me that's more important than cash. I tend to give away my content to publishers rather than charge for it, as I'm more interested in seeing the results than the money, so I'm really not the right person to ask about getting rich from travel writing... but I am the right person to ask about enjoying it.