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On Travel Writing by Travel Writers

Travel Writing for Fun and Profit

By now, in the 21st century, the idea of travel for leisure’s sake has become a reality for enough people on the planet that some of us have moved into a new phase: we don’t want to just trot around the globe, but we want to get paid to do it. We fetishize the idea of getting something for free—or, rather, having someone else pay for it. Especially the idea of traveling for free.

“Travel and get paid to do it!” is the catch line flashing at us on travel websites and the covers of “how to” travel writing books, advertising a travel writing class. There’s a lot of exploitation of the fantasy of free travel. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to achieve this dream, as long as it’s done for the right reasons. Do it to tell a story. Your story. Other people’s story. A city’s story. Do it because you want to write and not solely to amplify your ego at cocktail parties.

When asked what I do and I say that I travel, I eat, and then I write about it, the next question is: how do you do that? The answer: take a class. Ten years ago, there was little information that focused on the genre of travel writing. Today, however, there are classes everywhere from journalism schools to online classes to private writing schools. There are travel writing workshops that prospective students can take in Tuscany and Provence. There are books, websites, and even newsletters dedicated to learning the art and craft of travel writing.

I had to learn the hard way. I admit it: I’m a slow learner. But it took me a lot longer than I care to admit to figure out what an angle was. Or a nut graph. Or that generally everything underneath your nut graph should relate back to it in some way, all the way down to the exposition, historical back story, and even the ending. It took me months and months to figure out that, when writing a story I’d hoped to place in a glossy travel magazine, I should remember Arthur Frommer’s maxim for magazine travel writing: write about the readers’ trip; not yours.

Taking a class is a great intro to travel writing. Besides learning the nuts and bolts of travel writing, there are several other benefits to taking a class. A good travel writing class should go over how to travel like a travel writer (i.e. what to look for while on the road), how to do proper pre-trip research, how to find a good angle for a story, and talk extensively about the business side of travel writing. If the class is a writing workshop—i.e. one in which class members bring in a piece the week before and then the teacher and students read it and reconvene the following week to critique it—you also get a chance to learn about self-editing. And the story you write isn’t the only beneficiary of other people’s comments and criticism. In having to critique other people’s stories you become better at critiquing your own work and also hearing what other people have to say will clue you in the what makes a good (and bad) travel story. 

Travel writing is not just the articles you see in the glossy travel magazines and newspaper travel sections. Nor is it just the essays you read in anthologies, travel websites, and full-length travelogues and memoirs. A good travel writing class should cover all aspects of travel writing—from commercial travel publications (including front-of-the-book pieces and features) to more personal travel memoir/essays.

So what else should you look for before signing up for a travel writing class? The teacher, of course. Do a background check on the teacher and see where she/he has been published. If possible, read some of their articles. My students at New York University where I teach travel writing do this with me. I recently received an email from a native (and, apparently very proud) Texan who said she could never take my class. She was gravely offended by a sarcastic comment I made about Texas (it was really aimed at George W. Bush) in an article I wrote seven years ago. While I thought she was over-reacting, I was at least happy she was doing her homework.

And with that, here are some recommended travel writing classes—both live and online—to consider when you’re ready to throw your pen and notebook into the travel writing ring:

  • Gotham Writers’ Workshop: This New York City-based writing school offers classes in a plethora of genres, including travel writing. The travel writing course does a good job of balancing magazine and memoir/essay writing and can be taken in New York or online. Teachers include Cliff Hopkinson, the former managing editor at Conde Nast Traveler, and travel magazine veteran Douglas Rogers. For more info, visit their website.
  • Larry Habegger: An editor at the beloved Bay Area publishing house, Traveler’ Tales, Larry Habegger teaches classes in his home city of San Francisco as well as the occasional workshop on a yacht off the coast of Turkey. His classes lean toward the personal travel essay variety. For more information, go to www.larryhabegger.com/teaching/.
  • New York University: NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers travel writing courses, including a summer travel writing workshop that covers all aspects of travel writing. Full disclosure: I teach this course.
  • Writers.com: Seattle-based writer, Amanda Castleman, teaches this popular and well-rounded online travel writing class. For more info, go to: www.writers.com/castleman.html#travel.
  • Paris Writing Workshop: Vagabonding author Rolf Potts teaches a month-long non-fiction writing class (with an emphasis on travel writing) every July in the City of Light. For more info, go to: www.pariswritingworkshop.com.
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