Life of a Travel Writer: Rough Guide Mentor Tells All

We catch up with Rough Guides writer and mentor Terry Richardson, who gives us the lowdown on writing on the road.


Terry Richardson World Nomads Travel Writing Mentor Photo © Ibrahim Rifath

How did you get your break as a travel writer?

I was working in Turkey as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in the mid-1990s and in my free time, I got involved in waymarking Turkey’s first long-distance walking trail, the Lycian Way.

Later, when trying to promote the route at a travel show in Manchester, I approached the Rough Guides stand and got talking. They were interested in what I was doing and suggested I write a short test piece.

So I did, and for the next edition of RG Turkey, I was on board as an updater.

What's the life of a travel writer like?

It’s impossible not to come out with the clichés here, so here goes.

It’s definitely not as glamorous as many people think; much of the work (checking out hotels, bus timetables) is fairly routine.

It’s also physically very demanding, with research days often starting soon after sunrise and running through to the late evening – there’s a lot of foot-slogging to be done.

Then there are all the days and weeks tied to your computer post-research, writing it up, and then rewriting bits as the editing process kicks-in!

But, the compensations are immense – I love Turkey and never get bored of traveling around it in the way I still like best – with a rucksack strapped to my back and using local transport.

How much time do you spend on the road each year? 

It’s very hard to quantify how long I’m away from my Antalya (on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast) home each year, but I guess it must be about three months. However, that includes time doing my other job, leading tours around Turkey’s rich archaeological and historical sites.

And I still keep my hand in, teaching history at an international school. Fortunately, they are very understanding about my need for flexibility.

To update a chapter of RG Turkey I usually reckon on three weeks in the field. It also depends on how much writing up I do while on the road.

What is the best thing about being a travel writer?

I enjoy the sheer exhilaration and adventure of being on the road and the chance to go back to fabulous places such as Istanbul, Troy, Mount Ararat, Lake Van and Ephesus.

Then there’s the freedom of being your own boss. Post research, I may be tied to my computer for weeks, but even then, when I need a break, I can just get up and walk away and come back when I’m in the mood.

I love what I do, I try to craft the best words that I can and, yes, I still get a thrill from seeing my name (and my photographs) in print.

And the worst?

Having had a ‘safe’ job i.e. teaching. Just occasionally, I shiver at the precariousness of the job – everything is a contract and you never know when the work might dry up.

It’s also sometimes hard to keep up friendships with people in ‘normal’ jobs, as just as you get to know someone or form a routine, you’re back on the road.

You won’t get picked for the local football team if you’re a travel writer! Nor will you ever be rich.

What talents do the best travel writers have?

A passion for the country or place you’re writing about is pre-requisite, for me at least.

I know Turkey very well after more than 20 years either traveling or living here, and it never fails to fascinate me.

Perseverance – you’ll need it when you’re visiting the 10th lookalike hotel of the day, it’s nearly 40ºC and you’ve still got a raft of restaurants to check out that evening.

You also have to be very thorough, checking and cross-checking your facts – travelers rely on all those addresses, telephone numbers and the like being correct.

Having a way with words is definitely important, but don’t despair if you’re not naturally gifted – guidebook writing is as much craft as innate talent.

I want your job! Where should I start?

Good question! I came to travel writing pretty late in life (mid 30s) and already had many years of experience in my chosen country under my belt before putting fingers to keyboard.

But, even if you’re young, I’d suggest getting to know one country (or even region of a country) as well as you can, then you have something to sell to the likes of the Rough Guide or World Nomads i.e. knowledge.

Of course, you’ll also need to hone your research and writing skills, be persistent in pursuing your ambitions after the inevitable rejections, and wait for that lucky break.

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