Tips From a Pro on How to Become a Freelance Travel Writer

New to travel writing? NY Times writer Tim Neville reveals how to make a name for yourself as a freelancer and get published where it counts.


Woman writing in journal outdoors Photo © World Nomads / Rebecca Day

All the traveling and all the writing isn’t worth diddly if you don’t have anyone to sell it to. When you’re on the outside looking in, the publishing world can seem big and nebulous with no obvious way inside. There are some ways you can pick your way through it sensibly, however.

Build your portfolio

To sell your writing, you need to start by growing your network and getting some clips. That’s industry-speak for being able to show work you’ve had published even if you don’t literally have to cut your work out of paper publications and put it into a physical portfolio any longer. Without clips, it can be hard to network, so let’s talk about that first. Getting a clip used to be such a Catch-22, where it was tough to write for a publication if you couldn’t show you had written for a publication.

Getting a byline has become a lot easier thanks to the web’s bottomless hunger for content, but think beyond the web; don’t stop there. Consider trying to write for your local weekly or city magazine, too.

Ideally, you want to have a clip from a story you did working with an editor, and it doesn’t matter if it’s online or in print. Such a clip is like a secret handshake that tells other editors you can play the professional game.

If you don’t have any clips, try to write for anyone who will publish your work, even if they can’t pay you.

This is the only time in your career when working for free is OK, otherwise, it’s a terrible business decision. But in the beginning, you need to show people your writing so that you will be able to write for people more.

Network your way in

The biggest disadvantage beginners have in this realm – beyond sending in amateur pitches on flimsy ideas – is that after finally coming up with an idea, you must pitch it cold. You get an editor’s name and email, sent off a pitch and then wait weeks wondering if it all just went to spam. For a growing business like yours, that’s pretty dispiriting.

Don’t give up, because it does get easier. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you can send a quick email to an editor, laying out the very basics of an idea, and that one email can be the start of a conversation that becomes your pitch. You can only get away with that if the editor knows both you and your work well.

‘Knowing you’ is the key phrase there and that’s what you must work on. Editors don’t exist in a vacuum. They have offices and go to conferences, which means you should try to visit them in those places, too. But not every story is right for every writer and the more an editor knows about you and your work, the tighter that relationship will become.

Facetime still feels like the only way to really cement that. So sign up for writing conferences and go to trade shows looking to grow your network as well as to find ideas. Have some pitches ready to go in case you run into an editor. Stories I wrote for Outside, The New York Times and Men’s Journal came about, in part, because I pitched editors I’d met in person at conferences and workshops. 

Work from the inside

Of course, the easiest way to build these relationships is to get on staff at a publication, perhaps as an intern. Working a “real” job in the publishing world before going freelance can be a real boon to your career. Most of the writers I know today, who are making a go of it with interesting work, were once on staff. You can’t get deeper into the business than by being on staff at a place that’s doing the business every day.

Not everyone can afford to up and work on an intern’s salary, of course, but everyone does need to network and get to know various people and their publications. Sending in an idea that would never work in a particular magazine shows you aren’t taking this seriously.

So as you start, be willing to put as much as 90 percent of your effort into networking – getting yourself a website, going to workshops, and reading the stories published in the places you want to work. The rest will be split evenly between pitching and (hopefully) writing. Do it right and soon those numbers will flip.

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