How to be a travel writer

It seems like the best job in the world, yet few people truly do it well. To help hone your entry to this year’s awards, here are a few hints on the art of travel writing.


How to be a travel writer article spread


It seems like the best job in the world, yet few people truly do it well. To help hone your entry to this year’s awards, environment editor James Fair provides a few hints on the art of travel writing.
Thinking of entering our travel-writing awards this year? Here’s a hot tip that may help you to choose your topic: write about either Australia or the Americas. Why? Seven out of the ten previous winners wrote about either the New World or Down Under.
But that’s just about the only common-ish denominator; there was huge variety in the species that took centre stage – birds ranging from the tiny hummingbird to the lofty cassowary, and mammals from the red squirrel to the Tasmanian tiger. (But it’s extinct, you cry! Well, perhaps not...)
And though professional writers have won the award in previous years, they enjoy no advantage in the eyes of the judges: over the past decade we’ve also sent teachers, physiotherapists and PAs on the trip of a lifetime.
Each entry is assessed solely on the quality of the piece – the judging panel does not know who the author is, what job they do or even which sex they are.
The art of writing
So it’s all about the writing: the ability to evoke a place, a moment, an encounter. To do that within the brief, 800-word entry format, you need to put yourself in the judges’ shoes and ask some key questions about your piece.
  • First, have you constructed a story that carries the reader along to the very end? Can you make us care about what happens, and give us a vivid feel for the sights, sounds and smells in your location?
  • Does the narrator comes across as a likeable person? Read Bill Oddie’s Sri Lanka story (coming soon) : it works well in part because Bill sounds like someone who would be fun to travel with.
  • Does your entry succinctly capture the essence of a wild animal as effortlessly as a photograph? Will it make us look again at a place we thought we knew, or bring to life a destination we have never visited?
If you think you can deliver all of this, then you’re in with a shout.
But before putting fingers to keyboard, read a few winning entries from previous years, plus travel articles published in a travel supplement in a national newspaper or – better still – in BBC Wildlife, for an idea of what makes travel writing work.
One last piece of advice, in the wise words of one of the most well-read travel writers, Bill Bryson: “A basic error with travel writing is assuming everybody’s interested. You have to work from the opposite assumption: nobody is interested. Even your wife is not interested.”
Whether you’re in New Zealand or Norfolk, the challenge is the same: make us interested.
  • Think carefully about the opening paragraph – does it grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read on?
  • Remember to say where your story takes place.
  • Consider every descriptive passage you write and ask yourself what it adds to the story and whether it is necessary.
  • Pace the story carefully. it shouldn’t be paragraph after paragraph of purple prose, nor should it be a breathless “and then this happened” narrative.
  • Find a great way to end – the judges will find it more memorable if you do.
  • Start with your experience at the check-in counter at Heathrow or the flight to your destination, unless they are inescapably linked to the narrative thrust of your story, which is unlikely.
  • Tell the whole story of your trip. It’s not diary writing, and part of the creative process is deciding what to leave out.
  • Anthropomorphise. In other words, don’t pretend that animals are people, and don’t try to imagine what they might be thinking or saying.
  • Be afraid to be different. One winning tale began with getting lost in Lima and ended with a hummingbird that knew exactly where it was going. It worked because of the contrast between the two.
  • Forget to check your story for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
  • William Gray
    “Exciting travel does not automatically make exciting reading. A month spent cruising Antarctica is no guarantee of a riveting travel feature – just as a 10-minute stroll watching squirrels in a London park might produce a gripping piece, full of atmosphere, humour and intrigue.”
  • Charlotte Hindle
    “Effective writing engages the reader straightaway. It is written in a natural, simple style that makes it easy to read and enjoy. It should be interesting and relevant both to the avid traveller who may be thinking of taking a similar trip, and the casual reader who has no intention of going further than their armchair. It sounds simple but, as every travel writer knows, it isn’t.”
  • Brian Jackman
    “All well-crafted tales have a good beginning, middle and end, but it’s the opening few lines that count most. This is where you must hook your readers. Unless the first paragraph makes them want to read on, you could lose them, no matter how brilliant the rest of your story may be.”
  • Mike Unwin
    “Good travel writing is about evoking a sense of place, which means finding authentic details to engage the reader: a smell, stain or remark that puts them right there. ‘A-list’ wildlife presents a minefield of potential clichés. With lions, for example, describe the shape of their tracks, rather than waxing lyrical over their “magnificent manes”. Make notes on the spot before you forget.”

To read about our amazing first prize - a wonderful safari to Zambia - click here.


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