Whether you're scouting hotels and restaurants for a guidebook, blogging about your cultural faux pas on your website or selling a travel narrative to a national newspaper, the backbone of every great travel tale is solid base of on-location research. These five practical tips are for those traveling with an eye to writing about their destination, helping you to make the most of your time exploring and lay the foundations for a well-rounded, inspiring travel story.
Fact-checking is the bane of a journalist’s existence and as a travel writer you’ll be expected to not only deliver a riveting story, but to provide information and advice for those following in your footsteps. These details – transport options, prices, tour companies, etc - are crucial to building an honest and informative article, but all-too-often get overlooked until the last minute.
As a guidebook updater I have a stockpile of flyers, business cards and hastily scribbled notes amassed when on location and this is a good habit for any budding travel writer to get into – even if you think a place or destination won’t feature in your writing, you never know what might end up proving useful. If you don’t want to lug piles of brochures around with you, jot down observations in a notebook instead and use a digital camera to take snapshots of transport timetables, visitor information signs and opening times. However you approach it, never leave a place without getting everything you might need if you were to write about it – trust me, you’ll be thankful you thought of it later.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut writing only about places and activities that interest you, but remember that there are lots of different kinds of travelers out there and thanks to that, many different markets where you can publish your articles. The best (and most financially successful) travel writers are adaptable and whilst your niche subjects can offer a unique selling point, you’ll need to be flexible and prove that you’re able to write about anything and everything.
Before you set out, brainstorm the different kinds of travelers and their interests – families with children, adventure travelers, budget backpackers, nature lovers, food & wine connoisseurs, older travelers, etc - and look out for activities or story angles that might appeal to each different audience.
For me, the outdoors activities always win out and I tend to skip over the city hotspots and avoid the nightlife like the plague. But if I really want to make the most of my trip and hunt out some interesting new places, I have to make sure I push myself out of my comfort zone and explore areas that might not initially draw me in. Try it - your versatility will no doubt surprise you and you may even find that your outsider’s perspective offers a fresh angle that sets your piece apart from the rest.
Organization is key when researching a travel destination so create a system of note-keeping and filing that will enable you to quickly find the information you need. Zip lock bags that you can label make this a lot easier if you are visiting several places and photocopying maps is also a good idea, allowing you to mark on your routes and make notes about different places and destinations (colored pens can help keep things clear). Don’t forget to back-up your work as you go, too – get a dropbox or other online storage solution and make time every few days to back-up your work online.
It’s also worth considering how you’ll organize your time - if you’re traveling with specific writing goals in mind you might need to think about designing a time-efficient itinerary but remember that the best articles often come from unexpected events and side-journeys, so make sure you’re still flexible. Planning a free day at the end of your trip can give you chance to catch up on anything you’ve missed.
A good travel article doesn’t have to feature a never before heard of, off-the-beaten-track' destination, but if you are writing about a popular tourist spot you’ll need to come up with a fresh, inventive approach to capture your audience’s interest. Here’s where your imagination comes in – think up a quirky theme for your travels or focus attention on one aspect of a place like its cuisine or religious rituals. Most importantly, keep your eyes open and ears peeled, as you never know when you’ll come across something unusual or find yourself in a situation that begs to be written about.
The best ideas can come from the strangest places and encounters, so accept every invitation, take the time to chat up the locals and never let an opportunity pass you by. When I was teaching English in Indonesia, I accepted an offer from a student of mine to visit his village and found myself helping with the harvest out in the rice paddies and later being introduced to a traditional Java maker – what started out as a simple dinner invitation, ended up inspiring the story that won me the 2011 World Nomads/Rough Guides Travel Writing Scholarship!
Invest in a pocket-sized voice recorder (the record mode on your camera or ipod can be a handy substitute) and record anything and everything that might offer insight or inspiration later. I always turn mine on when I’m asking locals or travelers for their advice and opinions, and if I use a tour guide, I tape the entire tour to ensure I don’t miss anything.
Sometimes I even sneakily record interesting conversations I overhear, especially if its other travelers chatting about their experiences and swapping tips – this gives me plenty of ideas for places to visit and write about. Just remember, wherever possible, to note the name of the person speaking in case you decide to use a direct quote or anecdote in your stories later.
Zoë Smith is a British travel writer, regular feature writer for Boots'n'all.com and guidebook updater for the Rough Guides. Her nomadic leanings have seen her live, work and travel over six continents, but she currently spends her time getting dirty on horse ranches around New Zealand and dreaming up ever more unusual travel locations. Links to her published works can be found on her website: www.zoeclaresmith.co.uk or via her twitter account: @zoe_c_smith
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