Fair warning: At least in the beginning, travel writing can seem more like an expensive hobby than a remunerative career. Consider those first months or years spent learning your craft as higher education, as if you were working your way through college. Keep your day job; earning a regular salary lets you focus on improving your craft as a writer rather than worrying about ways to keep the roof over your head. During this apprenticeship period it’s important to seize every opportunity for publication that comes your way. Markets accessible to newcomers are often low paying. Don’t let this deter you. Few experiences in life are as rewarding as seeing your byline in print. Equally important, your first-published efforts provide “clips,” eventual springboards to higher-paying markets.
Yes, I can hear you saying, but with an attitude like that, how can I afford a top-of-the-line computer? I’ll tell you a secret: You don’t really need one! This statement might be considered downright blasphemous by proponents of the Information Age, but in truth, high tech has very little to do with writing success. I know many, many wannabe writers who are convinced that as soon as they acquire the world’s most sophisticated new keyboard and all the software ever invented to go with it, they will automatically become best-selling authors.
They’re only kidding themselves. Writing success comes from practice and perseverance. From trial and error. From sending out your work, having it come back with a rejection slip, then rewriting it over and over, better each time, and sending it out again. It doesn’t matter if your first drafts are scrawled in pencil on the back of junk mail. As long as they’re neatly typed, editors don’t really care if the manuscripts you submit were done on the portable Underwood your Grandma used in college.
Content is what counts. Words. Each of them the best it can possibly be.
My first five published novels and at least a dozen early short stories were typed on a manual Royal typewriter. For the next 15 books and much more short fiction, I used an IBM Selectric II, (still one of my prized possessions). Not until 1995, when I began writing nonfiction for a newspaper editor who expected articles to be turned in on disk, did I add a word processor to my equipment. The Canon StarWriter 400 cost $$$, compared to the $$$$$ needed to purchase a “name” brand computer plus modern and all the other accessories. This article is being written on that machine, which still functions perfectly.
RESEARCH trips don’t have to cost a fortune, either. When I began writing and selling fiction in my twenties, I created fictional backgrounds based on interesting nearby settings. Then as now, travel for me was both passion and goal. Whenever the family finances would allow a trip, we went. So, inevitably, did my heroes and heroines. First to the Monterey Peninsula, two hours down the road. In time, to Hawaii, the San Juan Islands, Florida, Ireland, Venice, Mykonos, Bora-Bora.
It makes sense even for experienced travel writers to target the less expensive, close-to-home locales for most of their articles. The majority of newspaper travel articles are tailored to fit the lifestyles of average readers: time-starved, budget-conscious readers who pick up the Sunday paper hoping to find descriptions of short, affordable getaways they and their families can enjoy.
While these locations are generally within a few hours’ drive, the cost of your research and photographs for a mini-holiday destination piece will still usually exceed the “stringer” fee the newspaper pays for your piece. Therefore, as a free lancer hoping to make travel writing pay its way (and yours, too), you need to make sure each trip does the work of three or four more.
One way to get started is to find enough interesting features about a place you intend to visit anyway to warrant turning your trip into a travel article. An early article I wrote about Seaside, Oregon, came about because my husband and I participated in a holiday arts and crafts show there. The many attractions of this delightful beach town made it a natural for a “come and bring the family” story.
After completing research for the piece, it occurred to me that the popular annual event might also interest the readers of Oregon Coast. Yes, said the editor when I queried; write it up for the following November. Next, learning that new baby seals were due to be born at Seaside’s aquarium at about the same time that this attraction celebrated its 60th anniversary, I sent another proposal to the same magazine. The result was a second “go-ahead-on-spec.”
Particularly when they aren’t well acquainted with a writer’s work, editors will often cautiously agree to take a look at an article on speculation. Never let the lack of a guarantee keep you from doing a thorough job of research and submitting your very best work. Turn in a piece the editor loves, and your next query may result in a contract up front. Similarly, don’t be put off by the fact that an otherwise ideal market pays “on publication,” rather than “on acceptance.” Anticipating a check due months after you’ve done the work gives you something solid to look forward to. Earmark it for a special journey!
That trip to Seaside resulted in three published articles, one for the newspaper and two others in a good regional magazine. These days, I don’t wait until I arrive at a destination to start my research. Instead, I contact the Chamber of Commerce as far ahead as possible and ask them to send me all the promotional material on the region. Then I start counting the “plusses.”
What kind of plusses? Travel plus all the different categories included in The Writer’s market listings. Let me give you a few examples that have worked for me.
Travel+art= an article on how Western murals turned a dying town into one of the state’s top tourist attractions. Travel+animals= a piece on sending our kitties to camp (a.k.a. The Sandbox Ranch) while we went on vacation. Travel+ethnic minorities= a story about how the Yakama Indians of central Washington changed the spelling of their name in a bid for tribal identity. Travel+gardening= a round-up linking a bonsai garden in Canton, China, with several similar attractions near Puget Sound. Travel+history= the tale of the U.S. Army’s Bicycle Infantry stationed at Fort Missoula, Montana, in 1897. Travel+religion= a funny vignette about water from the Sea of Galilee. Travel+sports= a profile of a female senior citizen who launched the first woman’s kayaking club in America.
Each of those plusses along with many others resulted in articles with my byline. Once I started looking at every destination as if it were a rich gold mine, full of nuggets, I turned them into tales of interest to editors and readers. You can tap into that gold mine, too. When you decide to visit a spot, research it thoroughly in advance. Before leaving home, query publications whose interests match a particular facet of that destination–their own special “travel-plus.”
Tags: travel writing, writing for money