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.


Ann said...

I've subscribed to your blog for a while, but I've decided to start reading from the beginning. Which is what I'm doing right now. This post was definitely more hopeful than the previous one. My question to you is, do you have a link to a travel story that you found successful?

Thanks... you'll probably see a lot more of my comments in other posts as I go through.

David said...

Hi Ann. I am currently on the road, but shall dig a few out when I get back.

Thanks for posting the comment though.

Neil said...

Hi David... I'm loving your blog! Did you ever get to "dig a few out"? I'm interested to see some examples...