8 Ways to Become a Better Travel Writer
Great Storytellers are Perpetual Students
You don’t want to be one of those people. You know, the kind that write about their travels in a mind-numbingly blasé way (croissants and coffee for breakfast; wandered the crowded streets of Paris; so hungry for lunch that we ate at the first place we came to and hated it; needed a nap so back to the hotel; the Louvre took so long that we vowed never to go to a museum again). That isn’t travel writing. That is one boring journal — something that travel writing isn’t. What is travel writing? As Rick Steves has suggested on Transitions Abroad, write to become a generous teacher of travel, not a travel agent.
There’s something so special about our intercultural experiences when we travel that make us want to share them with the world. But how do we make it interesting — and intriguing to our readers? How do we craft narratives that matter — that are interesting to others, that bring a place to life, that truly communicate the essence of intercultural travel? How do we become a generous teacher of travel? And how can travel impact our writing?
Here are eight ways to improve your travel writing, to reach the broad audience of the “universal I” and not just bore your readers with the “personal I.” And whether you write or not, these tips are good for enhancing your own travels — consider traveling and opening your mind like a writer, and experiencing all that has to offer.
1) View Travel as Cultural Immersion
Don’t just travel to lie on a beach or follow the tourist trail — those don’t make for very good stories. Reimagine travel as a way to immerse yourself in a culture. Cultural immersion is an extraordinary way to learn about a place, people, and culture. It’s digging deeply into a culture, educating yourself in a variety of ways about how people live…seeking out educational experiences to give you the essence of place. Cultural immersion will always, always, give you plenty to write about.
2) Do your research
Before you go, dig in deeply. Read guides, books by native authors, and travel writing about the places you’re going, to discover what you want to experience and to get a sense of the culture. Delve into the internet and see what you find — and don’t forget to get off the beaten internet track, and discover lesser-known resources, including advice from locals (this goes for real life, too). But be sure to make it pleasurable. I’ve written here before: “Once you reframe travel as exploring a destination the way you want, for things that interest you, all of a sudden each journey becomes a treasure chest of goodness, learning, and opportunity—and a pleasure.” And your travel treasure chest? It will overflow with stories you can tell for years to come.
3) Get out there!
You can’t truly learn about other cultures and people without going there. So get out there and explore! And don’t make it easy on yourself — try new things, learn new ways of being in the world, listen to new languages and music, eat new and different foods. There are many ways to experience a culture — make this part of your travel plans. You’ll have so many experiences that you won’t know where to start writing.
4) Be Engaged, Cultivate Curiosity
You know those travelers, the ones with their noses in a guidebook, or, more recently, in their smartphone. Pull your nose out and smell the air, taste the food, participate in activities. Be open to new experiences, friends, places. Lola Akinmade Åkerström tells it best in her article, The most valuable thing you can pack on the journey. Once you’ve packed those things and gone? You’ve got a plethora of authentic stories to tell.
Listen to locals, to other travelers, to kids, to nature. Listen to what they have to say to you about where you are, what is happening, and what is important to that culture and place. When you get a sense of place, you automatically become a better writer. You care about the issues, the people, the locale. It’s not a foreign location anymore, it’s a place you’ve been, with people you know, foods you’ve tried, pillows you’ve slept on, water you’ve swum in, air you’ve breathed. It makes a difference, listening. By listening, you connect. By listening, you gather stories (your own and others). By listening, you become a better storyteller.
6) Become a Flâneur
Follow in Baudelaire’s footsteps, and become a Flâneur. What is "flaneuring," you may ask? It’s a way of seeing the world, of being an avid observer while being outside of what is being observed. Here’s how: Sit somewhere for 5-10 minutes, or stroll through a place. Don’t take any notes. Just watch. Think of what is happening, process it in your head. Be present to the environment, and be ready for surprises! As one of my favorite travel writers, Rolf Potts, notes, walk until the day becomes interesting.
7) 5 Senses
I’ve written before about 5 senses travel. Equally important to 5 senses travel is 5 senses travel writing. When you write about your experiences, make the reader feel as if they are there with you. Describe how things feel, smell, taste, are seen, and sound. Give it a little bit of umami kick and toss in some pleasant, savory experiences. One of my favorite pieces of travel writing that includes sharing all 5 senses is Oranges and Roses (note: website under reconstruction), by Amy Gigi Alexander. You feel as if you are there with her, in that small room in France.
8) Write Well
Writing takes practice. It doesn’t come easy. Whether you jot things down each day, speed journaling style, or take the advice of experts, you should write things that matter. Think of your writing from a listener’s perspective — what do you think their frame of reference is, how are they receiving your words, what are you writing about that makes a difference, what are you saying that offers a missing piece… in essence, what are you teaching?
Travel writing is an education — travel writers teach of the world. Write well so that your teaching is illuminating, funny, hopeful, joyful, relatable, or full of life.
I’ve written here before that “it’s one thing to read of someone’s experiences, another to read the experiences of someone who has thoughtfully embraced lifelong learning and travel. For that is the difference — the thinking traveler is one who works toward ethnorelativism, who wants to truly experience a culture, who steps out of their comfort zone and embraces that extreme difference. It doesn’t mean that they have the perfect journey — far from it. Rather, the smart traveler knows that life is messy, travel is messy, people are messy — and revels in the entire experience, the good and the bad, learning along the way.”
Share that learning that you’ve done on each trip, singly and cumulatively.
Final Words: Connect the Dots
Teach a bit about the place, so that readers get a sense of history, geography, politics, or culture. One of my favorite examples of this is by one of my former students, Austin Weihmiller, in which he shares the geography and history of Iceland (as well as an extraordinary snorkeling experience), in Wedged Between Tectonic Plates: Snorkeling Under the Midnight Sun. Don’t just take photos of a political event — ask locals what it means (if it is safe for them to discuss it). If you’re in Chiang Mai for the annual lantern festival, talk with locals about their family traditions, and how the lantern festival fits in; talk with lantern makers about the process of making the lanterns all year for this one day. If you’re at a southern US BBQ, listen carefully to old family stories, and piece together the impact of geography on food and family. In Japan for Girl’s Day? Learn about the history of this holiday, and how people from all over Japan celebrate it. Being in-between cultures, as you are by being a visitor, allows you to ask questions, learn, and then share what you’ve learned (and researched) with your readers. YOU, my travel writing friend, are a window to the world.