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.


Robin Noelle said...

My issue with submitting an article to an editor is the glacial pace of the response. Particularly with top tier publications, it's entirely possible to have an editor decide to opt for a story 6-8 mos after you've sent it in. Am I really expected to submit my story exclusively to one publication and then just sit on it for months and months? If I move on too quickly and sell it to another publication, then the original won't publish it. If I wait, then I've got a bunch of articles in people's in-boxes and they aren't making me any money.

David said...

I always think it's worth following up after a month to get a "yes" or "no". And if there's no response - send it to someone else.

Ann said...

This answers my question from a previous comment I made. So, as a new writer it's great to send articles on spec. Especially for me because I'm not in a hurry. Here you also mention putting ourselves in the editors shoes. So based on what I've read here and in the post right before this the closer I get to publication ready the better? If a magazine has travel articles that include boxes on the side with various bits of information, it's better if I include that with my spec? It's at least easier.

Here's my question for you. Considering I have no experience, how can I gauge how long an article is in a magazine without counting the words? Is there a way to even do that?

Oh, and thank you by the way. I'm really enjoying these articles.

ASH said...

Hi David,

Loving your blog. It is really refreshing to get so many free tips and nuggets of valuable information.

I think it completely makes sense for a new writer (like myself) to send articles on spec, along with a query. I think that the chances of the editor actually looking at it will be far greater if they actually have it in front of them. If they just get an email with a bunch of queries from an unknown writer it would seem easier to reject. Even if they give it a quick scan, then if your article is any good, there is a chance they might publish it.

I have also started my own blog to track my travel writing process at

Neil said...

Definitely interested in an answer to Ann's question (about the boxed information included with articles) if you ever get around to it David... Thought I'd comment here so I can get an e-mail if you do write back. Thanks again for this awesome blog!