Thursday, 30 October 2008

#52 – How to spell city names

Or knowing your Kievs from your Kyivs.

Globalised world
While we may live in a globalised world, spelling is something that cannot be universally agreed upon. Just ask our American friends with their strange desires to mangle perfectly good English spellings...

Renamed cities
Usually there is a correct and an incorrect spelling, but sometimes with city names, the lines blur a bit. Occasionally a place is renamed, and sometimes there are large discrepancies between the local and the international spelling.

Krung Thep
Bangkok in Thailand is a classic example. The city simply isn’t called Bangkok – the Thais know it as Krung Thep, yet we persist in giving it a totally inaccurate name. But to use Krung Thep all the way through an article would somehow seem wrong. It would just confuse the reader.

Right to be incorrect?
There are plenty more examples of this sort of thing – Florence and Firenze, Prague and Praha, Warsaw and Warszawa spring to mind. And in most cases, a travel writer is right to be incorrect on the spelling. Of course, every editor has a different policy, and it’s best to go with what they deem to be appropriate. As a general rule, however, go with what feels right for the audience.

Kolkata or Calcutta?
This can be a bit tricky, however, when it comes to cities where the name is being officially changed to the local spelling. In the cases of Mumbai and Beijing, it would now be rare to see an article referring to Bombay or Peking. The transition has been made. But it’s less clear cut with Kolkata or Côte d'Ivoire – have enough people converted from Calcutta and Ivory Coast yet?

Kiev or Kyiv?
The trickiest one I’ve had to deal with recently is Kiev in the Ukraine. Or Kyiv as it is now properly known. In my guidebook, it was called Kyiv, but in most other literature it is still called Kiev. And in the end, that was what I plumped for in my articles. It may not be technically correct, but Kyiv would probably have confused too many readers. I suspect that in five years’ time, however, it would not.

Note at the bottom
To cover my bases on this one, I put a small note at the bottom of the articles I submitted explaining the situation. That meant that it was up to the editors to choose their preferred versions. And for somewhere where the spelling is open to debate, this is probably a good plan.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

#51 – Finding plug sockets in airports

Or the joy of vending machines.

Working on the flight
In Tip 48, I suggested using the time we all spend waiting around in airports to do some writing. Naturally, this sort of waiting around doing nothing time also applies to planes. During the flight – especially a long one – can be a good time to get some work done.

Limited battery power
The only problem with this, of course, is that even the best laptop computers have a limited battery life. And quite frankly, no-one wants to be carrying a laptop AND a spare battery in the their hand luggage.

Airport terminal plug sockets
So how best to preserve the battery life? Well, it’s possible to adjust the settings of your computer so that they’re as low performance as they can go. But it’s far better to find a plug socket in the airport terminal.

The golden seat
A lot of the time, you’re simply not going to find one. But sometimes there is a golden seat near a plug socket. If you think about it, the airport’s cleaners need somewhere to plug in their giant cleaning machines and vacuum cleaners. As long as that socket isn’t hidden away somewhere private, you can utilise it as well.

Look behind vending machines
And the best place to look for that socket is behind vending machines. They have to be plugged in somewhere too, and often sockets come in pairs. If there’s only one vending machine, then chances are that there’s a free socket near or behind it. So why not use it to plug in your computer, and reserve the battery power for the plane journey?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

#50 - Pitch a story, not a list of destinations

Or how to avoid annoying an editor.

Annoying freelancer habits
The other week, I asked one of my editors what freelancer habits annoyed her most. This was her response:

“I think the most annoying emails are the ones giving someone’s life story and then just saying ‘so I can write any kind of article you like’.
“A close second would be ones that just give a list of well known countries the writer is about to travel to and asking me if I’d like any articles written about them… it’s up to writers to pitch story ideas to me, not the other way round.”

The freelancer’s job
OK then. Hands up – who has made a pitch like that at some point? I know I have, and it’s very easy to see this editor’s point. It is the freelancer’s job to come up with a story idea. It’s important to get to the point in a pitch. You are selling an idea, not asking whether an editor would like to give you some work.

The destination is not a story in itself
If you put yourself in the editor’s shoes, would you be likely to commission someone on the basis of a list of countries they are going to? Of course not. I refer back to my earlier point – a destination is not a story in itself. And if that mantra doesn’t stick, then be aware that you’re going to annoy a few editors.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

#49 – Gauging a word count

Or working out how long an on-spec article should be.

How long?
One of the comments left on a previous post asked what the best way to gauge how long an article in a magazine or newspaper is. If pitching to a new publication, this is important – there’s no point sending them something way over or way under what they usually take.

Ask the editor outright
This is something I’m pretty hopeless at. I’ll usually just ask the editor outright, but obviously this doesn’t work if sending an article on spec. After a while, however, you do start to develop the knack of guessing a ballpark figure.

The tedious process of counting
But if you’re not sure that you’ve developed that knack, there’s nothing else for it but to count. It’s a tedious process, but it’s the only way you’ll know for sure. Of course, if you don’t fancy counting word by word, it’s possible to get a reasonable estimate by counting the number of lines and multiplying by a rough average of words per line.
And if the columns are of roughly the same length, multiply average number of words per line by average number of rows per column by number of columns.

Any suggestions?
However, I’m more than open to better suggestions on this one. So if any readers have better techniques to suggest, leave a comment below.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

#48 – Make the most of airport down time

Or getting productive when there’s nothing else to do.

When I’m at home, I’m a terrible procrastinator. I’ll often take all day to write a 1,000 word article, interspersed with reading every newspaper website under the sun, doing the shopping, playing online Scrabble, looking up potential flights, messing around on Facebook... You get the picture.

How long does it take to write a 1,000 word article?
This, of course, is hardly the most productive use of time. Especially given that I know I can usually write that 1,000 word article in about an hour-and-a-half if I really want to.

Sitting around in airports
How do I know this? Because I frequently manage to do it whilst sitting around in airports waiting for a flight. In fact, I’d go as far as saying I’m at my most productive when trapped in an airport. This is probably because I’ve got nothing better to do – I see no point in airport shopping, and I’ve learned to appreciate that drinking before a flight isn’t a great plan.

Take the laptop
When there’s nothing to aid procrastination, it’s remarkably easy to get productive. And this is why I almost always take my laptop with me when I go away. I might not get it out all trip while I’m on the road, but I’ll usually manage to complete (or almost complete) two articles whilst waiting around for flights at either end.
That saves me two days’ worth of writing at normal, distraction-filled pace when I get back home.

Fresh memories
Aside from there being nothing better to do, there’s another reason to make airport waiting time into work time. Usually, if you’re sat in the airport, the memories from the trip are fresh. That’s often the best time to write – when something is still vivid in the memory and you’re actively thinking about it.

Little observations
The little observations and details can dull with time, and even if you’ve diligently written them all down in a notepad, the right words and phrasing to describe them can often elude when you return to them at a later date.

Friday, 24 October 2008

#47 – Don’t be afraid to be funny

Or why entertainment isn’t a dirty word.

Dull travel writing
As I have stated before, I don’t like most travel writing. Much output in the genre is spectacularly dull, po-faced and plodding. Ironically, it displays most of the qualities that people go on holiday to avoid.

Why people travel
Yes. That’s right – people travel to enjoy themselves. They go away to have a good time, relax and not take things too seriously for a while. Yet very little travel writing seems to reflect this.

Journalism’s soft option
Let’s get one thing straight: as far as journalism goes, travel writing is the soft option. Cry and protest all you like, but the world would happily keep turning if there was never another travel article published. Perhaps it is because the craft is so frivolous and unimportant that so many writers choose to prove how vital and serious they are in their writing.

Entertain the reader
While there is certainly a place for an authoritative voice, there is a bigger call for something that many writers neglect or see as being beneath them – entertainment. That’s right – it’s not a crime to entertain the reader. In fact, doing so should be positively encouraged.

Use humour
And one of the time honoured ways to entertain is to use humour. It’s a quality so frequently absent from travel pieces, and it shouldn’t be. I’ve got no evidence aside from my own experience on this, but many editors are crying out for writers that can do funny.

Don’t try too hard
Of course, I’d better clarify this by saying that no-one’s looking for someone who is trying to be funny (see Tip 37 about exclamation marks). There’s nothing more painful to read than someone trying too hard to make people laugh (well, aside from holocaust memoirs). But if you can inject a bit of fun into proceedings without making people wince, then do it.

Lighten up
Ironic, self-deprecating, arch, wry, waspish, playful, whimsical... there are lots of different types of humour that can work for various publications. Yet you could be mistaken for thinking that many writers mistake them for swear words. Lighten up a bit, write with a smile on your face, pass on the sense of joy, fun and wonder. Chances are that the piece will be a lot better read.

And, whatever you do, don’t take yourself too seriously. Accept that you are writing fluff 90% of the time. But there’s nothing to stop it being good quality, hugely entertaining fluff that will engage your reader, give your editor a different voice to add to the mix and stand out in a crowd of mediocre earnestness.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

#46 – When sources should be credited

Or covering your own back.

Cluttered-up copy
In tip #44, I suggested that cluttering up copy with attributions is unnecessary. Explaining the source of every bit of information makes for an ugly read. But for some information, it’s entirely necessary.

Attribute arguments
As a general rule, whenever a point, a statistic or an argument is debatable, it is advisable to attribute it. This obviously doesn’t apply when it’s your own opinion – you don’t need to explain if you think a building is ugly or meal is virtually inedible – but in other cases, it’s important.

Differing estimates
For some stats, like dates and prices, there will be near universal (if not fully universal agreement). No need to attribute there – it’s accurate. But other things are not so clear cut. For example, when dating the foundation of an ancient city (such as Damascus, or the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala), there are often many wildly differing estimates.

Back-covering disclaimer
In these instances, I’d argue that you need to say where you got the date from. To state a selected date as fact is wrong – you don’t know it is accurate, and neither does anyone else. This sort of situation calls for a little back-covering disclaimer, such as “according to our guide” or “one scientific school of thought believes”. If you can pin it to a person or reputable organisation, then even better.

Controversial statements
Some statements are even more controversial. For example, if you’re doing a story on a jungle island, and the jungle on that island is being depleted, then you need to be very careful about stating a cause of that depletion. Saying that the jungle is being depleted because of tourism development could, firstly, be untrue, and secondly, leave you open to a libel suit.

Interview, quote and attribute
For something like that, the best course to take is to interview someone who does believe that tourism development is the cause, quote them and attribute that argument to them. After that, give the accused (ie. One or more of the developers or the authorities that have allowed the development) to have their say.

Delineate between argument and fact
Treat both arguments fairly, and you shouldn’t have a problem. But whatever you do, be careful to delineate between argument and fact by attributing the opinions and any information that could be considered debatable.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

#45 – Invest in a small, lightweight laptop

Or getting the elephant off your shoulders.

Computer needs
For the needs of a travel writer, a computer doesn’t have to be all that special. It needs to be able to connect to the internet, and you’ll need a word processing program for accounts purposes. And maybe, at a push, some photo manipulation software.

Any old computer?
For much of this, any old computer will do the job. But I’d advise spending a bit more than you’d perhaps deem necessary in order to get a small, lightweight laptop.

Writing whilst on the road
It’s perfectly possible to function adequately with a big clunky beast of a desktop, but if you’re wanting to write whilst on the road, there are two options: Get a laptop or continuously throw money away in internet cafes inhabited by spotty teenage boys playing war games.

Dead evenings
Not all travel writers write whilst on the road – some just note down everything relevant and write up when they get back. Personally, I find that on a dead evening where I’ve got nothing else to do apart from drink, then I may as well start work on a story or two.

Smaller laptop for sale
For about a year, I was lugging around a fairly hefty laptop. It took up a lot of space in my bag and felt like an elephant was sitting on my shoulders when I had to carry it around. Eventually, I snapped. I saw a much smaller laptop on sale for a good price and bought it.

Extra bag space
I can’t stress enough what an improvement this has been. It’s far easier to carry around, and frees up that little bit extra bag space. On two occasions in the last few months, it has made the difference between having to check luggage in and going carry-on only.

Tax deductable
I could have probably stuck with my original computer, or bought another bigger one for less, but I’m glad I didn’t. And I’d advise anyone in the same situation to do the same. Keep an eye on sales, then jump when a small one (mine has a 12.1 inch screen) goes up for a suitable price. And remember – it’s tax deductable.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Australian Odyssey

I'm leaving tomorrow for a seven week jaunt around Australia (with a couple of days in Bangkok thrown in for good measure). I'm planning to keep writing the tips as I go, but I'm sure you'll bear with me if they aren't published quite as regularly as usual.

Please keep reading, and even better, sharing your comments and thoughts about the tips. I'm sure not everyone agrees with me, and the odd dissenting voice and different perspective is most welcome.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

#44 – Don’t credit sources when it’s unnecessary

Or Beer Theory.

Reader comment
One of this blog’s regular readers made an interesting comment at the bottom of Tip 18 – Expensive destinations on a budget. I’ve pasted it below:

“As an unexperienced published writer, but a college graduate who had to write many papers... how do you go about crediting sources. Say you find some budget information via the tourist board, and part of your article exists thanks to their help, do you acknowledge that?

“This is one area that's always perplexed me because a lot of the articles I read seems to give an impression that 100% of the article were things the writer just knew. However, I'm sure the history of the location and other tidbits had to be researched.”

Beer Theory
It’s a good point. Unfortunately, there’s no right answer. A lot depends on the publication you are working for. But I do have a general theory that I try to adhere to whenever possible. I call it Beer Theory, and it goes something like this.

Irrelevant background information
When I want a nice cold beer, the only important thing is that the beer is nice, cold and in front of me. I don’t care how that beer is made, what blend of ingredients was used to make it, what lines of supply the bar used to get it or why the label was designed in a certain way. All of that background information is largely irrelevant. And frankly, having to know all of it would really get in the way of me enjoying my nice cold beer.

Not a maths exam
The same largely applies to information in a travel article. The reader cares that Item X costs $30, that Transport Y departs at 06:45 and that Building Z was built in 1873 in a neo-classical style by Johnny Architect. They really don’t care how you obtained that information, as long as it is accurate.
This is not a maths exam – you don’t get points for showing your working out.

Horrendously clunky read
To attribute every bit of information to a source or two would make for a horrendously clunky read. As far as I’m concerned, this should be avoided wherever possible.
However, I am aware of a bit of a cultural divide on this sort of thing. North American publications tend to be sticklers for accuracy, and articles in them are more likely to attribute information to sources.

American publications
Personally, this is one reason that I often find American publications to be really dull. But if getting published and paid requires an adaptation of your preferred writing style, it’s best to adapt and grumble quietly under your breath.

Sources in footnotes
Either that, or write the article properly, then put the sources of the information in footnotes for the editor’s eyes only. Generally, though, I’ll only do that if I know the editor wants that sort of information for fact-checking purposes. Most editors will either check independently or trust that you’ve got it right.

Don’t take tourist board information as gospel
And how do you know that you’ve got it right? By checking it yourself with an alternative source – never take anything received from a tourist board as gospel. They do have a vested interest, after all.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

#43 – Start with where the action is

Or beginning an article with the key anecdote.

Strictly chronological?
One thing that often perplexes me with travel writing is that many writers seem to insist on presenting everything in a strictly chronological order. On certain occasions this is fine – and others entirely necessary.

Key anecdotes and events
But a lot of the time this leads to dull, rambling intros that lose the reader’s attention by the time they arrive at the juicy bit. Far better, I feel, to start with the key anecdote or unique event.

Adventure sports
This is particularly true for anything involving adventure sports or activities, but can be equally applicable to more sedate affairs. For example, on a shopping trip, it can be when you accidentally clatter into a market stall, or when the two stallholders start yelling at each other.

But to use some examples, I’ll stick to the adrenaline rushes. If doing a skydive, the key moment – and thus the best thing to start with – is the moment you go over the edge and out of the plane. If white water rafting, it’s the bit where you’re about to fall in. On a bike ride, it’s the bit where you nearly get mown down by a tractor.

Throw the reader into the adventure
By starting where the real, unique action is, you instantly throw the reader into the adventure. It sets the pace from the start, and grabs the attention. The back story – the preparations, what happened before the big moment – can come later.
Unless you’re writing for something written in crayon to cater for an audience of the borderline retarded, then the reader will be intelligent enough to understand the juggled chronology.
It will also make for a much better read.

Friday, 17 October 2008

#42 – Using theatre productions as a hook

Or how the big shows can work in your favour.

Rude French people
Sometimes a travel writer can have an odd experience when reading their own stories in print. And when I saw the piece I wrote about (what I believe to be) the myth of rude French people for an Australian newspaper, I did a bit of a double take.

Monty Python’s Spamalot
The editor had done a bit of editing, judiciously picked a picture and suddenly my piece was linked to the opening of Monty Python’s Spamalot in Melbourne. I guess the link was that the production featured rude Frenchmen, but it was a little unexpected.

Topical hook
But it does go to show how popular a topical hook is with editors, no matter how tenuous. And when I saw that piece, it got me thinking – theatre productions can be just as useful to hook a story to as films or books.

City-based newspapers
This is particularly true in city-based newspapers (as opposed to genuinely national ones such as those in the UK). For the readership, there is a link with something happening in their city. But how could this work with other productions?

Mamma Mia
Well, I’ll choose a few examples from recent years. Mamma Mia, the ABBA musical, could easily be used for a piece about Sweden – in particular if it includes something on Stockholm’s ABBA Museum, or the Hotel Rival, which is owned by Benny from the group.

And there’s more...
Starlight Express? A rollerskating tour of anywhere, or a something about learning to rollerskate. Lord of the Rings? Tolkien’s hangouts in the UK or the filming locations from the movies in New Zealand. We Will Rock You? Something on Zanzibar, where Freddy Mercury was born, perhaps.

Tenuous – but commissionable
All of these are ridiculously tenuous, but there’s a good chance of them getting commissioned if proposed at the right time.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

#41 – Pack two changes of clothing in your hand luggage

Or damage limitation for when airlines bungle.

Flight from Guatemala City to Panama City
This entry comes to you straight from the glamorous locale of Guatemala City Airport, where I am waiting around for my flight to Panama on an airline I’d never previously heard of.
If ever there was a prime candidate for losing luggage, this is it.

Lost luggage
Fortunately, I have never endured an airline losing my luggage. That I haven’t is something of a miracle given the amount of flying I end up doing, but – touch wood – my lucky streak will continue.
Other people I know have not been so fortunate. They have had a hellish time trying to get their bags back, and enduring a holiday with no fresh clothes.

Change of clothes
One of those people once said something I’ll never forget - “I just wish I’d got a change of clothes in my hand luggage.” He’d packed everything, and was left with what he was standing in when the plane arrived and his bag didn’t.

Extra drying time
My advice would be to go slightly further than that, and pack two changes of clothing. That way a bit of extra drying time comes in if the worst comes to the worst and you’ve only got your hand luggage for the rest of the trip.

Buying a new wardrobe
As a travel writer, you shouldn’t have too much free time in which you can stroll around the shops buying a whole new wardrobe – you’ll probably be chasing down story angles as soon as you land. If you don’t have the clothes in your hand luggage, it’s not only costing you to replace them, but costing valuable time.

Wash in hotel room sinks

But if you’ve two pairs of underwear, a couple of shirts and a spare pair of trousers in your bag, things aren’t so dire. OK, so it’s not going to be a comfortable trip, but you can wash in hotel room sinks as you go along, and probably get away with it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

#40 – Stories based around sporting events

Or how travel writers can win at the Olympics or World Cup.

Travel articles about Beijing
Anyone who reads travel magazines or the travel sections of newspapers couldn’t help but have noticed all the stories about Beijing that have been circulating this year.

Olympics as a hook
This isn’t a coincidence, of course – nearly all of them were using the Olympic Games as a hook. It makes sense – the Olympics are something people are interested in reading about and advertisers are interested in using as a promotional tool. It’s the magic combination of topicality and popularity.

Different styles of articles
Some of the articles linked to the Beijing Olympics were straight guide-style pieces, some focused on a certain aspect of the city, some more newsy about new developments, some just first person accounts of travelling in China. But loads got published. And it just shows that looking into future forthcoming sporting events can pay off for a travel writer.

Big future sporting events
The big ones are obvious. In 2010, there will be a lot of South Africa articles linked to the football World Cup. In 2012, it’ll be the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine, as well as the Olympics in London. Get in there early, and easy sales await.

Annual events
But you don’t necessarily have to wait for an event that comes along every four years. Some annual events are great for hitching pieces about certain destinations to – Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis, Liverpool for the Grand National horse race, wherever the Golf majors are being played that particular year.

Formula One and cricket
And then there are the sports that tour the world – articles can be tied into Formula One Grand Prix venues, for example. Meanwhile articles about the Caribbean may be easy to sell in Australia when the Australian cricket team is playing the West Indies, then re-shaped for different markets when New Zealand and England go on tour.

Sporting knowledge
Often, you don’t need to know too much about the sport – just the fact that the event is happening is often a good enough topical hook.

Monday, 13 October 2008

#39 – Vary the sentence length

Or how to pace an article.

Long travel articles
Travel articles, by and large, are quite long. It’s often the case that people will start to read one, and not make it to the end. This is always going to happen, but there are some ways of holding the interest, and one major method is varying the pace of the article.

Short, sharp shock
I have read plenty of articles that plough on interminably, either with long sentences or continual medium-sized sentences. They’re really hard to read, and the short, sharp shock of a small sentence can often be invaluable.

Cormac McCarthy
Often the skill of a writer is not in what he or she does use, but in what they do not. For an example of how sparse language can be far more affecting than page after page of flowery prose, read something by Cormac McCarthy (such as The Road or No Country For Old Men). His economy with words is fantastic.
But for a concrete example, check out the two paragraphs below. Which do you think reads better?

Version one
“The fat American is holding the whole queue up. You would have thought that he would realise that this isn’t for him. After all, you don’t tend to see too many 22-stone whales climbing big rocks. There’s no point in trying to tell him that, though.”

Version two
“He’s fat. He’s American. And he’s holding the whole queue up. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have probably realised that climbing big rocks is not a suitable past-time for a whale of approximately 22 stone. But, hey, try telling him that.”

I much prefer the second, and it’s largely due to the variation in sentence length. OK, so there’s a long one in the middle, but that’s balanced out by punchier ones either side.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

#38 – Stay at a hotel that is a story in itself

Or sorting the genuinely unique from the PR flannel.

Unique hotels
Just about every hotel in the world likes to think of itself as unique and worthy of coverage. Very few of them are, beyond a little factbox mention at the bottom of the article.
It never ceases to amaze me, however, that the PR people from hotels seem to think that the stories I write will largely be about the hotel. I’ve seen some instances (with other writers) where this is the case, and usually they are downright tedious to read.

Somewhere to stay
For most of us, a hotel is somewhere to stay whilst visiting a city or area. It may be really nice, but essentially it’s a place to rest the head for the night. For the travel writer, in particular, the emphasis should be firmly on exploring the area and chasing down story angles.

A story in itself
But one good way to get more stories (and thus more money) from a trip is to stay somewhere that genuinely is a story in itself.
Be warned. These places are very rare, but the PR people will desperately try and convince you that their place is truly unique with some blather about a new environmental initiative or mild refurbishment.
90% of the time, this is clutching at straws and trying desperately to get unwarranted publicity, but just occasionally they have a point.

Hotel examples
There are a few examples that I can think of. Altamer in Anguilla is one – mainly because of the celebrities that have stayed there in the past and the jaw-dropping prices. Another is the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados – again, largely because of its reputation for celebrity guests.

Sydney Hotel stories
I can think of two in Sydney, Australia – the Russell because it’s supposedly haunted, and the Stamford Plaza because that’s where INXS frontman Michael Hutchence died after his sexual experimentation went horribly wrong.

More hotels – from Liverpool to Los Angeles
The Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles hosted the first Oscars ceremony, the Hard Day’s Night in Liverpool, England has a Beatles theme, and the Hotel Fox in Copenhagen has a series of mad rooms all designed by individual artists.

Genuinely unique gimmicks
All of these make for a good story on their own, and there are others around the world with celebrity links, or genuinely unique gimmicks and themes. They may cost more to stay in than a bog standard hotel, but that couple of nights can be recouped with an article sale or two.

Commission in advance
Even better, if you can get a commission to write about it in advance, the PR people may arrange for a complimentary stay.

Friday, 10 October 2008

#37 – Don’t use exclamation marks

Or why punctuation doesn’t make the unfunny funny.

The exclamation mark rule
Another of my particularly harsh rules that I applied rigorously whilst I was working as an editor involved exclamation marks. Essentially, if I saw one in copy that a freelancer or potential staff member had submitted, then they were never going to get any work at the magazine while I was in charge.

Canned laughter
That does seem mean, doesn’t it? But hear me out. Something is either funny or it isn’t. You cannot make something funny by sticking an exclamation mark at the end of it. In fact, it just makes it look like you’re trying desperately hard to be funny and are failing miserably. The exclamation mark is the literary equivalent of canned laughter.

Bad writing
It is not a problem that can be solved by simply taking the exclamation marks out. Remove them, and you still have a joke that isn’t funny cluttering up the story.
Neither can you really train someone out of using exclamation marks to prop up crap writing. They may end up obey your exclamation mark diktats, but they’re still going to produce bad writing full of unfunny jokes.

Multiple exclamation marks
I’d rather not use that sort of writer. Thankfully, the presence of the exclamation mark provides a handy advance warning system – there’s no need to read through the rest of the drivel to realise that it is unpublishable tosh. As for anyone who uses multiple exclamation marks (!!!), shooting’s too good for them.

Exceptions to the rule
As always, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule, but they’re so rare that they’re hardly worth mentioning. But for the record, here are the three occasions where the exclamation mark has a place.

1. Genuine exclamations (ie. Wow! or Crikey!).
2. Reported speech (when quoting someone who was making an exclamation or talking excitedly in a manner that would be accurately transcribed with an exclamation mark).
3. Taking the piss out of someone who does use exclamation marks to signify a joke. Again, this is very much like the reported speech exception – it’s just that you may be adopting their voice for the purposes of satire/ literary bullying/ merciless savagery.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

#36 – Buy the papers

Or while the print version is more helpful than the online version.

This may seem remarkably obvious, but I am consistently stunned by the amount of freelancers that will search for markets in which to place their work, but won’t buy newspapers that may be ideal.

Buy every available newspaper
If starting out, one of the best things you can do is to buy every available newspaper on the day that it includes a travel section (usually Friday, Saturday or Sunday). Get the ones from your area, any national titles that the newsagent may have, and any international papers that may be on sale.
It’ll cost a bit of money of course, but it’s a worthwhile investment.

Instant reference library
Do that for a couple of weeks, and you have an instant reference library. You can get a reasonably good idea about what sort of stories the newspapers like to cover, the editor’s name and contact details are often included, and you can gauge the standard of your competition.
More importantly, you can get an idea of what format the editors like the articles to be in – rough word counts, structure of fact boxes etc.

Travel sections online?
Of course, in this day and age, there will be a natural tendency to skip the papers and just read the travel sections online. Well, it saves money, doesn’t it? I can think of a few reasons why this may be a bad idea.

Distinct online content
First of all, many major newspaper websites now have distinct online content. It’s written specifically for the web, and is the sort of content that may not work all that brilliantly in the print version. Basing your view of the paper’s content by what you see online could be misleading.

The whole package
Another reason is that you don’t see the package. People read differently on the internet – they pick out stories that grab their interest, and search for specifics, rather than reading from back to front and skimming everything on the way. Buy the paper and you can see the whole package – including regular sections or departments that don’t make it to the online version.

Structure and adverts
With the paper’s travel section in front of you, it is possible to analyse the structure: the ratio of short stories to long ones and whether the emphasis is on news and service articles or narratives. It’s also possible to see what sort of adverts run alongside the stories. Don’t underestimate this – it’s a good way of gauging what the section’s target market is. And if you want to sell your work, that’s who you’re going to be writing for.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

#35 – Keep your receipts

Or paper means prizes.

What is tax deductable?
I am not even going to begin to start explaining what is tax deductable and what isn’t. I’m no expert on tax, and the only advice I’m prepared to give on that score is to get an accountant in (see Tip 33).
But I do know that it’s worth holding on to as many receipts as humanly possible.

Tax office audit
First of all, without these receipts, you have no evidence that you have spent the money for work purposes. If the tax office chooses to audit you, you are in big trouble if you don’t have anything to show for the items you’ve claimed as tax deductable.

Costs for freelance travel writers
If you’re travelling a lot, writing a lot and working as a full time freelance travel writer, you will inevitable rack up a lot of costs. And many of these will be tax deductable. Some – such as airfares – obviously are when they’re work related, but there are potentially many other things too.

Keep the receipts
I’m not going to give dodgy advice as to what they are (to be honest, I’ve no real idea when meals, drinks etc count and when they don’t). But I do know that if you keep the receipts and log them, an accountant can tell you which are valid and which are wishful thinking. From experience, you’ll find that a surprising amount are valid, and you can cut your tax bill by a substantial amount.

No receipt = no valid tax deduction
But without the receipts, none of the items that are potentially tax deductable are valid. So, even if it seems a bit silly asking for one after every little transaction, it will be worth it in the long run.

Monday, 6 October 2008

#34 – Don’t regurgitate your diary

Or why you should never listen to your mother.

Don’t believe the hype
One common mistake that wannabe travel writers fall into is to believe the hype. They may keep an online diary of their travels; they may have a blog; they may send long e-mails back home telling of their wondrous adventures.Tragically, there will often be someone who encourages this kind of behaviour (75% of the time, it’s the writer’s mother). They’ll say how fascinating the diary/ blog/ e-mail is, and what a talent that writer has for telling a story.

Travellers who write
These are often the sort of people that then believe they have a potential career ahead of them. They’re the archetypal travellers who write, rather than writers who travel. And somebody has to break it to them that the only reason the dirge they’re tapping out is interesting is because it’s the only source of information that mumsy is getting about her beloved child.

Nobody cares who you are
To the rest of the world, it is deeply dull. One of the first things to get into your head if you’re going to make it as a travel writer is that nobody cares who you are. They care about the story you have to tell, and have zero interest in you as a person.

Difference between diaries and articles
Secondly, you have to realise that there is a fundamental difference between a travel story or article and a travel diary. A diary is about logging the detail. A story is, well, a story. It’s as much about what you leave out as what you include. And it’s certainly about the order in which you tell things and the emphasis you put on them. A diary has a tendency to give equal weight to everything – it’s about recording, not reporting or narrating. In essence, to write travel articles, you have to write completely differently.

Writer guidelines
While I was working as an editor, I drew up some writer guidelines. I recently found them again, and I think the section below is as relevant now as it is then. I’ve pasted it verbatim:

DIARIES: Nobody wants to read your travel diary. It may be fascinating to you, but it’s boring as hell to everyone else. Imagine having to sit through reels and reels of someone else’s travel photos. Not much fun, is it? Well, avoid crap like this at all costs – it’s the literary equivalent:

“We woke up at 7am in our comfy hostel beds. We were staying at Koala Backpackers in Adelaide. We then went for breakfast, and had sausages and eggs…” blah, blah, blah.

I bored myself writing that, so God knows how tedious the readers will find it. Concentrate on the things that you’ve done that other people don’t do every day. Shimmying up a mountain face = interesting. A blow by blow account of devouring the meat pie you had for lunch = rubbish.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

#33 – Use an accountant for doing tax returns

Or outsourcing for freelancers.

Uncomfortable aspects of freelancing
One of the worst parts of being a freelance writer is that you have to do a few tasks that you may not be particularly suited to. Some are uncomfortable with the element of salesmanship. Others struggle with the running a business side of things.

Tax return
I can cope with both, but the one thing I despise is having to do my tax return. It’s just horrendously complicated, and about as much fun as pulling your toenails off with rusty pliers. And if I hate it, I can only imagine how much others do. I like to think of myself as being pretty good at maths (and I’ve got the A-Level certificate to prove it). For those not adept with figures it must be a bloody nightmare.

Pay an accountant to fill in the forms
But one look at those forms makes me whimper like a baby goat faced with a meat cleaver. It’d take me days to plough through them and get them right. And that’s why I prefer to pay my accountant a sizeable sum to do it all for me.

Monetary savings
To me, this makes sense on so many levels. First of all, there’s the monetary savings. My accountant knows exactly what can be claimed (such as depreciation on computers, sustenance expenses whilst on the road, percentages of phone bills). She also knows what questions to ask me about tax deductable items that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. She saves me a fortune every year – to the tune of thousands of pounds.

Time savings with an accountant
Secondly, she is saving me lots of time. The days that I would otherwise put in making error after error on the forms can be spent writing. I pay £353 a year to get the accounts done. But in the time that I’d take doing the pen-pushing, I can earn £600 - £1,000. Outsourcing has its benefits.But most important is the reduction of mental stress. It’s an incredibly crap job, and it’s done for me. You can’t put a price on that.

Accountancy background
Naturally, some people prefer to do it themselves – particularly if they have an accountancy background (which a surprisingly high amount of freelance travel writers seem to have). But for the majority, I’d say that getting an accountant is the way forward.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

#32 – Turn local round-ups into global round-ups

Or extending the boundaries.

In Tip 30, I suggested that a great way of recycling material was using the themes and information from round-up articles with a global scope in a narrower context.

Bizarre museums?
This, of course, can work just as easily in reverse. For example, a piece on Britain’s most bizarre museums can be reslanted slightly to become a piece on the world’s most bizarre museums. It’s just a case of finding a few more elsewhere and throwing in a couple of the British ones for good measure.

Design hotels, cheesiest tourist attractions etc
The same applies to just about any localised round-up piece, whether it’s Europe’s design hotels, America’s cheesiest tourist attractions or Australia’s biggest adrenaline rushes. Open up the parameters to the whole continent (or whole planet) and there’s another piece in it.

Friday, 3 October 2008

#31 – Stick to the word count

Or delivering what you’re asked for.

Editor’s perspective
When I was doing my time editing in Australia, one of the things that always annoyed me was receiving articles that were waaaaaaaaay over the word count. I’d ask for 800 words and get 1,200. Even worse, I’d ask for 150 words and get 350.

Freelancer’s perspective
From the freelancer’s perspective, I can see why this happens. I’ve often been writing pieces myself, and wondering how on earth I’m going to fit it within the word count. It may be a complex subject that really needs deeper explanation, it may it quotes that seem too good to leave out, and it may be a sheer wealth of great material.

Flowery paragraphs
99% of the time, however, it’s just me getting carried away with things and waffling. There’s very little that can’t be solved by hacking through with the red pen and chopping a few flowery paragraphs out.

The golden rule
Occasionally, I have submitted articles that are well above the requested word count. I just couldn’t bear to cut, and I know this did me no favours in terms of keeping the editor happy. It goes against the golden rule – Make The Editor’s Job As Easy As Possible. It is not making their job easy if they have to go in and make swathing cuts to your copy. Quite the opposite – and, if they’re anything like me, it’s likely to annoy them intensely.

Cutting the best bits
The other reason to submit within a few words of the word count requested is that if the editor has to cut, then sod’s law dictates that they will cut the bits that you liked the most. The jokes, witticisms and sparkling turns of phrase are usually the first to go. They may be brilliant, but they’re not essential. As a consequence, your story can end up turning out quite drab.

How close to the limit?
But how closely should you stick to the limit? Nobody’s really expecting you to be exactly on the nail – there’s always a little leeway. But it is only a little. Some people will say that within 10 or 15% of the requested word count is OK. Maybe so, but I’d argue that 5% is a better figure.

Don’t go under
That doesn’t mean it can be under by five percent either. I don’t think you should ever come in UNDER the word count – if there’s one thing that’s worse than having your work cut, it’s having it padded with drivel. And on a more cynical note, if you’re being paid by the word, why on earth would you choose to get paid less?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

#30 – Turn global into local.

Or how to re-use re-used information.

Recycling material
In recent posts I have spoken about turning trivia into articles and using snippets of material from longer features to make round-up features. All good recycling, but there’s nothing to stop you re-using material that’s already been re-used. In fact, the more ways you can use one bit of information, the better for your bank balance.

Most successful idea
As an example, I’ll use what has turned out to be my most successful idea ever. It was triggered, as it often is, by a simple bit of trivia. I read somewhere that the Jenolan Caves in Australia’s Blue Mountains were the oldest caves in the world.

Oldest city? Oldest restaurant?
I found that quite fascinating and it got me thinking about other ‘oldests’. I wondered where the oldest city is (Damascus, Syria); I wondered where the oldest country is (brilliantly, it’s San Marino); I wondered where the oldest restaurant is (Casa Botin in Madrid).

Oldest possible holiday
This continued until I suddenly had a piece on the world’s oldest possible holiday, complete with the oldest theme parks, golf courses, bars and national parks. Boy did that sell well – I think it’s been published in five countries so far. I guess it’s just one of those ideas that makes for an intriguing feature.

Selling one piece many times
Now I could have just remained deliriously happy about selling one piece so many times (it rarely happens, alas). But it had further mileage in it. I went back to the Jenolan Caves and started localising the concept. I’d found the world’s oldest holiday, but what about Australia’s?

Australia’s oldest
So, tweaking the categories where necessary, I went back and found Australia’s oldest pub, building, art gallery etc. Another feature, and another one that did brilliantly well – it sold in both Australia and the UK. I’ve also written about Italy’s oldests, and I fully intend to do the same for Spain, France, Portugal and Britain. In fact, I’ll shamelessly rehash the idea for any country/ region/ city or continent.

Global round-up into local round-up
By turning a global round-up article into a local round-up article, it’s possible to milk a bit of information for all it is worth. It’s a great starting point for further research as well – and this can lead to even more stories. I’m going to Tasmania in November, and I fully intend to visit Australia’s oldest pub while there. There’s a story in that, just as there was one on Italy’s oldest hotel and just as there will be on France’s oldest museum, whatever that may be.

Never-ending cycle
And therein lies the beauty – it’s a never-ending cycle. The information leads to a story, then a round up. Localise the round-up, and you find more information. Much of which can lead to more stories. See – recycling can be very good for your environment.