Tuesday, 30 September 2008

#29 – Top travel writer resources: Skyscanner

Or where to look first for cheap flights.

Travel writer freebies
As a travel writer, it is often possible to get a lot of freebies – hotel rooms, restaurant meals, excursions, even the odd airport transfer. But one thing that I’ve always found it hard to blag is the air fare.

Flight costs
Take a lot of flights (which, almost inevitably, any full time travel writer will do), and the costs can ramp up massively.And if you’re going to end up paying for all those flights, then you may as well find the cheapest, cutting your costs as much as possible.

There are various ways to do this, but one that I find consistently good is Skyscanner. In fact, at times in the past, I have been worried that I may be getting slightly addicted to it.The site certainly has its faults – especially since a recent redesign which has seen an irritating amount of complete inaccuracies creep in – but for cheap flights on budget airlines, it’s hard to beat.

Budget airlines missed by most search engines
Skyscanner tends to cover the airlines that most search engines miss – the likes of Ryanair, Easyjet, Tiger and Jazeera Airways – as well as some downright obscure low cost carriers that only fly a few routes.The real beauty is that you don’t have to give it much information. One of the irritating things about other engines is that you usually have to put dates in and say which airport you want to fly from.

Getting the best deal
Personally, I just want the best deal. For me, there are four or five airports which are roughly as easy as each other to get to – I’ll generally fly from whichever is cheapest and has the most sensible flight times.I’m also very flexible on dates – I’m freelance and I don’t have a nine-to-five job to go to. I don’t need to book leave, so I’ll book for whenever the flights are cheapest.

Date and departure options
With Skyscanner, you don’t need to faff around, constantly tweaking the date and departure options in order to get results. If you want to, you can just put the departure airport as ‘United Kingdom’ and leave the rest open. It’ll come up with every country that can be directly flown to from the United Kingdom, listed by the lowest possible price throughout the year.

Booking on a whim
Obviously, you can narrow these options down if you’re wanting to go somewhere specific in a certain month, but part of the beauty is seeing what options are available. In the past, I’ve just booked to go somewhere on a whim through Skyscanner, purely because I’ve never been there before, it’s cheap and I may as well.

Starting point
It’s not a failsafe tool – as I say, they have really messed the redesign and expansion of the site up – but it’s a great starting point if you’re looking for flight options.

Monday, 29 September 2008

#28 – Re-using information in round-up articles

Or how to milk your research.

Re-selling... or re-working?
Unless you’ve been foolish and signed away all the rights to a story and the research related to it, there is usually a way of re-using the material. The obvious one is selling the story a second (or third, or fourth...) time, but we’ll come to that at a later date.

Round-up articles
The best way of re-using information is to make it part of – my old favourite - a round-up article. This is often a case of cutting down what you have already written, or picking out an aspect of it, then matching it with some other things that fit.

Celebrities in Anguilla
For example, when I was in Anguilla in April 2008, I was researching a couple of stories. One was on how celebrities have recently adopted the island as their getaway of choice, another was on the oldest hotel on the island (and coincidentally, one of the few places that is suitable for those on a budget).

Adapting articles
I wrote those two pieces up, and then thought about ways of adapting them. The celebrity one was easy – I took out the relevant information, then put it together with other information I’d got from elsewhere in the Caribbean. Et voila, there were pieces on Celebrity Caribbean Hideaways and Celebrity Honeymoon Destinations.

Travelling independently in the Caribbean
For Lloyds’ Guesthouse, it was a case of extending the budget theme through the Caribbean. I ended up incorporating it in a piece about travelling independently in the Caribbean, as well as an advice piece on where to look in order to find good value, non-resort style accommodation in the region.

Top 10 Beaches
I’ll probably end up using other aspects of original article somewhere else too – the restaurants are prime candidates, and if ever I sink low enough to do the archetypal Top 10 Beaches piece, then there are a couple of candidates for that as well.

Turn the detail into a general theme
This process can be applied to just about every destination article you write. Turn the detail into a general theme, then look to see what else fits that theme. If you do a feature on glass-making in Venice, then how about a round-up of other places in the world where you can see glass made?
If you’re doing a story about white-water rafting in the Czech Republic, why not convert it into a piece on Europe’s white-water rafting hotspots?
It’s often a simple way of getting more mileage out of the same material, and making your trips more cost effective.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

#27 – Always meet your deadline

Or delivering what you promise, when you’ve promised it for.

Time management skills
I have met plenty of freelancers in the past who are completely unsuited to freelancing. They’re constantly in a flap, have no time management skills and always seem to behind for any number of deadlines.
Quite how these people keep getting work, I will never know.

Missed deadlines
If there’s one thing that’s going to make an editor reluctant to use a freelancer again, it’s a missed deadline. So if you say you’ll get something done by a certain date and time, make sure it is done by then.
Frankly, the editor will not care about what sort of workload you have. And he or she will certainly not care about your grandmother getting lost in the wash, your dog having the flu, the bus having eaten your notes or your computer being delayed.

Deliver when you promise
The simple rule is that if you promise something by a certain time, you deliver. You may have to bust a gut to deliver it, but deliver it you should do.
The time to negotiate a deadline is not after you have accepted it. If you really think it’s impractical, make the query before accepting the assignment.

Negotiating a deadline
I’ve done this in the past, and editors rarely mind a slight tweak of the deadline when forewarned. If accepting an assignment, I’ll occasionally say something along the lines of: “I’m going to be on the road until the 15th – would it be OK to get it by the 17th instead? If not, no worries, I’ll work something out and get it done on time.”

The key with this approach is that you have shown you’re prepared to move mountains to get it done by the original deadline. But, by offering another, very reasonable option that’s not far out of the proposed timeframe, you’re not losing anything.
Chances are that the initial deadline proposed was entirely arbitrary anyway, and another couple of days won’t hurt. It only becomes a problem when whatever deadline is agreed upon isn’t met.
So once you’ve agreed – meet it.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

#26 – Thinking laterally for film angles

Or using the story, not the destination.

More than filming locations
In Travel Writer Tip #24, I suggested that films are a great inspiration for travel stories. This was mainly talking about locations that the films were shot in. However, by thinking laterally, there is another way of using films as a hook for a travel feature.

Indiana Jones
I’ll use 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an example. I ended up doing a round up piece on locations used across the Indy series, but looking back, there were other angles that could be extracted from it.

Stand-in filming locations
For example, much of the film was set in Peru, but filmed in Hawai’i. That could have been used as a peg to base a story about stand-in film locations around. What other films have been filmed somewhere entirely different from where the scene is supposed to be set?
Point Break springs to mind for this – Patrick Swayze’s character supposedly disappeared into the sea at Bells Beach, Australia, but due to budget restraints, this was filmed in Oregon.

Aztec and Maya civilisations
Then there’s the Crystal Skull angle. Surely there’s scope for a story on the beliefs surrounding crystal skulls in the Aztec and Maya civilisations? This is especially the case if you can get to a site where the skulls have been found and city ruins remain.

Dig sites
And what about archaeology? Every time an Indiana Jones film comes out, there’s a boom in interest about archaeology. Visit a dig site, speak to one of the chaps scrabbling in the dirt, write about the growth of volunteer holidays where tourists can help out uncovering ancient secrets.

Using the plot
It’s all about thinking in themes again. The destinations may not have a direct link, but the plot does. To use another example, it’s possible to do a spy training course in the UK, stay at author Ian Fleming’s pad in Jamaica and visit a Spy Museum in Tampere, Finland. All could use the release of a Bond film as a topical hook.

Links to upcoming movies
And, if you think about it, there’s almost certainly something you have done or somewhere you have been that has some kind of link to an upcoming movie. That could make you money, if you can sell it.

Friday, 26 September 2008

#25 – Information in ex-pat bars

Or getting the inside track in an Irish pub.

Something missing in Kiev
Recently, I was in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. I heartily recommend it by the way – it’s a gorgeous city. I was doing a few pieces for various outlets, but by the end of my third day there, I had a nagging doubt that something was missing.

Feel for the city
In essence, although I’d seen a lot of the city and thoroughly enjoyed it, I hadn’t really got a feel for it. Usually I’m pretty good at this; getting a snapshot impression, spotting a few quirks and getting a general gist for the overall atmosphere. But it wasn’t happening with Kiev, and I knew that this would show through in the articles.
The only solution, therefore, was to go to the pub.

Not speaking the language
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Part of my problem was that I don’t speak or understand any Ukrainian. It wasn’t as if I could break into conversation with a shopkeeper or a waiter. The same applies for if I went to a local bar.
I could sit, watch and soak up – something that’s usually a great source of material – but I wasn’t going to quite get it.

Ex-pat bars
This is where ex-pat bars and pubs come in. There are some in every major city – the places where the foreigners that have ended up living in the city go for a few drinks. More often than not, they are the Irish pubs.
This sort of pub isn’t exactly my first choice to drink in – I much prefer to find a real local joint that has the character of the city/ country it’s in rather than one that’s been imported – but it is often ideal if you’re after the lowdown.

Listening in
I plucked one out of my guide book, sat myself down with a beer, ordered some food, then kept my ear open for conversation in a language I recognised. As luck would have it, I ended up on a table next to two Englishmen and their Ukrainian work colleague who was fluent in English.
I surreptitiously listen in on them, moaning about the odd aspect of Kiev life, and then when I got the opportunity, I barged in.
“Hi, I couldn’t help noticing...”

Pub crawl
Within a few minutes, I was sat around the table, discussing endemic local corruption, infrastructure problems, relations with Russia, the antagonism of locals towards sex tourists and those coming purely to get an attractive East European wife.
It was fascinating. I got an idea about underlying tensions, work ethics, cultural differences and odd habits.
And, just before we embarked on a pub crawl (“come on, we’ll show you the best places to hang out”), they gave me a run-down of the best places to eat and see.

Sense of place
It was brilliant; the sort of information you can never get from a tourist board or PR person. And it’s not the first time that this has happened. Admittedly I struck gold this time, but on other occasions just listening in has been enough to give me a better sense of place. It won’t always work, but it’s often a good trick for getting that little bit extra.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Where’s my Travel Writing Tip?

I’m currently jaunting through Central America, so the tips may not be uploaded every day at the moment. I managed to stock a few up in advance, but not quite enough to cover the fortnight I’ll be away. Normal service shall be resumed shortly though.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

#24 - Film-related travel stories

Or taking advantage of the set-jetters.

Filming locations
One excellent source of story ideas is the cinema. If a big movie is slated to come out soon, you can bet your bottom dollar that will be a market for a story on the filming locations used in it.
This is especially true if it’s been filmed somewhere exotic.

James Bond
I’ve now lost count of how many stories I’ve sold that have a tenuous link to James Bond. I once made the decision that I was going to watch all of the films, make notes of what happened in particularly interesting destinations, and then research where those destinations are.

Multiple articles
It was a real bugger of a task – at one point I never wanted to watch a Bond film again – but it paid off. I’ve sold multiple articles based on that research, and the material is timeless. Every two years or so, when a new Bond movie is released, I can re-package it and sell it on again.
It may be as the cities of James Bond, it may be as Bond’s beaches, it may be as the lairs of Bond villains. Either way, most of the work is done.

Quantum of Solace
Quantum of Solace – the latest in the Bond series - is out in November. Which reminds me – I should really start pitching the Bond material out again, especially given that I’m actually in the film*. It’s practically guaranteed that there will be a glut of Bond-related travel articles out there at the time.
I’m already doing two pieces on places featured in the new film (Panama and Siena, Italy), and I’m sure others will be doing more.

Pirates of the Caribbean
It’s not just Bond of course – most big films lead to a bit of a travel boom. There was Pirates of the Caribbean in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, and all manner of plodding costume dramas in England.
I’ve ended up trotting out travel articles on Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, The Italian Job, Star Wars, Roman Holiday, Mad Max, The Matrix and probably many more.

Internet Movie Database
But how do you find out about where these locations are and which movies are coming up? Well the Internet Movie Database is a fabulous resource, but can be scant on the details. Otherwise, tourist boards are always keen to promote anything filmed in their area. They’ll almost certainly have a list of films that have visited in the past, and ones that are due to arrive.

Apocalypse Now
Then there’s searching on the internet. Want to find out where the river from Apocalypse Now** is? Just do an internet search. The results may not be accurate, but at least they’re a starting point.


*I was in Siena while the crew were filming Il Palio, the famous horse race held in the city centre. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to pick myself out in the crowd in a wide shot. And I’m telling everyone that I’m the star until they can prove otherwise.

** It’s the Pagsanjan River in the Philippines, if you must know.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

#23 – Picking the right notepad

Or why good things come in small packages.

Fussy about the notepad?
It’s amazing how picky some travel writers can be about the notepads they use. Some aren’t fussy at all – they’ll take any old scrap of paper, or whatever’s lying around in their hotel room. Others are incredibly specific, and like Ernest Hemingway, will only use a Moleskine.
I’m not even going to begin to push you towards one sort of pad. But I will try and explain why I favour the ones I go for. And I shall start with a cautionary tale.

Large pad = easy filing
When I first started out as a full time freelance travel writer, I’d carry a large pad around with me, trying to get all the notes from one trip into one pad.
There was good logic to this – it would make filing the notes away a lot easier: One per trip – it’s logical.

Five days worth of notes
And then I lost it three quarters of the way through the trip. Five days worth of notes, all gone. I manage to rescue some of it from memory, but a lot of the little details were gone, and I’d say I probably lost out on two or three stories as a result.
That, as you can imagine, hurt.

The advantages of small notepads
Since then, I have learned from my mistake. I now use a series of small notepads – a maximum of two days’ travelling per pad, and never more than one destination in one pad. And after experimenting, I’ve found that there are a few other characteristics I like:

- Soft cover, not hard cover. It’s more comfortable in the pocket.
- A cover that can be written on. It sounds silly, but many notepads have glossy covers or covers that are so dark that the writing can’t be seen. And when you have piles of pads in a drawer, being able to look at which one it is from the cover is a great help.
- Lined paper. It keeps my scrawling in some sort of check. With plain paper, it’s absolutely all over the place.
- Small enough to keep in my pocket, ready to be withdrawn when needed. But big enough to be able to get a decent amount of material in there over the course of a day.
- If ring-bound, I prefer the binding to be on the side. When it’s at the top, pages and the cover have a tendency to tear off when you lift it out of your pocket.

But, as I say, this is entirely subjective. Everyone has a pad that suits them best – it’s just a case of finding it.

Monday, 22 September 2008

#22 – Why round-up articles are more likely to be accepted

Or taking advantage of the gap in the market.

Less competition
Editors (on the whole) love list articles, but that’s not the only reason you should start thinking about ideas for some and pitching them. The other is that other writers aren’t pitching them. There’s less competition.

Not glamorous – but profitable
Putting together a round-up article isn’t particularly glamorous or exciting, but that’s precisely why you should do it. Think about it – if you prefer to be writing flowing, literary prose about one destination, then there’s a high chance that most other writers out there are too.

Gap in the market
So if most other writers are pitching destination pieces that they enjoy writing, there’s something of a gap in the market, isn’t there? If you’re prepared to do the round-ups, then you’ve got a better chance of making a sale.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

#21 – Why editors love round-up articles

Or playing the numbers game

Money-spinning list articles
Round-up – or list – articles are brilliant money-spinners for the freelance travel writer. I’m afraid that if you keep coming back to this site, you’re probably going to get bored of me saying that. I’m not going to apologise for this – it is a point well worth emphasising. Even if it is with a sledgehammer.

Editor response
I will always remember the response of one of my editors when I pitched him one of these best-of pieces. I can’t even remember what it was now (probably something like Top Ten Adrenaline Rushes in Australia), but the e-mail he sent commissioning it was very illuminating.

Number on the cover
I’m paraphrasing a little here, but his response was something along the lines of: “Yep, sounds great. And it’ll keep the publisher happy – get a number on the cover and all that.”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But an enticing magazine cover is a hugely important factor in getting readers to pick up and buy a magazine.

Top Ten or Fifty Best?
And list articles will do that. Think about when you read through a magazine or travel section. Most of us will flick past stories about destinations we’re not interested in. But when there’s a Top Ten, Fifty Best or 100 To Do Before You Die, we’ll look. Well I certainly do, and magazine sales figures suggest that others do too.

Menu of choices
Why do we do this? It’s partly out of curiosity – we want to know which has been deemed the best, and want to argue over it. It’s also partly because we like having a menu of choices – if we fancy going to a tropical island, it’s nice to have bite-sized round-ups of a few tropical islands to look through.

Selling more copies
To the publisher, however, it’s all about the bottom line. Sell more copies, make more money. And if having a few numbers on the front (30 greatest, top 50, whatever) sells more copies, then they’re going to want articles that allow them to do that.
And unless the editor doesn’t want to keep his or her job, (s)he is going to be looking for that sort of piece to put on the cover too. The magazine can have some of the best writing in the world, but ultimately the editor’s performance will be based on how many people buy the thing.

Not an isolated incident
This editor wasn’t the first to mention this tendency to me either – another said much the same thing when I proposed 50 Things To Do In Australia For Free to her. “Ooh – that’ll look good on the cover...”

Saturday, 20 September 2008

#20 – Using trivia in round-up articles

Or making money from themes.

Can’t get to the world’s biggest cave?
In my previous post, I suggested using snippets of pub quiz-worthy trivia as a basis for stories. This is all very well, but what if you can’t get to the place? It’s all very well, for example, knowing that the world’s biggest cave is the Sarawak Chamber in Malaysian Borneo, but it’s a right bugger to get to. And not cheap either.

Round-up articles: Bread and butter
So does this information become useless again? Not at all – it’s just a case of using it in a different way. And by that, I mean a round-up article.
Round up articles are great bread and butter for travel writers. A lot of the time, you don’t need to go to the places mentioned – just find five, ten, twenty things linked by a theme, write 100 or so words on each and put in details of how to get there.

Writing for the internet
It’s not glamorous work, but it can lead to good money. It’s also the sort of thing that many editors want to balance out their destination-based pieces. And if writing for the internet, then round-ups are almost certainly what the editor is after.

Record-breaking caves
To use the cave example, the Sarawak Chamber can easily be used as part of a round-up. That’s the biggest cave, but where’s the biggest cave complex? Where are the world’s oldest caves? The biggest accessible caves? The biggest stalagmites and stalactites? Work on slight variations on that theme, and you have a piece on record-breaking caves.

World’s booziest nations
The same applies to my Luxembourg example. Luxembourg consumes more alcohol-per-capita than any other, but what if you can’t get there to investigate more? Well, how about breaking the stats down? Look at which country consumes the most wine (it’s Luxembourg, again), the most beer (Czech Republic), the most rum, whisky, vodka and gin. There you have the basis for a piece on the world’s booziest nations.

Thinking in themes
A similar approach can be applied with almost any bit of trivia that has a vague relation to geography. If you know where the world’s shortest airport runway is, then a bit of research can lead you to a piece on the world’s scariest airports.
If you know where the world’s longest bridge is, then look into the tallest, the most expensive, the most used etc.
These pieces won’t always sell, of course, but the important thing is to start thinking in themes to make the most of the material you have. There’s good money in it.

Friday, 19 September 2008

#19 - Turn trivia into a story

Or how to make money from useless pub quiz knowledge.

Soaking up seemingly useless trivia
I am one of those people that has a tendency to soak up seemingly useless trivia. I may be hopeless at DIY, completely unable to identify a brand of car and terminally feeble in the kitchen, but ask me to list capital cities or unique endings of football team names and I’m in my element.
In short, I am the sort of person that’s quite useful to have on your pub quiz team.

Nuggets of information
So how does this fit in with being a travel writer? Well, there comes a point where that useless trivia isn’t so useless after all. Those little nuggets of silly information can come in quite useful. Let’s face it, if you found it interesting enough to remember it, then surely some other people will too.

First World War and Compiegne
I’ve got many a story from this approach. On the very basic level, the fact is almost the story in itself. A classic example is in Compiegne, France. In a woodland clearing, there is restored replica of the railway carriage in which Germany surrendered in the First World War and France surrendered in the Second World War.
There’s also a small museum attached. To me, this is a fascinating tale, and a couple of editors clearly agreed.

World’s smallest divided landmass
Similarly, the Caribbean Island of St Martin/ Sint Maarten is the world’s smallest divided landmass. Check out both the French and Dutch side, compare them, and it’s an easy sell purely because it is such a geographical oddity.
In a similar vein there’s Nicosia (or Lefkosia) in Cyprus – the world’s only divided capital city.

Liechtenstein’s Royal Winery
Then there are other things where a bit of lateral thinking is required. When in Liechtenstein, I visited a winery. Not particularly interesting, you may think. But when you know it’s the Royal Winery, then there’s a story.
When you discover that it’s the only winery in the entire country, it’s even better. And if you know that Liechtenstein just happens to be the world’s smallest wine producing nation, it’s pure gold.

Alcohol per capita
But my favourite example of turning trivia into a story is with Luxembourg. Did you know that Luxembourg consumes more alcohol per capita than any other nation in the world? At face value, that’s a mildly interesting bit of trivia.
More importantly, it’s one that doesn’t half go against the country’s dull, sober image. The tip about looking for the opposite of a country’s reputation applies again here, but this was even better.

Discount rates and non-permanent population
Surely if they drink that much alcohol, there’s one hell of a party going on somewhere? I tried to find that party when I went there, investigated the best pubs and bars, and discovered what was distorting the statistics.
It turns out that the French, Germans and Belgians are nipping over the border to buy alcohol at discount rates, and the large non-citizen and non-permanent resident population skews the boozing-per-capita numbers.

Turn information into articles
That turned into a fascinating story that I managed to sell twice, barely changing a word. The point is, though, that many of us have such snippets of information in our head that can be turned into articles. Either that or we read them somewhere. They’re worth using – and not just in a pub quiz context.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

#18 – Expensive destinations on a budget

Or getting money by writing about value for money.

Oslo on a budget
In my tip about looking for the opposite of a destination’s reputation, I gave the example of a story I wrote about doing Oslo on a budget for the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Norwegian capital has a reputation for being very expensive, so I researched a story on how to do the city on a smaller budget: the good value hotels, free attractions, cheap eats, bargain bars etc.

Cheap accommodation from Monaco to Moscow
Of course, it’s not just Oslo that’s expensive, and this is an angle that can be recycled again and again. In fact, I’ve done it numerous times. I’ve done London on a budget, Monaco without breaking the bank, good value deals in Iceland, cheap lodges in Anguilla and reasonably priced accommodation in Moscow.

Good, solid information
To put it simply, readers tend to want to know about this sort of thing. It’s good, solid information that provides a service. And from the editor’s point of view, it’s an interesting angle on a destination that they may have covered quite a lot in the past.

Tourist board assistance
And there’s another positive to this approach as well. Tourist boards in places that have expensive reputations are often dying to put across that they can be done affordably. If you can line up a commission in advance, then it is highly likely that they will be willing to help you out.

Complimentary hotel rooms and free entry to attractions?
They may not pay up for the flight, but they will possibly subsidise your meal and accommodation costs, or give you free entry to some of the relevant attractions. In an expensive destination, this sort of assistance can be invaluable. A complimentary hotel room for a couple of nights can cut your costs dramatically.

Ready-made information
The tourist boards in these destinations also tend to have a wealth of information on accommodation/ things to do for those on a budget. Half your job will be done for you – although if you’re doing things properly, you will check these out in person and get some ideas from other sources too.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

#17 – Go against the reputation to find a story angle

Or why opposites attract

One of the easiest ways to find a good angle on a destination to write about is to think about what the city or region is best known for. And once you’ve thought about what gives the destination its reputation, search for the opposite.

New angles on old favourite destinations
As I’ve said before, editors are constantly looking for new angles on old favourite destinations. And if I had to pick one rule-of-thumb trick that works in what they’ll go for, it’s this reputation twist.
Instead of rambling on about ways to do this, it’s probably best to just give a few examples of pieces I’ve written before.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Reputation? ‘Coffee’ shops, red light district and debauchery.
Opposite: The serious side of Amsterdam – Anne Frank’s House, the Dutch Resistance Museum etc.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Reputation? Ludicrous building projects, huge shopping malls and general ostentatious wealth.
Opposite: The non-blingy side of Dubai - the largely immigrant-populated area of Deira, the beaches away from the Jumeirah strip, public ferries on the Dubai Creek.

Hunter Valley, Australia
Reputation? One of the great New World wine regions.
Opposite: The growing micro-brewing industry in the area – the beer makers that are taking on the wineries.

Brussels, Belgium
A bit boring, full of politicians.
Opposite: The fun side of Brussels – most entertaining attractions and best places to go for a party atmosphere.

Oslo, Norway
Reputation? Tear-jerkingly expensive.
Opposite: How to do Oslo on a budget – good value for money hotels, cheap eats etc.

See, it’s a relatively simple (almost lazy) trick. But it often works. Try applying it to the destination you’re planning to visit next, or one in your local area, and send out a few pitches once you’ve looked into how you could write an article on the opposite to the stereotype. You may well get a bite.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

#16 – When the destination IS a story in itself

Or when editors need to cover their areas

Here I go, contradicting myself again. Having just said that a destination isn’t a story in itself, I should point out the rare occasions when it is. Be forewarned, however – this doesn’t really apply for those that haven’t already got a good relationship with an editor.

Fancy a story?
If everything goes well, at some point in your career, you will get to the stage when a few editors know you well enough to be able to trust you to write a good piece, irrespective of the destination or subject.
At this stage, with certain editors, you’ll be able to drop a quick e-mail saying: “I’m off to Sicily in a couple of weeks’ time – fancy a story?”
And a lot of the time, they’ll say yes.

Rapport and relationship
Frankly, this is a bad habit to get into. It can work, but only when that rapport and relationship has been built to the point where you are a trusted regular contributor.
And even then it only works when they’re looking to cover a particular area or region.
This works in a different way with newspapers and magazines. For newspapers it’s a case of not wanting to tread over the same old ground all the time. If there’s a fairly large travel section that comes out every week, it only stands to reason that the editor will want to get a reasonably good geographical spread over time.

Caribbean commissions
A classic example of this is one of the papers I work for in Australia. Earlier this year, I said I was planning to head over the Caribbean for a couple of weeks, and the editor was immediately interested. She said that they never got any stories from the Caribbean, and immediately commissioned pieces on four or five islands.
Even then though, I had to give an idea of what sort of angles I may cover in the piece (ie. Watersports, particular hotels, celebrity spotting).

General guide pieces
For magazines – particularly ones focused on a particular country – it may simply be a case of them not having covered a particular region or city for a while and feeling that they should have a piece on it before long.
These tend to be very general guide pieces, or ones with a slight slant. But to be honest, it doesn’t really matter; if a magazine about Australia hasn’t covered Adelaide or Perth for year or so, it’s going to need a feature on Adelaide or Perth relatively soon.

Advertising sales
Be aware that this can often be advertising fuelled – the sales team may want to mine a fruitful area, and doing a feature on a certain destination can help pull in advertising dollars from companies with links to it.
See – I told you that it helps to bear the link between writing and advertising in mind, didn’t I?

Informal pitching – not for beginners
But I do say this rather reluctantly. For a new writer starting out, the informal pitching of destinations you’re going to without specifying a strong angle is a sure-fire loser. Only contemplate it when you have a strong relationship with the editor and you understand the needs of the publication.

Monday, 15 September 2008

#15 – The destination is not a story in itself

Or learning how to play the angles

If there’s one phrase that crops up time and time again in editorial guidelines for a travel section/ travel magazine it is: “The destination is not a story in itself.” Too right it isn’t.

Would you like a story on Venice?
Say you’ve been to Venice, had a wonderful time, and written what you think is a brilliant piece about your experiences. It may be a superb piece of writing, but the likelihood is that this isn’t enough to sell it.
Let’s face it, the editors you try and pitch it to have probably heard “Would you like a story on Venice?” a hundred times before. And you’ve not given them a good reason to pick yours over anyone else’s.

Venice story angles
What you need is an angle – a focus on an aspect of Venice that is interesting, and preferably hasn’t been covered very much. ‘Venice’ isn’t a story, but the campaign to save Venice from sinking is. So is Venice’s newest hotels. So is a day in the life of a gondolier.
Then there’s Venice on a budget, the military history of Venice, the population exodus, the rejuvenation of the Lido, Venice’s best coffee, places to avoid in Venice etc. For the record, when I went for four days in February 2007, I got four full stories out it, and numerous snippets that I used at a later date.

One visit: four stories
One was a general Best Of Venice guide piece (which I had been commissioned for in advance – one of the rare occasions where the destination WAS the story ; they just needed a guide to Venice). The others I sold later – one was on exploring Venice in the dead of night, one on the arty islands of the Venice lagoon and the third on how nearby Treviso is trying to fight its way out of Venice’s shadow.
Looking back, I could have easily got a couple of other stories, but the visit was at the end of a long trip and I was exhausted. My brain and body just said “no more” for at least half a day.

New approaches to old favourites
Exactly the same principle applies for other destinations – look for the angles. The more novel and intriguing the angle, the better chance it has of selling. Editors are crying out for different approaches to old favourite destinations. Give them what they want, and you’ll start making some money very quickly.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

#14. Don’t send attachments with pitches

Or why Word is out.

In my previous tip, I sang the praises of sending articles on spec when trying to crack a new publication. However, when sending that article, don’t make the mistake of sending it as an attachment.
Many of us will use Microsoft Word as a matter of course when writing, and it would seem logical to send a completed article as a Word document. I’ll give you three reasons why you shouldn’t.

#1 – Not everyone uses Word.
In practice, most publications will have Word on their computers because they know they will get sent Word documents from time to time. But it will be used surprisingly rarely. The big papers have their own software, others will work with Quark Xpress and Adobe Indesign when laying out pages.
While Word isn’t necessarily incompatible with these programs, it can throw up some oddities that are annoying and time consuming to get rid of.

#2 – Firewalls and internet security
In these days of appeals for money from Burkina Faso, malware and endless spam about Viagra, internet security at publishing companies has to be reasonably tight.
Filters and firewalls are set up to stop nasties getting into the system. And often that this means that an e-mail with an attachment sent from an unrecognised source can end up in the junk folder. Yes, that means your masterpiece that you sent on the word document.

#3 – Making it easy for editors
The third reason is relatively simple. Making the editor open an attachment gives them an extra thing to do, and thus they’re less likely to read your story.
If it’s pasted into the body of your e-mail, below the pitch or your signature, then they can just scroll down and take a look.
They’ll probably only skim read the first paragraphs, but that’s two more paragraphs than you might get if sent as an attachment.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

#13. Writing travel articles on spec

Or letting the dog see the rabbit.

Waiting for commissions
For this nugget of advice, I return to tip number nine - If you want to write about travel, do some travelling. I mentioned that odd breed that will set at home, not going anywhere until they’ve got a commission, and thinking that this is the only way to make money/ get into travel writing.

Back the pitch up with an article
These are also the people that will send endless pitches, and are probably the ones obsessed with getting a stack of ‘clips’ that they can show to editors to back up their pitch.
Well I reckon there’s something a lot better to back up the pitch with – the article itself.

Try on the editor’s shoes
Put yourself in the editor’s shoes. What do you prefer? Is it to e-mail back to someone you’ve never worked with before, saying that you quite like the idea, and would be interested in seeing the story? Or is it to see that story instantly, be able to immediately decide whether you want it or not, and then send an e-mail offering to buy it? It’s the latter, obviously.

Sending on spec to break into new publications
Most of the times when I have broken into a new publication, it has been by sending an article on spec like this. This was certainly the case when I was starting out.
Editors simply haven’t got time to respond to endless pitches from people they haven’t heard of or worked with before. But if your story pops up fully formed in their inbox and appeals to them, you can jump the queue.

A matter of trust
Many travel writers discourage this approach, saying that in doing it, you are putting the time in for no certain gain. Well, when starting out, that’s pretty much what you have to do. When the editor becomes a regular client, they’ll trust you and are far more likely to trust that what you eventually send will be good.
But when they don’t know you, why should they trust you above every other freelancer that’s trying to crack the publication? When the piece is sent on spec, they don’t need to. They can see exactly how good the story is.

Format the story for the publication
This said, you should be careful to make sure the story is a good fit for the publication – roughly the same tone and word length, with the fact boxes in the same format the newspaper/ magazine/ website uses. Don’t just send them any old tosh.
It takes a little more time to format things properly, but it gives your piece a much higher chance of being accepted.

Move on until you get a bite
And if it isn’t accepted (or, more likely, completely ignored)? Then move on to the next publication that you think may be a good match for the story. Re-format accordingly, then send away. And keep on moving down the line until someone bites.

Friday, 12 September 2008

#12 – Work experience at a travel magazine/ newspaper section

Or the only time that working for free is worth it.

Working for free CAN be worth it
I explained in the previous post why working for free is a complete waste of time and can actually have a negative impact on your career prospects. And now I’m going to contradict myself. There is one instance where working for free IS worth it.

Work experience or internships
If ever you are offered the opportunity to do some work experience (or an internship, for our American cousins) at a travel magazine or newspaper travel section, jump at the chance. For a wannabe travel writer, it’s one of the best educations you can get.

Editing in Australia
One major reason that I succeeded in becoming a full time freelance travel journalist is that I have editorial experience. I spent four years editing the British Balls! backpacker magazine in Australia. Granted, that’s as unprestigious as you can get, but it did allow me to experience life on the other side of the fence.

The extra miles
Once you’ve been an editor, you know the things freelancers do that you shouldn’t replicate. They’re the things that annoy you, make life harder and give you more work to do. On the flip side, you also know what little things you appreciate, those little extra miles that make your job a lot easier.

National newspaper travel section
When I returned to the UK in 2006 to go freelance full-time, I got to experience this on a larger scale. One of the national newspaper travel sections was on the lookout for a new member of its in-house team. The editor has seen something that she had liked in one or two of the pieces I sent on spec, and asked if I’d like to do a couple of days at the paper to see how things worked out.

Comments about regular contributors
I must have made a reasonably unconvincing impression, as I never got the job. I’m glad I didn’t now, but that couple of days taught me an awful lot. It’s the little things like the comments the team made about regular contributors – their strengths and weaknesses – that gave me a great idea of what such a publication is after.

Balance of stories, right pictures and the totty count
The other thing that struck me was how small a part in the process writing the actual story is. Far more went into getting the right balance of stories, thinking up the right headlines and subheadings, finding the right pictures and checking the facts. There was also an informal ‘totty count’ – photos of good-looking people, especially on the cover, attract eyeballs it seems.

Invaluable lessons
I was actually paid for those two days, but it would have been worth doing even without payment. The lessons learned were invaluable.
In simple terms, making life as easy as possible for the editor means they’re far more likely to give you work in the future.

What makes a publication tick?
But the little nuances were far more important than that – it’s about learning what makes a publication tick, what sort of audience they’re aiming for, which sections they find hardest to fill and what they want from a contributor.
In other words, in such an occasion, you may be working for free, but the value you’ll get from it can be immense.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

#11 – Don’t work for free

Or why if your starting price is nothing, it stays as nothing

Undercutting established professionals
One thing that established writers tend to get angry about is seeing newcomers trying to get themselves established by working for free. Most of this fury is entirely selfish, of course – it means that the established professionals are being undercut. In an industry where outlets are continuingly going under and pay rates rarely – if ever – rise, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from.

No benefit to working for free
But hey, that’s market forces for you. So what if a few noses are put out of joint? Well my argument about not working for free is that, with the exception of doing work experience at a publication, there is absolutely no benefit to it.

The myth of needing clips
Many new writers seem obsessed with getting ‘clips’ - published articles that they can show to other editors to prove that they can write. This is madness. Editors really couldn’t care less about where else you’ve been published. And frankly, if that clip is from a publication that is based on getting free copy, then they’re probably more likely to look negatively upon it.

Send the article
If an editor likes an article, he or she will buy it, irrespective of previous experience. My first ever freelance article was published in a magazine that paid good rates and it’s one that many established writers are dying to crack but haven’t managed. Same goes for my second regular publication. I have heard similar stories from many other writers.
The clips are meaningless. The best way to prove you can write is to send the article.

Setting your price at zero
The other main reason not to write for free is not that it drives down prices for everyone else (although that, of course, is bad from my standpoint). In purely selfish terms, from your own point of view, it’s that offering work for free sets your price at zero. It’s very hard to go back to a publication and say: “Seeing as you got that one for free, would you like to buy one from me at the normal price?”

Get the going rate
It’s not going to work – your value is zero from then on with that publication. And if the piece is good enough, believe me, the editor will buy it at the going rate.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

#10. Think long-term gain when assessing trip profitability

Or why travelling pays back over time.

Don’t expect immediate results
Following on from the previous tip – doing some travelling is the best way to find travel stories – it’s important not to expect immediate results. What can seem like an unprofitable trip at first can end up making you more than enough money to cover the costs in the long run.

Cologne to Amsterdam, July 2006
For an example, I’ll take the first trip I did after turning freelance. It was entirely self-funded at a cost of around £500/ EUR650/ US$950/ AU$1100. I flew into Cologne, and back from Amsterdam, utilising cheap flights, and I travelled between them by train, stopping at Bonn, Aachen and Brussels on the way.

Selling stories
It didn’t take long to sell a story each on Brussels and Amsterdam – about £400 worth of income – but for the rest I struggled. Then suddenly, six months later, someone bought pieces on Cologne and Bonn. Over time, I managed to sell a second Brussels story, a revamped Bonn story and a second Amsterdam story. In the end, it turned out to be massively profitable.
I also got an acceptance for a feature on Aachen, but I won’t hold my breath on ever seeing it printed – the editor has had it for two years and now the subject matter is out of date.

Round-up articles as well as destination-based stories
But it wasn’t just these destination-based stories that ended up making the trip worthwhile. The experiences came in handy a long way down the line – particularly in round-up articles. For example, I never managed to sell a story purely on the Carolus Thermen in Aachen, but it did spark the idea for a piece on Europe’s strangest spas two years later.

Chips and mayonnaise?
Similarly, eating chips and mayonnaise in Amsterdam turned into a piece on Europe’s worst food (and Amsterdam crept into Europe’s most overrated cities for that matter). Going to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn turned into a piece on musical pilgrimage sites, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve used Brussels’ Mini Europe park and the Delirium CafĂ© in round-up pieces.

Re-using material
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I got so much material out of that trip. I’ve taken out snippets here and there, and re-used bits that I included in the straight destination pieces for other angles elsewhere.

Trips pay over time
Yet if I’d looked at it within a couple of months of getting back, I’d have said I made a loss and it wasn’t worth doing. That’s an easy trap to fall into. The profitability of these trips isn’t always immediate – they pay over time, both in terms of selling the features you first thought of and sparking ideas for other features at a later date.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

#9 – If you want to write about travel, do some travelling

Or get off your arse and do it.

Stop waiting for tourist boards and PR companies
This seems remarkably obvious, but there are many wannabe travel writers that will sit around waiting to be sent on assignment. They’ll wait for tourist boards and PR companies to send them on press trips, and rule out going pretty much anywhere because they fear not being able to make a profit if they go.

Speculate to accumulate
This is nothing short of idiocy, and it’s why I’m not a total fan of the theory that the best way to start out is writing about where you live. It isn’t – the best way is going somewhere. Initially, it really is a case of speculating to accumulate.

Stay in hostels and guesthouses
If you do things on the cheap – stay in hostels and guest houses, stay off the booze, skip lunch and explore on foot – it’s easy to spend a week or more away for under £500/ US$1,000. And it’s possible to get enough material for at least a story a day while you’re there.

It may require a bit of pre-planning, but that will pay dividends. Research a route that involves a cheap flight into one place and back from another. Research train and bus timetables so that you can get between the two, perhaps stopping at another destination or two on the way. Read up on what there is to see and what’s new.

Notepad and camera
And while you’re there, be prepared to put in the hard yards. Cram in as much as possible. Pound the streets with notepad in hand and camera at the ready. You’ll be surprised how much material you’ll gather, even if you’re exhausted by the end of the trip. And this can be where those first, all important stories will probably come from.

Monday, 8 September 2008

#8 – Writing about where you live

Or how to milk your own back yard

Stories from your own area
One of the most common pieces of advice that established travel writers give to those just starting out is to concentrate on stories they can do in their own area. I don’t agree with this entirely, and I’ll explain why another time, but I do think that milking your local area can have definite benefits.

Instant expertise
For a start, your local area or city is one in which you either have instant expertise, or you can build it up very quickly. You can nip out to local attractions as a inexpensive day trip, and can often tee up interviews through friends of friends.

Juicy bit of gossip
If you’re planning to pitch to a local publication, then the angle has to be fairly novel – they will have run the basic stories on just about everything in the region. You need a new twist or slant on it. Either that or a juicy bit of gossip that provides a news angle. Has the attraction misspent money? Has it lost Government funding?

Try further afield
But what is old hat to local publications can be intriguing to an outlet further afield. For example, I have been able to sell stories in Australia that have been done to death in the UK press.
So if something is quirky or interesting but has already been covered by the outlets where the angle is local, try further afield.

‘Best of’ articles
But if trying further afield, there’s a great chance to milk other possibilities. I lived in London for a year, and could in no way claim to be an expert on the city. But a few things I did gave me ideas for articles. And what I didn’t know, I could research. This is particularly the case for ‘Best of’ articles.

Articles about London
I ended up doing pieces on London’s best curry houses, London’s quirkiest museums, London’s best sporting events, London’s best free attractions and many more. I didn’t sell any of them in London, as my knowledge really wasn’t that great. But to the outsider, the half-decent knowledge I had did the trick nicely.

Think about the subclause
The key is in the subclause. London’s best restaurants, London’s best museums, London’s best events and London’s best attractions have probably been done many times in just about every travel publication. But by taking it that step more specific, it’s new – especially to a publication that’s in a different part of the world.

Best use of local knowledge
And this is how you can best use your local knowledge. What are the best Italian restaurants in New York? Where are the best bars in Tokyo if you want to chat to local businessmen? Where are the live music venues in Sydney?
For these, substitute your area, pick a topic – be it beaches, walks, shops or nightclubs – then throw in a criterion to narrow it down. The nude beaches, the beginners’ standard walks, the jewellery shops or the gay nightclubs, for example.

Sell more than once
Once you have done that and researched the topic, you probably have a strong article. And one that you can probably sell more than once if you play your cards right. This is the sort of piece that makes mining your local area worth it – not 1,200 words of rambling description about a relatively pleasant Roman fort.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

#7 – Exchanging contacts with other travel writers

Or how to speculate to accumulate.

Afraid of the competition?
There are some travel writers out there that like to keep their cards close to their chest. They don’t like to give away information about who they work for, or pass on tips to those new to the business. Heaven knows why – if they’re good enough, then surely they haven’t got that much reason to be afraid of the competition.

A few pointers
I’m not one of them, and while I’ll often do my utmost to put off someone who wants to take up travel writing as a mere flight of fancy, I’ll always try and give some advice to a greenhorn taking it seriously. After all, it’s not so long ago that I was just starting out myself, and I’m eternally grateful to those that had the good heart to take time out from what they were doing and give me a few pointers.

Exchanging editorial contacts and potential outlets
It’s also why I’m usually to happy to exchange editorial contacts and potential outlets with other writers. Some people can be quite Machiavellian about this, and will only exchange this information when they think they will probably get more out of it than the other person.
Others jealously guard their contacts in order to keep them to themselves.

Give out 100 to get 101
I figure that no editor that I work for regularly is suddenly going to ditch me because they have had a pitch from one more would-be contributor.
I also figure that if I give someone 100 new contacts, and I get just one in return, then I still come out a winner. Yes, I’ve given a lot away, but I’ve also got more than I initially had.
And if that one contact can be turned into a regular client, then that’s great.

Be wary of recommendations
I do make one important caveat when I do this, however. I ask that my name is not mentioned. Unless I know the person and their work well, I never want to be seen as recommending someone. If that person messes up, then it reflects badly on me too.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

#6 – Spell the editor’s name correctly

Or how not to clatter headlong into the first hurdle

Simple common sense
This tip should be simple common sense, but to some people, evidently not. In a previous incarnation, I was the editor of a backpacker magazine in Australia. I did the job for four years, and I quickly established one golden rule: never give a job to someone that can’t spell my name.

Filtering process
Because the magazine employed staff writers on working holiday visas, and they could only legally work for three months at a time there was a high staff turnover. Therefore jobs were being advertised all the time, and my inbox was constantly full of applications. There had to be some sort of filtering process.

Incorrect spelling equals instant deletion
Mine was to delete anything from someone who spelt my name incorrectly. This may seem harsh, but come on, if you can’t get the absolute basics right, then anything more complex is likely to be a disaster. My name was printed in the masthead, and printed on top of various articles within the magazine. It was also stated quite clearly in the job advertisement.

How not to get the job
Yet I would still get a disturbingly large percentage of applications addressed to Mr Whiteley or Mr Whitely. Clearly from people that were incapable of processing simple information. And, unsurprisingly, none of them got the job.

Pointlessly careless mistake
It’s such a pointlessly careless mistake to make, and even if other editors don’t apply my ruthless filtering system, then an incorrect spelling will at least annoy them. And do you really want to start a potential working relationship by pissing someone off?

Jane or Jayne?
So, even if it seems straightforward, check. Is it Jane or Jayne? Is it McClare, McLair or McClair? Getting it wrong could prove extremely costly.

Friday, 5 September 2008

#5. Find the editor’s real e-mail address

Or how to get past the filtering system

When sending a pitch to an editor for the first time, one of the key things is to send that pitch to correct e-mail address. This seems fairly self-explanatory, doesn’t it? But it’s not quite as simple as you might think.

Using the e-mail address from the masthead
The trap that many freelance writers will fall into when sending a first pitch to an editor they have not contacted before is that they will use the e-mail address that is printed as the editor’s address in the masthead of the magazine/ contents section of the paper.
Believe it or not, this address is rarely the editor’s actual address.

Generic editorial contacts act as filters
Many publications will put the editorial contact as something like travel@newspaper.com or editor@magazine.com. If it is something this generic, then the address is almost certainly a holding pen. It is used as a filter to stop the editor’s real address being bombarded with letters from readers, press releases from PR companies and – most importantly – pitches from freelancers.
Most e-mails sent to this address will eventually get read, but it could be by any member of the editorial team.

Phone up and ask reception
So how do you find the editor’s real e-mail address? The one where e-mail goes to them, or them alone? There are a few ways. The best is to simply phone up and ask. If the person on reception gives the same address that is printed in the magazine, rephrase the question.

Company e-mail format
Ask what the editor’s name is – being careful to get the correct spelling – and ask what the company’s e-mail format is. It may be firstname.lastname@company.com or initiallastname@company.com – something like that. Either way, it’s a fair bet that the editor’s direct address follows that format.

Intelligent guess from the masthead
Of course, it is possible to make an intelligent guess at this direct address from looking at the masthead. Often the advertising people on a publication WANT to be contacted directly – they will have their real address printed in the masthead.
From that, it can be easy to deduce the company’s e-mail format. Apply it to the editor’s name, and you should strike gold.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

#4 – Don’t get too precious

Or how to make editors not detest you.

Editors have done some awful things to me over the years. There have been times where I have picked up a newspaper and groaned, picked up a magazine and got furious or clicked on a website and held my head in my hands.

The mistakes that editors make
Some of my particular favourite bungles include:
- The front cover of the magazine saying my article was about an entirely different city to the one it was actually about.
- One magazine spelling my surname in three different ways within the space of six pages.
- A 1,500 word article being chopped to 400 words and to the point where it made no sense at all.
- A series of historically inaccurate ‘facts’ being inserted into my story.
- A description of an activity being changed in order to make it easier to understand, whilst simultaneously making it sound downright irresponsible and dangerous.

Who notices bylines?
All of these annoyed me to varying degrees on the niggly to apoplectic scale, but after stomping around and whingeing to friends, I decided not to take it any further.
All of them made me look stupid, but in the greater scheme of things, they weren’t that important. The chances of anyone remembering any of them and associating them with me are very slim indeed. Frankly, people have more important things to care about, and only other writers seem to notice bylines.

Taking issue with editors
I could, of course, have taken each of these issues up with the respective editors after publication. And I would have been entirely justified in doing so. But given that none of these editors were ones that I had a suitably close relationship with at the time, getting on my high horse and pointing out their mistakes could have backfired horribly.

Drawing attention to errors
Put yourself in an editor’s shoes. You’re a very busy person, and like any human being, you come with a fairly substantial ego. Which contributor are you going to prefer to give work to – is it the one that constantly draws your attention to your own errors, or the one who gets the job done well with a bare minimum of fuss? Exactly.

Accept that editors edit
It’s far better to accept that editors edit. They may hack your prose up, they may change the slant, and they may rewrite your intro. They may also mess up from time to time.
If you feel really strongly about what they’ve done, then you can always make a mental note not to pitch anything to them again.
But otherwise, as long as they pay you, it’s best to grin and bear it. And then next time submit something more suitable so that they don’t feel the need to wield the knife.

The rewards of not being precious
As for those five bungles listed, I am now writing regularly for four of the outlets, and a couple of them are amongst my best clients. I felt angry at the time, and looked silly, but keeping my mouth shut has paid in the long run.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

#3 – Know your place in the greater scheme of things.

Or how all travel writers are really working in advertising.

In my time, I have come across a few rather high-minded travel writers. They are thankfully rare, but these people appear to be under the impression that they are doing something vitally important. They are creating high art on a par with the Sistine Chapel and great literary works that knock Shakespeare into a cocked hat.

Sparkling prose about exciting destinations
Well, they’d like to think they are. But really they’re selling things. They may be writing sparkling prose, throwing the spotlight on exciting destinations or tackling the big issues. But, deep down, they’re flogging all manner of products.

The multi-billion dollar travel industry
The travel industry is huge. It incorporates everything from airlines, package holiday companies and booking engines down to the man in the cafe serving the odd tourist. It is worth multiple billions of dollars. Without the travel industry, there would be no travel writing.
Put simply if people didn’t buy travel products, and spend money while on holiday, there would be no call for travel journalism.

Travel journalism and advertising
There’s a possibility that I am wrong here, but I am happy to state that every single outlet for travel journalism exists because it is funded by advertising. Without the advertising, the outlets – be they newspapers, glossy magazines or websites – would not make money. And thus, would not exist. Those that disappear do so because they are not making sufficient money – irrespective of how good the content is.

The purpose of the story
In blunt terms, the writing is there to support the advertising. It is there in order to make people pick up the publication/ visit the website and look at the adverts. The ultimate purpose of your 2,000 word masterpiece is to flog whatever’s being plugged on the page alongside it. This is worth remembering, and not only to keep you in your place. In a future post, I will discuss how to use advertising to your advantage when getting work.

Don’t get too precious
The important thing is to not get too precious about your role. By all means, write to the highest standard you can muster, be diligent in your research and sensitive to the impact your article could have. But by remembering your place in the greater scheme of things, you can become a much more successful writer. And far less annoying to talk to.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

#2. Know your competition

Or why travel journalism usually sucks.

Reading newspaper travel sections
If my previous post (Writer who travels vs traveller who writes) was a little disheartening, then fear not, this one is a little more upbeat.
One thing that most travel writers are rarely prepared to admit is that a large percentage of travel writing is crap.
But it is. There’s a very good reason why most people will skip the travel section of a newspaper – it usually doesn’t have anything worth reading in it.

Not holding interest
I’ll hold my hands up here. I rarely read through a newspaper travel section myself. I’ll always LOOK at it, and often read the starts of a few articles. But a lot of the time they simply don’t hold my interest.
Sometimes they’re not on themes or destinations that I’m particularly interested in, but a lot of the time they’ll just be plain dull. Even the most prestigious newspapers can contain some appallingly tedious writing.

UK newspaper travel sections
I live in the UK, and out of the eight travel sections of the ‘quality’ newspapers (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and their Sunday equivalents), I’d say only one was consistently good. Probably two are quite good, two solid and well-aimed at their target audience, two are poor and one is downright terrible.
I’m not going to highlight which falls into which bracket – I think it’s an interesting exercise to judge for yourself – but the standard really isn’t that high.

What I did on my holidays
The worst of them is simply abysmal. It contains reams of lazy, self-indulgent pieces that barely scrape above the standard of “what I did on my holidays” essays scrawled out after the first day back at primary school.
It also concentrates on places that a huge percentage of its readership would never be able to afford, and probably wouldn’t want to go to. It truly is dismal.

Rising above the norm
Far from finding this dispiriting, however, it should act as great encouragement. For those that can actually write anyway.
Just think – amid a sea of crap, good writing will instantly stand out. And that good writing can hopefully be yours.
Don’t underestimate this. As I discovered when I first started out, many editors are crying out for contributors that can rise above the norm.

Strong, distinctive writing
One of the first publications I ‘cracked’ is one that many travel writers that have been in the game for years have never managed to make any headway with. They’ve tried, and tried and tried, but can’t get any pitches accepted.
I made it because the editor liked my writing. She emailed back saying that not only would she take the story, but that she wished her other contributors could write that well. She thought my writing was strong and distinctive. And that is something that is surprisingly uncommon in travel journalism.

Mediocre standard of competition
So, for the wannabe travel writer that can actually write, the mediocre standard of the competition is great news. It’s not difficult to stand out from the crowd. In fact, the major problem you’ll encounter is the sheer volume of mediocrity out there – but that we shall come to another time.