I’m often asked about what it’s like to be a travel writer. I find that most people assume that it’s always fun and high-paying, which isn’t necessarily the case. I feel compelled to address some of these realities in this mini-series of blog posts.
Unlike the life of the Matthew Hunt, the travel writer protagonist of my new soon-to-be-finished novel, it isn’t especially glamorous, adventurous, or dangerous.
As I at the beginning of the book when introducing the character, “He smiled ruefully to himself at people’s perceptions of his occupation. They envisioned all-expenses-paid trips to exclusive resorts, but that was not the reality. Interesting things rarely happened at exclusive resorts. He rolled his shoulders and brought his hand to his neck, which had a crick in it from sleeping on thin mattresses in grimy urban hostels and the hard, gritty ground under the starry Saharan sky.”
And unlike him, most travel writers don’t receive a phone call from a magazine editor asking them to cover an exotic place (and solve a historical mystery while they’re at it).
In real life, getting the job is often a time-consuming process every freelance writer knows well: the query. The writer comes up with a location or a topic, finds the appropriate magazine or webzine to approach, and pitches the proposal to an editor. Often the query will languish in the person’s inbox, unintentionally missed because the head honcho is too distracted by the tortuous time demands of a tight publication schedule.
After a follow-up message, and then a few more follow-ups bordering on harassment, the editor might just be motivated to look at your proposal just to shut you up. If it’s on a location or topic within their purview, and one they haven’t covered recently, the editor might get back in touch to discuss the idea further.
This is the time to make your best pitch and have samples of your previous work ready to show off (if they haven’t already dealt with you). They talk to lots of travel junkies and wanna-be writers. As a result they’re hard to impress. Your challenge is to show them you’re a professional who knows how to craft a compelling, rich portrait of a place or experience that gives the reader insight. Show them that you can splice in humor and practical tips too (such as airport info, hotel info, festival dates and museum opening/closing hours, etc) if it’s appropriate for the publication or website. Most importantly, show that you know the subject and are enthusiastic about bringing it to life for the reader. Be enthusiastic about sharing what you know.
This is just a taste of the initial, mundane—but essential—process of getting the job. Next time I’ll go a little more in-depth as to what the travel writer’s life is like once that coveted assignment has come though and the contract for the gig is signed.