Over-embellishment: Don't Let It Ruin a Good Story

Phil Sylvester is our Head of PR & Media Communications here at World Nomads. He's been a journalist in print and broadcast for around 30 years, so he knows his way around a sentence construction site. Here's some important advice Phil has for budding travel writers.

Phil Sylvester

If you want to improve your travel writing and your chances of winning the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship (keep an eye out for our next one!), read on as former judge for the scholarship Phil Sylvester shares his advice with past applicants. 

Travel Writing Scholarship - Applicant Feedback

First up, let me say how much I admire all of you because you wrote something. You sat at a laptop, thought about your experiences, thought about other people and the world, and transferred those thoughts through your fingertips to me. That's an admirable and powerful thing to do. Don't ever stop doing it.

But - you knew one of those was coming, right? - will you please stop bludgeoning me over the head with those words! Too many words tumbled off the pages of your scholarship entries. Weighty sentences filled with big words and sharp-edged metaphors fell down leaving me feeling buried under the rubble.

I understand that you're trying to be as descriptive as possible, but the art of good writing is to know when enough is enough. Plus, this is a "travel writing" scholarship not a literature competition. Travel is fun, carefree, simple and unburdened - the writing should be the same. Clear direct communication is the key, over-embellishment or "purple prose" takes all the fun out of it.

Here endeth the lesson, well the serious part anyway.

I always try to use humour to make a point, so I've written a little piece about a travel experience of my own, and then I've written a second version making all the mistakes I want you to avoid. I hope you see my point.

Remember the KISS principle - keep it simple, stupid!

Keep writing and best of luck!
Phil

Version #1: A Well-Written Story

It was a cultural faux pas of epic proportions!

The old women of the village looked like they wanted to throw us into the nearby volcano. The young women giggled behind their hands. It was clear we’d got it completely, ridiculously wrong!

Where are we? For a start it’s 1979 when you could still get off the beaten path in Bali. Around here, high in the mountains, they consider themselves the ‘true’ Balinese, and follow old customs. No Hindu cremation for the dead, instead, just across the lake, earthly remains are left to ‘weather’ above ground.

Right now, with the eyes of the village on us, I know how that feels.

Mount Batur smokes silently. Threateningly. It’s the reason we’re here, standing naked in our embarrassment, the natural hot springs are therapeutic, we’re promised.

Okay, how does this work? My friend and I stop and watch for a while.

In one area women dip clothes into hot soapy water, then rinse them in the cold clear lake – an ancient twin tub washer.

Alongside, men and women wash themselves, graduating from the cold lake to ever-hotter pools of steaming, mineral-laden water… and back again.

The women enter the water draped in a sarong. The men are, as men are everywhere, arrogant in their nakedness beneath the water. So it’s ‘kit off’ for men? In we go!

Mount Batur rumbles.

The problem was that we didn’t do enough touching. We should have cupped our ‘bits’ in our hands and kept them out of view while we lowered ourselves into the water.

Instead we’re a couple of big swinging inappropriate white guys!

Version #2: What to Avoid

It was a cultural faux pas of epic proportions!

The old women of the village, their hand-woven batik sarongs, bright, but muted by the shocking vermillion of betelnut stained teeth, looked like they wanted to throw us into the rumbling volcano that cast a shadow across the village in the late afternoon sun.

The young women, hair slick, and dark contrasting against their white teeth honed to an unnerving symmetry by the high priest, and perhaps conscious of the effect of the ritual, giggled behind their hands.

It was clear we’d got it completely, ridiculously wrong!

Where are we? It’s 1979. The world is on the brink because the Afghanistan war – an Afghanistan war - had just broken out. The world was losing its innocence, but here, high in the mountains of Bali, innocence remained. This was where you could get off the beaten path, and my travelling companion, an old friend newly made at our first foray into life after school, had come in search of…. something. Searching seemed like the only thing that was right.

We came because we were told the people here consider themselves the ‘true’ Balinese, the aboriginals who’d fled the Hindu invasion a century or more before and settled by the deep, azure blue of the fish-filed lake in the belly of a volcano.

But the dirt here was no good. No good for crops, and no good for burying the dead. Instead earthly remains were left to ‘weather’ above ground, the chalky white bones stacked in gruesome outdoor cemeteries, like so many jolly Roger flags.

The volcano, standing majestically, moodily above the village, bringing twilight and relief from the searing, humid heat of the day, hours before it is due, is also the source of hot springs. The sulphurous, steam leaves a metallic smell in the small hairs of our nostrils and the stings the back of our throats like sour milk, but we’re also promised it brings relief to weary, aching bones.

We want to join the locals in their daily life and the ritual of cleaning clothes and bodies, so we stumble over flinty ground to the lake’s edge where meticulously laid stones have captured the natural springs, allowing just the right amount to cascade down to the next, cooler level, ending in the shocking, skin-scrunching cold of the deep lake.

My friend and I stop and watch for a while.

In one area women dip clothes into hot soapy water, then rinse them in the cold clear lake. Alongside, men and women wash themselves, graduating from the cold lake to ever-hotter pools of steaming, mineral-laden water… and back again.

The women enter the water draped in a sarong. The men are, as men are everywhere, arrogant in their nakedness beneath the water.

We disrobe, spilling our cheap, tourist-print sarongs to the stony ground.

Mount Batur rumbles.

We’d miscalculated, misunderstood. The men became naked after they’d entered the water. Making our way to the hot water, soft white feet pricked by sharp stones that cause our arms to fly akimbo making us resemble gulls fighting over a discarded chip, we failed, miserably to maintain our balance, and to maintain our dignity.

Are you an aspiring travel writer? Keep an eye out for our next Travel Writing Scholarship in 2019!

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4 Comments

  • mohammadrezagemiomandi said

    Thank you, my photo is used for journal

  • Anne said

    Thank you for this great writing article. I'd love to see more like it!

  • Moresby said

    Thanks for the article Phil! I am enjoying learning to write and I know my verbosity is a problem. This helped. More pointers like this would be great.

  • Kate lee said

    Haha! This is awesome, thank you!

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