This week’s post is by David Farley. He is the teacher of the Superstar Blogging Travel Writing Course and the author of An Irreverent Curiosity. His work has been published in AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, and the New York Times — among many others!
You can never stop learning how to write. After all, success is fleeting and sometimes you’re only as good as your last published story. I always thought that once I became a travel writer for glossy travel magazines, I could relax a bit because I’d “made it.” Nope. Then I thought that once I began penning pieces for the New York Times, I could say I was successful. Not. At. All. Okay, maybe when I have book out, published by a major publishing house, things will come a bit easier for me. I wish.
So, instead, I just keep working on my writing. I read good travel writing and I read about good writing. I study the canon of great writers. I try to be disciplined and dedicated. If you’re wondering how to become a travel writer (or just a better writer in general), here are nine tips on how you can improve your writing:
- This is number one because whenever a budding writer asks me how they can improve, it’s my first piece of advice. Read good writing. Absorb it. Let good writing sink into your soul. Don’t think it’s possible? When I was first starting out, I was sick one weekend and so I spent three days laying in bed reading every page of that year’s Best American Travel Writing anthology. After I finished, I opened up my laptop and started writing for the first time in days. What came out surprised me: it was the highest-quality writing I’d done to date. And it was all because I was absorbed in good writing and it filtered through me back onto the page of my own writing
- Do it for love. Maya Angelou wrote, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” Don’t get into travel writing for the money – after all, that would be totally unrealistic. And please don’t gravitate to the genre because you want free trips and hotel rooms. “Instead,” Ms. Angelou added, “do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” Or, in other words, strive to become such a good writer that the editors of all the publications you have been dreaming to write for can’t ignore you anymore.
- Don’t be attached to linear writing. You need not compose a piece from beginning to middle to end. Sometimes we don’t know the format or structure of a story. Sure, maybe you’d already figured that out. But if not, it’s okay to just get a few scenes and paragraphs of exposition down on “paper.” Then you can step back and take a look at the bigger picture and rearrange what you have, figuring out the best way to tell the story
- Tap into your own sense of motivation and drive. The students of mine at New York University who have been most successful were not always the most talented in the class. But they were the most driven. They’d read enough quality writing and thought about it, understanding what made it good, that there was just something about writing that they got. They weren’t born with that understanding but ambition drove them to seek out good writing and then to think about it, to analyze what made it good or not so good. Drive inspires future successful writers to go out on a limb, to render themselves vulnerable, by reaching out to more accomplished writers to ask for advice or introducing themselves to editors at events or conferences. Don’t be shy. Standing in the corner quietly won’t get you as far as putting your hand out to introduce yourself.
- Try to figure out what gets your mind and writing flowing. Let me explain: I can sit down at my laptop and stare at a blank Word document for hours, not sure how to start a story or what to write about. Then I’ll respond to an email from a friend who wants to know about the trip I’m on (and trying to write about). I’ll write a long email with cool and interesting anecdotes about my experience and include some analysis about the place and culture I’m experiencing. And then I’ll realize: I can just cut and paste this right into the empty Word doc I’ve been staring at the for the last three hours. Several of my published articles have blocks of texts that were originally written as parts of emails to friends. The “email trick” might not work for everyone but there’s inevitably some trick for the rest of you – be it talking to a friend or free writing in your journal.
- Understand all aspects of storytelling. As I outlined in the course, there are two types of travel writing: commercial and personal essay/memoir. In commercial travel writing, you should make the various parts of the story an intrinsic aspect of your knowledge: from ways to write a lede to the nut graph to scenes to exposition and conclusions. For memoir and personal essays, know like the back of your typing hands what narrative arch means. It helps to get an imperative understanding of these things by paying attention to writing – to reading like a travel writer – as you read travel articles (as well as nonfiction).
- Don’t stress if your first draft is shit. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And he wasn’t kidding. I find this true when I’m writing a personal essay or travel memoir. I write and I write and I write and I’m not exactly sure what I’m putting down on paper. What’s the point of this? I ask myself. Why am I even doing this? But here is where patience comes in: eventually, the clouds part, the proverbial sunbeam from the heavens shines down on our computer monitors and we see the point of it all: we finally figure out what it is we’re writing and how to best tell that story. It just happens like magic sometimes. And not all at once; sometimes it’s bit by bit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But, as I mentioned, patience is key because we never know when that divine magic is going to be activated. But sit around long enough and it will happen. I promise you. Just be cautious when taking Hemingway’s other writing advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.”
- Write what you know. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell,” said writer Neil Gaiman, “because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.
- When you’re finished with a draft, read it out loud. Preferably, print it out and read it out loud. This will allow you to better hear how the piece sounds and unacceptable segues and clunky sentences or turns of phrases will jump out at you in a more obvious way.