It’s the dream isn’t it? To get paid and travel the world? To escape the cubicle life and go out into the great world and somehow make a living at it? I get many questions from travelers on how to work in the travel industry. Being a travel writer is one of the ways to do it.
Luckily, San Francisco and the Bay Area is a commune of travel writing. It’s home to the Book Passage Travel Writing and Photography conference, a monthly celebration of travel stories at Weekday Wanderlust, a host of travel publications like the Matador Network and AFAR Media, and an incredible community of travel writers. I decided to answer the question of how to become a travel writer with the help of Jill Robinson, a successful travel writer.
I met Jill at a Travel Massive event a few years ago and what I love about her story is that she’s a full-time award-winning travel writer who set out to become one five years ago and did so, quite successfully. I asked her to share her advice as guidance for others who want to enter the travel writing profession.
What do you do in the travel industry?
I’m a freelance journalist, but also answer to travel writer. I have been full-time freelance writing for five years.
How did you get into it?
I was laid off from my job at a travel startup. At that time, all my writing work was online; I had been working online since the mid-‘90s, so I needed to branch out and add print and more clients to my portfolio. Plus, print tends to pay better, and depending on the publication, print can have more caché. I wanted to make my skills better and write for a wide variety of publications, so I had to be in print.
Why travel writing?
Friends saved my postcards and said that I should write about my experiences. I’ve always enjoyed writing about places and encouraging people to step outside their comfort zone. Travel for me always beckoned even though I wasn’t doing it in my full time job.
I didn’t go to journalism school. I just cared about language, reading and writing. Because I cared, I spent the time learning how to do it well. Before my travel startup job, I was a managing editor and writer at Yahoo! My team wrote about pop culture. On a given day, I could write about sports, politics, and pizza. You had to be really versatile in that job. That helped me as a writer.
What was the first year of travel writing like?
The one thing that helped me out the first year was that I wasn’t as busy as I am now, so I had time to set up some practices that I still follow today. One of my most successful practices was that I studied every publication I wanted to pitch before contacting the editor. I looked at a series of issues, topics they covered, voice they used, destinations covered, and sections that had used freelance writers.
I did this as an educational study, to know what the publication covers, so I could pitch successfully. This helped me pitch the San Francisco Chronicle Travel section. At the time, the article types were: features, weekenders, five places (following a theme), gear reviews, and travel narrative stories. I studied one type, wrote several times, and when I felt I had a solid idea of what was required, moved on to study the next type.
Successful stories depend on the publication. Studying how a magazine covers travel, for example, helps you tremendously. You’re not going to write about a self-supported Antarctica adventure in a luxury glossy magazine. Knowing the types of topics and how they’re covered in a publication determines how to pitch and tell your story.
If you could do anything over again, what would it be?
I would not have wasted as much time thinking about what others are doing. It’s a useful study: to identify successful steps others are taking and how you can utilize that in your own life. But like many other industries, this one has more than its fair share of backbiting and criticism that has little purpose other than to make us feel better about ourselves. I’d rather spend time with the people who add richness to my life and work, and recognize the work they’re doing because we all want people to care about our writing. That said, I always appreciate a healthy bit of snark.
What did you imagine it would be like and what is the reality?
It’s pretty much what I imagined. I’m working harder for myself than I ever worked for someone else. My office days are spent researching, pitching stories, writing and doing the administrative stuff that keeps it going.
On trips, I’m running around seeing stuff to write about and more often than not, I’m on deadline for another story while I’m traveling. I can make it less busy, but part of that is me. I can tend to go all in with things. While I have plenty of goals ahead, I’m surprised that it only took me 2 ½ years to get in the thick of things and be successful as a full-time freelancer.
How frequently do you travel and what types of trips do you take?
For the past two years I have been more on the road than at home. I travel domestically and internationally and am trying to find a better schedule that allows me to balance my life a little more.
My favorite trips are those with healthy dose of adventure, because that’s what I love. If you’re doing things you love, that comes through in writing.
The adventures I prefer personally are a bit aggressive and out there, but adventure means different things to different people. While readers may like those kinds of stories, many of them won’t duplicate a major expedition, so to be successful – financially and professionally – I needed to broaden my definition of adventure. Whether it’s zip-lining, winery tours on bikes, cycling 100 miles through the Rockies, cage diving with saltwater crocodiles, or a booze cruise with great views—it’s adventure to someone.
I’ve gotten questions from people who want to get paid to travel, is this the way you’d recommend doing it?
If that’s the thing that leads you to writing, maybe you need to examine your purpose.
It also depends on what writer you want to be. Some people don’t aspire to be incredibly skilled, but want to share information with other people. That’s much easier to do online than it was years ago. If you care about writing style and honing the technique and craft, it’s going to take a lot of time, but you’ll be a more versatile writer who can cross from online to some print publications that might be more particular.
I love traveling and seeing new places and telling stories, but it takes a lot of work to write about it well. In our rush to share our experiences, we sometimes miss out on what’s going on. I see people tweeting at dinner, instead of reflecting on the experience before sharing. When you have deadlines, you have to get the writing done. But when you’re in the field, unless you’re reporting on breaking news, take a moment to understand and learn from what’s happening.
What are three things a person interested in travel writing should do today to start on this career path?
In addition to studying the publication,
- Read others’ work. Because breadth in writing style comes with time and practice, and practice always starts with reading others’ work. It’s simple, but very helpful.
- Pay attention and see places with new eyes, even in your hometown. It’s good to be an expert, but no one likes a smarty pants. It’s easier to answer the “why here? why now?” question with fresh eyes.
- Don’t get hung up on waiting until you get an assignment or feel the need to gain a certain size audience. The writing skill comes from practice. I look at my writing years ago and see how far I’ve come. But there’s always room to get better.
However many years as a writer or years of practice, we still run into problems with focus. But as you go, it happens less and less. You have a deadline and it has to be good. On my most recent trip, I had three deadlines I had to work into my schedule. It does become easier over time, but I can’t promise that it ever disappears.
You can find Jill’s work on her web site and regularly featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, including one of my favorite pieces on dealing with the unfamiliar. These bad-ass photos were provided by Jill. A huge thank you to Jill for sharing her sage advice.