Friday, 30 January 2009

#79 – How to make money from a travel blog

Or thinking “shop window” rather than “advertising platform”.

Reasons for starting a travel blog
People start up blogs about travel for many different reasons. Some want to share their travel experiences with the world, some blatantly can’t find anyone to pay for their witterings and thus put it online so that it can be read by two men and a particularly bored dog.

Blogs of professional travel writers
Of the professional travel writers that keep a blog, they generally fall into two categories. Some are excellent travel writers that like a space to share their thoughts on things, and aren’t trying to make money from it. An excellent example is that of Lara Dunston’s Cool Travel Guide – she’s a writer I have a huge amount of respect for, and she uses her blog as both a vent and an opportunity to draw attention to things that editors don’t necessarily go for.

Commercial enterprises
Others (such as Traveling Mamas) are clearly commercial enterprises – the purpose is to make money through advertising, affiliates etc.

Monetising a travel blog
I am the wrong person to ask about monetising a blog. This blog makes me a laughably feeble amount of money, and this is the nature of the beast. Regular subscribers to a blog are the ones that are least likely to click on advertising – they come for the read.

Travel planning equals clicking and booking
To make money from a website, it is best to put together a comprehensive travel planning site – the visitors to such a site will be looking for specific information and to book things. They’re far more likely to go to a couple of pages then click through on an advert.

Who is the reader?
A travel blog is highly unlikely to give a significant return in this way. But the key thing is not where the reader goes afterwards, but who the reader is.

Contact from editors
In the last week, I have been contacted by two editors who read this blog. Both have offered me some work (and some rather interesting work at that). I also happen to know that a couple of other editors I have not worked for read it – they have contacted me and told me. Alas, one doesn’t have a freelance budget and the other works in a field that I know nothing about. Even so, it can only be good news.

Shop window rather than advertising revenue
And this is why I have come to realise the real value of having a travel blog. It’s not about getting the traffic or advertising revenue - although that’s certainly a nice bonus if your readers are so inclined – it’s about giving yourself a shop window. And if people like what they see in that shop window, they may just come and ask you what’s for sale.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

#78 – Make use of the active present continuous

Or strapping the reader into the rollercoaster seat.

A word of warning here. Not everyone will agree with this, and some editors will possibly regard it as the worst piece of advice in history. But I think the active form of the present continuous tense really lends itself to travel writing.

I’ll demonstrate rather than try to explain. Here are two examples of the same intro. Which do you think reads better?

Example one
The huddle was so tight that a scrum could have broken out at any minute. A 17-stone shaven-headed man attempted to barge his way past a couple of ten year olds in order to get a closer view. Other kids tested the shoulder of their weary parents in a bid to get a height advantage.

Example two
The huddle is so tight that you half expect a scrum to break out at any minute. A 17-stone shaven-headed man is attempting to barge his way past a couple of ten year olds in order to get a closer view. Other kids are testing the sagging shoulders of their weary parents in a bid to get a height advantage.

Report vs running commentary
I prefer the latter. Others won’t, but I think it has the advantage of taking the reader to the situation and making them feel they are a part of it. Example one is a report of an incident, example two is a running commentary on an incident in progress. It’s the difference between watching breaking news of a major event and a sober studio analysis afterwards; the live match versus the highlights package.

Adding zip
Keeping writing in the active makes it more arresting - it’s more dynamic to read. And using the present continuous straps the reader into the rollercoaster seat rather than allowing them to look on at a distance. This technique isn’t always appropriate, but I feel as though it adds zip to a travel story and offers a better sense of place.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Glamour of Travel Writing

Not so much a tip today as an insight into the life of a travel writer. I wrote this piece for a while back. I thought I'd republish it here, as I think it serves as a superb put-off for anyone thinking that the life of a travel writer is all glamour...

Day spent trip-planning. Have articles to write on Spain, France, Monaco and Morocco and somehow have to pull them all together in one trip. This involves interminable negotiations in three languages I don't speak with five separate tourist boards, booking flights from odd airports at ungodly hours and praying that it all comes off. Please let the tourist boards offer me free hotel rooms and please don't let them fill every minute of the day with guided tours of really boring places that no-one would want to read about.

Currently researching a guide to James Bond film locations across the world. Getting the info on where is easy enough, the problem is needing to know what happens in each film. And that means watching every single bloody Bond movie, all 21 of the buggers, in the space of a fortnight. Today it's Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights.
Conclude that Timothy Dalton was a somewhat underrated 007, then set about finding out exactly which place doubled as the Mujahideen hideout in Afghanistan. It's Morocco, apparently.
Google my own name, partly to see if anyone's printed my stories yet and partly out of sheer vanity.

I've been putting it off for ages, but at some point I'm going to have to write that 2500 words on a stunningly average Italian city that I felt about as much affection for as I do for rocket salad.
Just a few vitally important things to do first ... like read every newspaper on the Internet, do some shopping, clean the bathroom, watch the entire fourth series of Peep Show on DVD, Google my own name seven times, book a random flight to Lithuania. Damn. How did it get to 7pm?
Watch Roger Moore mug his way through Octopussy and The Man with the Golden Gun.

My editor wants a piece on wacky theme parks around the world. I hate theme parks, haven't been to one since I was 12 and don't know of any suitably crazy ones offhand. This, naturally, means a whole day of typing vaguely useful phrases into search engines and hoping something good comes up.
This is our dirty little secret — half the time we're not jaunting off around the world seeing weird and wonderful places, we're hunched over a computer, copying everybody else's lists.
Bear this in mind next time you see a piece on the world's Top 10 Beaches or Luxury Hotels. The writer has probably been to two or three of them at best. And on the menu tonight, Moonraker. No, I just can't do it. There's a line and that line is Moonraker.

Just about finish writing about a place I went to six years ago, have virtually no memory of and took no notes about. It's a triumph of vague, flowery description, cheap jokes and meandering tangents that really have nothing to do with the place.
Pack in a blind panic and rush to the airport. Once there, realise I've left my coat, gloves and hat at home and my flight and hotel details in my coat pocket. Desperately phone a friend, begging him to hack into my e-mail account and tell me the names of the hotels and the e-ticket reference number.
Finally arrive in Bratislava at about 11pm. It's minus six degrees, with a wind-chill factor of minus 13. Feel like crying and wonder if there are any shops open that might sell big coats and furry hats. There aren't.

Wake up at 6am in the hotel that still thinks it's 1962 and the Communists are still in charge. It really is the most ugly, repulsive Soviet-era monstrosity imaginable and has service to match. But it's cheap and so am I.
Powerwalk aimlessly in the direction of the train station in order to get to Brno in the Czech Republic. Get there with seconds to spare, internalising my anger towards whoever makes Slovakian signposts.
Spend much of the day in Brno looking for the technology museum, which appears to be hidden behind a barrier of tower blocks and dual carriageways. After three hours of fruitless hunting, I give up and retire to an Internet cafe. Have been offered a freebie jaunt to a hotel at a business park in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. That's as glam as it gets...
Spend a bit more time Googling my own name. Anything to avoid having to go back outside into the Siberian blizzard for a look around the castle. This is my karmic payback for that freebie villa in the Cook Islands, isn't it?

Arrive in Vienna, a city I've never had any previous affection for. Haven't lined up anything in advance for once, so I'm freestyling like a proper traveller. Decide to go and annoy the woman at Tourist Information by asking if there's anything "weird" I can go and see. She looks puzzled and then suggests the Haus der Musik, while handing me a mountain of leaflets.
This is part and parcel of the job. It's no good writing about Vienna's musical heritage, lovely architecture or famous dancing horses. They've all been covered in staggering depth before. My job (well, it is if I want to make any money out of it) is to find a new slant.
Mercifully, the leaflets are far more useful than the woman. How can you possibly respond to a request for weird attractions and forget to mention a Funeral Museum? There are a few more along the same absurd and bizarrely specific lines, too, so the whole day is spent hopping between wacky museums. And a more fabulous, career-affirming day I couldn't wish for.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

#77 – Make the most of your own knowledge

Or selling common sense to where it isn’t common sense.

As a travel writer, I am something of an all-rounder rather than a specialist. I know some places quite well (and Australia very well), but I’d hardly call myself an expert on anything. This doesn’t mean that some of my editors don’t think I’m an expert, however.

Australian knowledge
I sell a lot about Australia to Australian publications, but there are also publications in the UK that will come to me as an expert on Oz. I’m not really that knowledgeable, but my knowledge of the country is vastly superior to that of most people (including the editors). I might not have the absolute inside line, but it’s good enough for the purposes.

Budget airlines in Europe
Similarly, I write a lot about Europe for Australian publications. And a lot of what I’m doing seems like common sense to me. For example, I’ve just done a piece on budget airlines in Europe and where to look for the cheapest flights. Many Europeans will already know this – but not many Australians do.

Common sense?
The same applies to pieces I’ve done on the vagaries of the British train system. Most people in Britain know to book trains online in advance or face exorbitant prices. Aussies don’t, however. What may seem common sense here isn’t common sense there. I don’t need to be an expert on the UK rail network – the basics that I do know are enough to make me SEEM like an expert through Australian eyes.

Applied logic
This is a logic that can easily be applied elsewhere. Americans probably don’t know the best ways to find cheap car hire in the UK. New Zealanders probably don’t know anything about budget airlines in Canada. South Africans probably have zero knowledge about getting good value taxi fares in Dubai. A local in each of those destinations can easily appear to be an expert by explaining what is common knowledge in their home town, but a mystery on the other side of the world.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

#76 – How to find anniversaries

Or how to avoid being a history sponge.

Historical information
In my previous tip, I suggested using forthcoming anniversaries as a hook to hang destination stories on. But of course, you’ve got to find those anniversaries. And not everyone has a brain that soaks up historical information like a sponge. I’m not bad for it, but I’ll concede that I don’t know which year the Panama Canal was built in (for example) without looking it up.

Sheep-like travel publications
The first method I would use is to read other travel stories. If Paper X is running a piece on the 100th anniversary of the building of the Incredible Bongo Towers, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve missed the boat. Travel publications can be a bit sheep-like, and once one decides a place is a ‘hot’ destination, others will follow. In this situation, you can always pitch a similar story to Magazine Y or Website Z.

Year searches on Wikipedia
Another useful source is Wikipedia. Simply bung in a year (say 1909 or 1959 for anniversaries this year) and a list of events that happened then comes up.

The best resource I have found, however, is the Date-a-Base from It’s pretty darned comprehensive and while it doesn’t point the story ideas out to you, it’s fairly easy to come up with some after reading through it. It costs GBP4.99, but I’ve found it an extremely worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

#75 – Use anniversaries as a hook

Or the joy of nice round numbers.

Travel editor difficulties
One of the difficulties of being a travel editor is creating a reason for running a story on a certain destination. In all honesty, there’s no real reason to run that quite nice story about flea markets in Paris – it’s just personal choice. And frankly, it doesn’t matter which issue it goes in – it’s hardly topical, is it?

Anniversaries and topicality
So editors love to have something topical. They like to have stories on places that are in the news, and they often end up running things related to anniversaries. Look out over this year, and you’ll see plenty of stories with tenuous links to some anniversary or other.

From Galileo to the Berlin Wall
I should know – I’ve got commissions to write about some of them. It’s 400 years since Galileo Galilei invented his telescope; it’s 200 years since Charles Darwin was born; it’s 90 years since the Nazi party was founded and it’s 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down.

Nice round numbers
In all honesty, most of these are not that significant, but humans buy into anniversaries in a big way. If it’s a nice round number of years since a major event, people will always find some excuse to celebrate it. And travel editors are interested in what people are celebrating. Thus 1,000 meandering words on the lovely English town of Shrewsbury suddenly takes on more urgency when Charles Darwin was born there 200 years ago.

Keeping track
As a writer, it’s always worth keeping track of anniversaries that are coming up. If you can get in there before everyone else starts writing about them, you’ve got a high chance of making a successful pitch.

Monday, 19 January 2009

#74 – Notebooks vs recorders

Or making record time...

Recording devices
One of this blog’s regular readers, Ms Lucy, makes an interesting point:

“Just wondering, do you ever use a recording device, besides the notepad? Someone suggested this to me recently, and I'm not sure whether I'd feel self-conscious using this...Then again, so many people walk around talking to themselves on their 'blue Tooth'...”

Conducting interviews
My answer is that I do own a recording device, but I rarely use it. When I do, it’s for conducting interviews – it means I’ve got an accurate record of what has been said, and it allows me to listen properly to the interviewee without having to concentrate on scribbling everything they say down.

Listening to recordings
Even then, I’ll rarely listen to the recording afterwards. I’ll generally only require one or two quotes, and I generally recognise what these will be at the time and write them down.

Braying into a mobile phone
But for other circumstances, I think it’s best to just stick to the notepad. Firstly there’s the self-consciousness aspect. Secondly, I’d put someone walking around a museum talking into a Dictaphone in the same category as those arseholes that bray constantly into their mobile phone throughout a train journey.

The process of writing notes
I also find that the process of writing the notes is important. For some reason, writing something down makes it sink into the memory. In a way, I’m writing notes so that I don’t have to read them.

No fast forwards and pauses
Most importantly, using a notepad instead of an electronic recording device can make for massive time savings when it comes to writing the piece up. Why? When it’s recorded, you’re constantly having to fast forward, rewind and pause because we talk faster than we write. You also have to listen through to get all the information and check that it’s the bit you want.

Quicker with the notepad
Compare that to a notepad: it’s all there in front of you, you can flick to the bit you want without having to skip around to guess the right time and everything is spelt out. Do you really want to have to spell foreign word while you’re talking into your mechanical aid? It’s far quicker with the notepad, and far more functional.

Friday, 16 January 2009

73 – Read the rest of the guidebook

Or angles from elsewhere.

The bits we read

Most of us will only use the part of a guidebook that covers the place we’re going to. OK, we might read the front section about the history and culture as well, but we’ll generally not bother looking at the areas we’re not going to.

Cover to cover?
Guidebooks are not designed to be read from cover to cover, but for the travel journalist it pays to read the sections that aren’t immediately relevant to you. This for a few reasons:

Comparison point
Firstly, it gives a more rounded view of the country as a whole, perhaps offering a comparison point to the place you are going to. Secondly, you’ll probably find a place that you may wish to go to in future (and could maybe fit into the planned trip).

Round-up stories
Thirdly, and most importantly, you may discover some good angles that can be used for round-up stories down the line. Even better, they may spark ideas for those stories.

Do it in down time
I’m not going to pretend that this is an exciting task, and this is why I do it when I have nothing else to do – sat on a train, waiting for a meal to arrive when I’ve got the traditional table for one, on the plane...

Brilliant story angles
I’ve done a bit of all three today, and have been idly flicking through the Germany Lonely Planet. Amongst the brilliant story angles I’ve uncovered are a theme park at an old nuclear power station, the world’s oldest youth hostel and the German Occupational Health and Safety Museum. There’s a good story each one, and I may try and work them into a trip for another time.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

#72 – Respond to rejection with a new idea

Or striking while the iron is lukewarm.

Being rejected by editors
For the freelance travel writer, having your ideas rejected by editors is all part of the package. It happens all the time and always has. The key thing is how you respond to that rejection.

Response to rejection
The response for some writers is to take the rejection of one idea as a rejection of all ideas. They will write the publication off, thinking they have no hope of being published there, and will not pitch any more ideas.

Negative responses as a positive
Other writers do it the smart way and see that rejection can be a good thing. It is far better to get a response from an editor than none at all, even if that response is in the negative. If they have taken the trouble to respond, then you are doing something right. OK, so they didn’t like the idea you sent, but that’s not to say they won’t like another one.

Send another idea
So why not send them another one pretty much straight away? You’ve clearly got the editor’s attention, so you may as well strike while the iron is at least lukewarm, if not hot.

Voice of experience
The second one may not get a positive response either, but there’s probably no better time to send it than after the editor has just taken the time to contact you. I speak from experience on this – I’ve got a lot of work through quick follow ups to rejections.

Victory from the jaws of defeat
On another note, when that acceptance does come through as a result of this method, it’s tremendously satisfying - even more so than normal. There’s nothing like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat to improve the mood.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

#71 – Keep your notepads

Or trading off an eyesore for information.

Spring clean
This is another one that may seem ridiculously obvious, but I am amazed at the amount of writers that will have a spring clean and throw out their notepads. As far as I’m concerned, a writer should never do this.

Information and memories
The notepads may be an eyesore, they may take up lots of space, but they also store vital information and memories.

Shelf of notepads
At home, I have a shelf that is packed full of little notepads. It looks incredibly untidy and chances are that I will never refer to most of them ever again. But I do know that if I dispose of them, then sod’s law dictates that the information in them will come in handy.

Refreshing memories and names of restaurants
Just the other week I had to dig out a four year old notepad to refresh my memory of a place. On other occasions I’ve had to use an ancient, tatty-looking one to dig out the name of a restaurant or the odd bit of information.

Information to hand
Neither was a dealbreaking situation where I would have lost the job, but I was sure glad to have those notepads to hand. If I lost them, I’d be devastated, and there’s no way they will go in any spring clean.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

#70 – Websites that pay for travel writing

Or how to earn money by writing about travel online.

Websites that will accept your travel writing...
The good news is that there are many websites that will accept your travel writing. The bad news is that most of them will expect you to provide it for free, or will pay such a pathetic amount that it’s almost an insult.

...But not pay for it
I’m not going to dignify these sites by listing them. Suffice to say that any site that needs to advertise for travel writers usually hasn’t got enough money to pay them much (if at all). There are hundreds of these sites, most run by a couple of individuals trying to start up their own travel site and wanting lots of cheap content. Some mean well, paying a small fee and hoping to be able to increase their rates as the site grows. Others are clearly out for what they can get.

Travel writer internet forums
What I do find pathetic is that there are writers out there that will fall over themselves to get published on these sites. There are writer internet forums brimming with people who are ecstatic about getting their piece online at (or something like that). Some will even be raving about how they got paid a whole $20 for it.

Well-meaning idiots
These people may again be well meaning, but they’re idiots. For that money, they may as well just put the story up on their own blog. It’s much the same; you’re published, and you’re paid bugger all.

Look for websites that aren’t travel sites
While I would say that all websites are worth looking at when it comes for paid work (after all, there may be some exceptions to this sweeping generalisation that pay very nicely), there is a good general rule to apply. There are plenty of websites out there that pay relatively well, but these usually aren’t travel sites. Most people go to them for something else.

Newspaper sites and portals
It’s obvious that these sites have money because they’ve got a lot of content and a big company behind them. I’m thinking in terms of newspaper sites ( pays the same for online articles as it does for print articles) and web portals. Look for general lifestyle sites/ portals such as MSN, internet providers like AOL or Virgin Media, TV company sites such as Sky and even mobile phone companies like Orange.

Money for freelance content
All have big sites that have travel sections, but the travel section is a small aspect of their business. I’ve not approached all of these (and there are many more in the same vein), but I’d wager that they’ve all got money to pay for freelance content. And they’re far better places to hunt for paid work than

Monday, 5 January 2009

#69 – Write down all of your story ideas

Or how not to forget flashes of inspiration.

Great ideas are money
The title of this entry may seem ridiculously patronising, but it’s a point worth emphasising. Many great ideas are lost because they’re not written down. And losing great ideas means losing money.

Flash of inspiration
It’s easy enough to do. A flash of inspiration occurs when you’re least expecting it – it’s a brilliant plan, but by the time you’ve got back home, you’ve completely forgotten about it. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t.

Use a notepad to write down brainwaves
When I’m on the road, I always make sure that I reserve a few pages at the back of every notepad for writing down any potential story ideas that may come to me. Some of these will be linked to what I’m supposed to be doing and the sites I’m specifically going to see. Others may be silly little things that I see which spark an idea for a round-up article or opinion piece.

Noting down ideas in a file
Then when I get back to my computer, I make sure I note all of these ideas down in a file. Most of them will come to nothing, but enough do come to fruition to make it worth it. It also means that I have a big database of potential stories to look through if my creative juices aren’t exactly flowing one day.

Small notepad in pocket
I also keep a small notepad in my pocket at all times for this purpose. I might be out for a walk, visiting family or going to the shops, but if something comes to me I can make sure it’s not lost by writing it down. It may seem ridiculous, but it’s so easy to forget that brainwave when you’re distracted by something else

Thursday, 1 January 2009

#68 – Travel Writer Resources: Travmedia

Or getting PR people to do the research for you.

Getting story ideas
One excellent source of story ideas is Travmedia. The premise is quite simple: it collects press releases from tourist boards, hotels, tour companies etc from all over the world and stores them in one place. This means travel writers can have a look through and see if there’s anything that interests them.
Of course, there’s an awful lot of crap in there, but the useless bits of self-promotion are usually easy to spot a mile off and can happily be ignored.

Getting PR people to do the research for you
But the best aspect of Travmedia is the ‘Journalist Alert’ function. This comes in extremely useful when doing research for a feature you might not know too much about. Just type in what you’re after, and it gets sent out to all the tourist boards, PR agencies, tour companies etc that subscribe. And most of them do subscribe.
The PR people will then usually come back a few days later with some ideas that may fit your query.

Sparing use of Journalist Alert
The Journalist Alert should only be used sparingly, however. There are many PRs out there that will leap upon every opportunity to flog and plug their products. And they’ve no compunction about doing so when the subject is completely irrelevant.

Hotel pests
Almost every time I’ve used the Travmedia Journalist Alert, I have been besieged with e-mails. Some are very helpful, but other just make me angry. I’ll have been very specific in the request, to the point of saying: “No shoehorning in irrelevant hotels and tours – they will not be used”. And, unsurprisingly, the hotel pests still send a long missive through.