Inside Scoop: What Makes a Good Travel Article?

You may think you have the greatest story idea ever, but chances are you’re going about it all wrong, says New York Times writer Tim Neville.

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Let’s say you’re traveling through Italy when you stumble upon the best bakery you’ve ever been to. The place is truly exceptional, not just for the flaky, unusual pastries on offer but for the baker himself. He’s a filmmaker working on a documentary about his family, who’s lived in the apartment upstairs for 150 years. Pretty cool, right? Good story. Meh. Maybe.

Needs vs wants

No doubt it’s intriguing. Almost as critical as knowing the elements that make for a good story, however, is knowing how an editor could use that story. Not all travel writing is the same, naturally, and neither are the needs of the publications that run it. Within each magazine, newspaper or even website, you’ll find different “departments” looking for different kinds of work. Your Italian baker filmmaker guy might be a 4,500-word profile or a 25-word hit in a breakout. It all depends on the idea, your experience and, above all, what the editor needs and when.

Stepping stones

When most new writers talk about trying to break into a magazine, they mean into the “front of the book.” That’s the first few pages where the articles tend to be short and less about telling a story than sharing tips, news and reviews. When your article’s mission is to tell readers about “the best”, or to show them how to do something better – Portugal’s best fado joints; Stockholm’s coolest hostels; Things not to miss at Burning Man – editors call this service writing. The front of the book is filled with service writing, which makes it an easier place to break in.

Assigning these shorter articles is far less risky for editors working with a new writer because if you really mess it up, they can just rewrite the 50 words and not miss any production deadlines. Blow a many-thousand-word feature, though, and you’re leaving the editor with a huge hole to fill. Longer essays might be the hardest to land and pitching ideas for those might be the only situation where I think sending in a draft with the pitch is probably the way to go.

Fortunately, service ideas are needed everywhere, and publications of any format are constantly hungry for them, be it by pointing out a trend or digging around to find entertaining details. A new hotel opening up in your town might not be unusual or significant enough to warrant a story. But if three new sustainable lodges are opening up in a region known for excellent cross-country skiing, and winter is coming up, that could be good service.

That’s not to say travel editors don’t think smaller, too. Sometimes they need snappy reviews and critical looks at a single newsworthy topic. Keep your eye on those “events” but always be looking to connect the dots. Trend stories tend to run longer since they require some set-up and examples and they serve as a great stepping stone to bigger pieces. With all of these, an editor is going to be looking for details that show you can report. Prove that, and you’ll be on your way to bigger, more complicated assignments.

Getting real

So, back to your Italian baker filmmaker guy. Of course, you could see this being a big story, right? But unless you’re 100 percent confident you have all the elements for a feature, the better play might be to pitch it as service, especially if you’ve never worked with an editor before or have few clips. Pitch his story as a way to list the top five pastry festivals in Italy. Or do an interview with him and cast it as a Q&A. Rewriting the interview as an “as told to”, where it sounds like the baker is talking directly to readers, could work, too. It all depends. No matter which way you go, be sure to research the magazine or website so you have a good idea of the kinds of stories they run and, especially, how those stories are presented.

This isn’t to say you can’t shoot for the stars and pitch the baker guy as a longer feature profile, and by all means keep thinking big like that. But a lot of writers do make good money off writing almost entirely service. The format isn’t the big, glorious fun of a feature but it is fast and rewarding and requires enough skill that not just anyone can do it. Get it right, though, and it’ll kick start the cashflow and open doors to gigs that will take you on the road.

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