Advice from an Aspiring Travel Writer

On our 2012 Travel Writing Scholarship, winner Hanna Butler got a behind-the-scenes look at the travel writing profession and got her hands dirty in the worlds of guidebook writing, travel writing, and travel blogging.

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Tell us about a day in the life of a guidebook writer

Guide books have been my bible since the time when I began traveling.

My first was the Rough Guide to India. I’ve critiqued them, chopped pages out to make them lighter and used them as pillows on airport floors.

Yet I never really considered where all that content came from. I now know.

It comes from writers who sweep the streets for details and facts which have to be current, accurate, and appropriate. I never gave much thought to the responsibility that a guidebook writer has. They literally travel, but document every part of it, their footsteps become the guide. Every meal, hotel, every street they walk down is noted and photographed – it’s no holiday.

It’s not just the instructional material that is important, but the sense and impressions they give of a destination that dictates whether or not the traveler goes there. Many travelers would base their trips around locations off the writer’s review of it. So gauging this is also an important part of the guidebook writer’s day.

Tell us about a day in the life of a travel writer

Travel writers have a less instructional voice, their day would again varying depending on what they are writing.

If travel writing is to narrate and evocate, you need to get a sense of a place and this obviously can’t come from a whirlwind tour.

Travel writers watch, observe and experience. They need to take their time, get below the surface, meet local people and have unique experiences.

They need to have an angle to make their writing becoming something other than a travel diary.  

There is a lot more research for some types of travel writing, finding a source and really getting the story from all aspects.

What are the qualities you think are necessary to become a successful travel writer?

Qualities needed to become a travel writer would depend on what kind of travel writer you want to become.  But for any kind of writer you need to be able to write, research and be organized.

You need to be intrepid and adventurous – there is nothing exciting about a travel writer who won’t eat the local food or try local things.

Respect – whilst being intrepid and adventurous you are a visitor to someone else’s home. Respect that, respect people’s culture and customs - conform while you are there and live like a local.

Have an open mind – it might not be what or how you would do it at home, but its how they do it there. Remember the place is not foreign, you are the foreigner.

Lastly – and this is just in my opinion, look for the ordinary in the extraordinary.  The story might not be about the architecture of the Taj Mahal, but about the man at the ticket counter.

What advice do you have for future applicants and aspiring travel writers? 

Read and write. Think about new angles and creative ways to travel. Get off the beaten path or get on the beaten path and find the road that runs parallel to it that no one is on.

Also, we travel every day. We travel to work. We travel in our minds thinking about faraway locations. I think many of us, including me, postpone travel writing until we can get to the other side of the world. Write about where you traveled today.

I also really think there is a need to be creative and come up with new angles, at the same time as finding your own voice and sticking to it. I’m not a fan of reading people's personal travel blogs – I find them boring, unless they have a niche.


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