Top Travel Writing Tips From Our Scholarship Winners

They had the trip of a lifetime as winners of our 2017 Travel Writing Scholarship. Now, they've returned home with memories and travel writing tips to share with us all.


Photo © Kaitlyn Baker

Helen, Kaushal, and Alexander embarked on a Balkan adventure to take their passion for travel writing to the next level and learn from NY Times contributor Tim Neville.

After a three-day workshop in Montenegro, they put their learning into practice. Here, they share the most valuable lessons they took away from the experience.  

Take notes

Helen Glenny

I used all 70 pages of my bright yellow spiral-bound notebook in the Balkans. All 70. I've got notes crammed into corners and scribbled along margins. 476km long. "It was Hollywood." Serbian part bombed in '99. At one point, I was jotting down notes on my thigh, to be transcribed as soon as I could find a blank page. 

I learned that in writing, details are important. And in travel writing, you can't make them up, so you need to write things down. Tim taught us to note the mundane things – names, ages. But also the nuances that create a sense of a person or place – how he talked, the way he moved his hands. All of those details will eventually add together to create a story. Or they'll go in the bin – but at least you had them there, in case you needed them. 

Before I did this workshop, I was reconstructing scenes from memory, skipping over the details I didn't have. Now, because of my notes, my scenes feel more authentic. Plus, it's fun to relive your trip as you write, in vivid detail, because you took the time to write those details down. 

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Bring a place to life with details

Kaushal Oza

An old bridge over the river connects the two sides of Mostar.

Or this.

An Ottoman-era bridge spans the furious Nervata river uniting the Croat side with the Muslim neighborhoods of Mostar.

The most valuable lesson that I learned from my mentor Tim was to bring a place to life with details. In his own words: “the biggest character in your story has no voice and it is the place itself.”

Something being the “best” or “simply too good” or the “most awesome ever” is never enough. As a travel writer, we have to ask why.

While I was traveling in Herzegovina, I was told that the Herzegovinan honey was voted as the best at a recent convention of apiarists in Japan. But this piece of information by itself is not valuable to the reader. On asking why is the honey so good, I came to know that the karst topography of Herzegovina is home to many different kinds of medicinal and aromatic herbs, and it is the nectar of these plants that is collected by the bees and gives the Herzegovinan honey its distinctively sweet, herbal taste.

These are the fine details which when reprised often enough in an article will weave a rich tapestry of the place in the reader’s mind. The divine is in the details.

Sell your story

- Alexander McCoy 

The most important thing I learned from the writing workshop is the importance of crafting pitches: before you write the story, you need to sell the story. Each magazine has different goals and unique needs, as well as their respective niches, so merely writing the article and “shopping around” for a place to publish is not enough to land you the job.

Do your homework; do your research on the potential area and the idea(s) you want to write about. Be creative, be innovative, embellish with facts and tie it all together. Layout where you plan to go, why it is important, and how you plan to report on it. Work in a sense of tension, of urgency, of exclusivity; use as many superlatives as you can – but make sure they are factual. You also want to be as unique as possible: don’t recreate something that has already been covered at length before.

If the editor is interested in your story, they will work with you and provide direction when it comes to fitting the story within the framework of their publication. This will aid in the creation of the story itself.

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