The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer
By Tim Leffel
A few weeks ago I received an interesting piece of mail. It said, “Launch your dream career as a travel writer today and get paid to travel the world.” All I had to do was sign up for an expensive correspondence course on travel writing. After that I could expect such rewards as “a complimentary week on an exotic Asian island” or a luxury vacation in Cancun “with airfare and all expenses paid.” The breathless come-on letter asked, “Why not live on permanent vacation?”
Why not indeed? Get paid to travel the world and live a life of leisure. What could be more glamorous?
Before you fall for it, remember that it is also glamorous to be a rock star, a best-selling novelist, or a starter for the Lakers. It’s not so glamorous, however, to be an aspiring actor (waiter) in Los Angeles, an aspiring songwriter (waiter) in Nashville, or an aspiring novelist (waiter) in New York. It may sound silly to compare travel writers like Tim Cahill or Jeff Greenwald to celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Stephen King, but the odds of getting to that level of success are just as daunting. The big difference is that when you do get to that upper echelon of travel writers, you’re still not making nearly as much money as the lowest-paid bench warmer in the NBA.
Just as plugging in a Stratocaster doesn’t make you a rock star, writing tales about your travels is not going to make you a travel writer. Like any position where supply far exceeds demand, you’ll need to follow the right steps and then pay your dues. It’s not going to happen overnight.
As a service to any beginning travel writers out there who are ready for the real story, here are the seven biggest myths of travel writing and the dirt on what to it will take to defy the odds.
Myth #1: Travel writers make enough money to live on
Some people make a living as a travel writer. They are a very small minority. Yes, I actually did make enough to live on for a while just being a travel writer. But it took three years of spotty assignments and building up a collection of clips before I got to that point. Plus I was backpacking in cheap countries at the time, which meant my expenses were low. I got most of my income reviewing hotels for a travel trade publication (and lots of free hotels rooms to boot). Like most who pay the bills doing this, I relied on at least one steady assignment to make up the bulk of my income. Most who manage it are either writing guidebooks or working steadily for one of the top travel magazines. Neither option, however, is particularly lucrative or dependable.
A writer getting a $30,000 fee for putting a new guidebook together could spend close to a year of his or her life on the project and end up making a few dollars per hour after expenses. And this is after a rather sizable advance. It’s not uncommon for a new guidebook writer to only be offered around $10,000, which almost guarantees negative income. The work is no picnic either. Guidebook writers are assumed to know every city and town in depth, but in reality they seldom spend more than a few days in each place. During that time, they are zipping around between attractions, restaurants, and similar hotels, frantically taking notes that will sufficiently jog their memories later. They then spend their evenings typing it all up, while real travelers are out having fun.
In an interview with Rolf Potts, well-known travel writer Pico Iyer described his early writing for Let's Go guidebooks as “covering 80 towns in 90 days while sleeping in gutters and eating a hot dog once a week.” It’s not a job for anyone who expects to spend time really enjoying a place and it’s also not a job suited for someone with a significant other along, much less a spouse and kids.
Pay at travel magazines has stayed stagnant for the past decade and many great magazines for independent travelers have gone belly-up. Rates for a 500-word article range from $10 to $1,000, the latter being for a seasoned writer doing a story for a Travel and Leisure type publication. Even with a dozen years of experience, the bulk of my freelance pieces earn me between $25 and $300. Big features and cover stories pay more, of course, but those plum assignments don’t come down the pike until you’ve forged a long-term relationship with the editor or have become famous. To support yourself at this, you would need to get a whole lot of stories in print on a regular basis.
Myth #2: Editors are hungry for travel stories from new writers
For every article slot in a magazine, there are hundreds of writers trying to fill it. It’s like an audition for a movie part or tryouts for a pro sports team. Editors are up to their ears in material and much of what crosses their desk from new writers isn’t worth printing. I recently asked a publication I’m writing for when they needed to see my finished article we’d discussed for two months. The editor replied that she already had the next four issues done, but get it in when I could as they would soon be starting on the fifth. Meanwhile, her slush pile is full of unsolicited manuscripts she can’t waste time wading through. Send a brief, targeted query letter that shows you’ve read the publication if you want a fair shot.
Myth #3: A destination is a story
Many aspiring travel writers feel that telling an editor they are heading off to some certain spot on the other side of the globe will result in an enthusiastic invitation to write about it. But here’s some news: editors are not short on people who are willing to head off to this place or that to write about it. Don’t assume just going somewhere is a reason to write an article. Even remote corners of the globe are visited by more writers than we need. (I’ve seen enough articles on Iceland and Antarctica to last a lifetime.) Unless you’re going to be the first person landing on Mars, you’d better find a good story angle.
This doesn’t mean you can’t write about the Inca Trail, the Grand Canyon, or the Taj Mahal, but you’d better be able to find a truly unique slant that has never been tried before. Is there some attraction right off the Inca Trail that nobody ever visits—but should? Could you spend a couple of days with people who actually live inside the Grand Canyon? Is there a stonemason doing repairs on the Taj Mahal who is descended from one of the original masons? Wherever you are going, you need to think like a journalist and dig for something an editor will find refreshing.
Myth #4: Readers want to hear every detail about your personal experiences
Take an hour or two and read some stories on the many travel websites that don’t pay writers for submissions. On most of them, you’ll find long, drawn-out narratives by self-centered writers who seem to think everyone wants to know the minute details of their day—including their digestive problems. Why should travel magazines pay for this stuff? We’re already overloaded with it and it’s free! Long tomes about dodging beggars and waiting around for the bus to get fixed are not stories; they are journal entries. That’s where they belong. [Amen!]
Granted, reputable magazines do occasionally run narratives about some epic journey, but the stories are nearly always carefully edited for interest and the spotlight is seldom shining on the narrator. Here’s a good test: read a magazine story or book chapter from someone like Bill Bryson or Pico Iyer and then read your story. Then have your most brutally honest friend do the same. If your many-page travelogue is every bit as gripping or funny and flows just as well, then by all means don’t give up until you get it published. If not, edit, edit, edit.
Myth #5: Travel magazines love long stories
Speaking of big long features, pick up a travel magazine in your local bookstore and see how many stories run for five pages or more. Then count all the small features of a page or less scattered across the rest of the magazine. Pick up a few more popular magazines on almost any subject and do it again. Notice a pattern? Blame the attention span problem on whatever you want, but a recent study found that the average magazine story length in the US is now less than 500 words. Get good at doing short, informative stories and you can get assignments. Editors mostly need articles that say something succinctly and then get out of the way. This is where the work is, especially for a beginner. Eventually you may build up a good reputation and garner a big feature assignment. Try to do it in reverse order, however, and you’ll be getting more rejections than you can count.
Think small in another way also—in the story subject itself. “London in Spring” is tough sale except for an airline magazine (where their regular writers get these assignments almost as a gift, so forget about it). A piece on how teatime works in England, however (a recent story in Budget Travel), is a nice feature that fits on one page. An editor probably has no interest in your hours getting lost in the souks of Marrakesh, but one editor snapped up a piece I wrote in Marrakesh called “Interview with a Tout.” Don’t forget that the easiest stories to sell are the ones that really do a service to the reader. Show everyone how to do something cheaper, faster, or with less hassles and you’ll have far more success than talking about the 48-hour train ride you took in India with goats and chickens.
Myth #6: You write a story, you get paid, it soon gets published
Travel writing is a tough way to pay for your travels. The main reason is that the money comes long after the travels. The very biggest and best magazines pay “on acceptance,” which means when you hand in a manuscript they are happy with, you get paid. In the other 90 percent of the publishing world, where you will probably get most of your assignments, this is about as common as Ferraris in Cuba. Most stories are accepted “on spec,” meaning you write the story without knowing if they’ll accept it. If they do accept it, don’t buy the champagne yet. You will get paid upon publication—after the story actually shows up in print. (If they don’t go out of business first.) In the best case, this will be within two or three months. More likely, it will be six months or a year. By the time you see a check from the story you wrote in the first month of your round-the-world journey, your yearlong trip could be over.
Myth #7: All your expenses will be covered
Ads for travel writing courses and workshops love to talk about “all expenses paid,” but this is a rare event for most freelance travel writers. If you have an assignment letter in hand for your great idea from a reputable travel magazine, a big newspaper, or a well-known travel website, you can likely swing some freebies. Otherwise, forget it.
If a travel provider cannot see an obvious payback from providing you free hospitality of some sort, don’t expect to get it. I reviewed hotels in nine countries for a well-known travel trade publication and ended up staying at a lot of ritzy properties for free. But that’s because of the guide I was writing for and the kinds of customers that used it. If I had been writing for some obscure travel site on the Web, or even Transitions Abroad, the hotel managers never would have replied to my letters. Every tourism business wants publicity, but it has to be the right publicity for them to care.
Yes, resorts and tourists bureaus often invite press people to come visit, with some or all expenses paid, but the key word is “invite.” If you write a weekly travel column for a big Sunday newspaper, you’re in. If you’re managing editor of Islands magazine, you’ll get more invitations than you can possibly use. If you write for some obscure magazine nobody has heard of or you write for a travel blog that's not recognized as hugely successful or highly influential in a relevant niche, then you'll be paying for your own room at that fancy beach resort, thank you very much.
So what’s the good news for travel writers?
I’m erring on the side of pessimism because I am writing this for Transitions Abroad, a publication that is known for providing the unvarnished truth, refreshingly free from hype. But of course travel writing can be a lot of fun. I never would have learned as much as I have about the places I’ve been and the people I have written about if I hadn’t had a reason to really dive in. Travel writing has taken me to places I probably never would have gone: a remote spot in the Sinai, a sadhu’s den in the Himalayas, a mystical mountain sculpture garden in Korea, and every bourbon distillery in Kentucky—to name just a few. The check and the byline may have been the goal, but I always took the trips with the attitude that the money and glory were just the gravy.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from being a travel writer, any more than I would discourage someone with talent from becoming a songwriter or an actor. But if you are committed to being one, do it because you are already a curious and perceptive traveler who happens to be a good (if not great) writer, and do it the right way. Read a few good books on the subject and really do what the authors say to do. The advice is nearly always tried and true. You will need to study the publications you’re pitching in detail, send good query letters, write about unique subjects that you’re really interested in, and make sure everything you submit is as good as it can possibly be—and on time.
Second, remember who your “customers” are. The buyers of what you are selling are editors. If they don’t want to publish your material, your creative ideas will never go beyond your journal or your letters home. Realize that if you’re not comfortable selling yourself and your ideas, this is not for you. Being a travel writer, at least until you’re established, is 90 percent marketing, ten percent writing.
Get feedback whenever you can, especially on your “leads” (the first paragraph, which needs to grab people). Then take that feedback seriously. In the end, you may not be sipping cocktails in Tahiti, all expenses paid, but you’ll be getting paid at least something to do what you love.
* Follow-up note, 2013: For the last few years I have supported my family as a travel writer and even been able to live abroad, thanks to the growth of online advertising and the growth of online media. This article was written before all that really took off. So understand that there are more ways now to get published, but the myths are basically the same. Travel writing still takes lots of patience and dedication, no matter the media. For more click on see my Travel Writing 2.0 book and blog where you can participate in an ongoing discussion featuring interviews with many published travel writers...
Tim publishes the award-winning Cheapest Destinations blog and the award-winning web magazine Perceptive Travel, written for independent travelers with open senses and open minds.