I Want to Get Paid to Travel the World!
Suzanne Roberts | April 2015
On the first day of my travel writing class, I ask my students why they are taking the class, what they hope to get out of it, where they want their writing to go. Many of them say some version of this: I want to travel the world and get paid to write about it! Rather than say, “Uh yeah, me too,” I just smile. I want them to stay in the class after all, so there’s no sense in discouraging them right from the start. For all I know, one of my students could become one of the three-dozen people in the world making a living solely from travel writing. And many of my students might end up doing what I have done, supplementing my income by writing about travel and teaching travel writing—and loving it.
Toward a Definition of Travel Writing
Travel writing can mean many different things, from writing long-form literary place-based memoir to service-oriented guidebook contributions. According to travel writer Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, contemporary travel writing at its best “combines the reportorial rigor of journalism with the interpretive insight of memoir. It has a clearer and more personal point of view than conventional journalism, and a more disciplined outward gaze than conventional memoir. It’s an interaction between a writer and a place and a culture.” Potts calls travel writing a form of literary nonfiction, though I would argue that the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Carolyn Forché, Robert Hass, and Nathalie Handal or the novels of Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, and Pam Houston are forms of literary travel writing, depending on how widely you are willing to define the genre.
Literary place-based narratives are sometimes called “armchair” travel—stories about places that the reader doesn’t necessarily want to go herself but wants to be transported there by a story. Often when we think of “travel writing,” rose-tinted perspectives come to mind—piña coladas on perfect (insert cliché here) beaches—but the best travel writing reveals the contradictions of place, which means it doesn’t just show the beautiful aspects, which doesn’t necessarily promote tourism, or maybe only does so for the more intrepid traveler.
As the world has become more accessible, the definition of travel writing is changing. According to Potts, “From its earliest incarnations, from Wenamun to Herodotus to Marco Polo to Rebecca West, travel writing was the original long-form reportage, describing far-flung places and peoples to people who would never experience them. In the last half-century—and in the last twenty years in particular—it has edged away from pure reportage into a more memoiristic direction.” Although Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed might not classify themselves as travel writers, Eat, Pray, Love and Wild show just how popular the travel memoir can be.
Writing Effective Travel Narratives
In order to excel at narrative or memoiristic travel writing, the focus should be on the writing itself. Good travel writing is good writing, and a place is not a story. Even the most harrowing adventure in a remote corner of the earth can make a boring story, whereas a writer like David Sedaris shows us that even the most mundane activity—getting drunk in a train’s bar car or losing a lozenge on the lap of his airplane seatmate—can be hilarious. The most interesting travel writing features a compelling voice and strong sensory images that capture both the landscape and culture of a place and its people, which means letting the people speak for themselves. Keith Bellows, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic’s Traveler once told me something I’ll never forget: “A page without dialog is a boring page.” Ann Marie Brown, travel writer and author of more than a dozen guidebooks, agrees. She says, “Good travel stories always include people. Many writers think travel writing is mostly about place, but strong characters are critical to a good story.” Although more service-oriented writing requires an almost absent narrative voice, in long-form or narrative travel writing, the balance between the physical landscape, the people who live there, and the outside gaze of the narrator is key. The tension between the outer landscape and the inner world of the narrator makes for effective storytelling. The writers who do this particularly well include Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, Susan Jane Gillman, and Susan Orlean.
To bring our own unique perspectives to a landscape, the travel writer should consider developing an expertise. As writers, we try to resist being pigeonholed, but if we are going to be classified one way or another, we might as well create our own categories and use them in our favor. If you are an expert on something—mountain climbing or gay holidays, budget travel or fondue tasting, you will better be able to prove that you are the writer who should cover the story. Also, every place on the planet has been written about, so if the writer can also bring a unique angle or perspective—whether you are following in the footsteps of John Muir or exploring the places Marco Polo didn’t go.
Some writers also specialize in specific locales. According to Potts, writers should spend time getting to know a place in order to bring greater insight. He says, “Don’t just assume that you can immediately use travel writing as a paid pretext to see new parts of the world. First you have to travel on your own dime and get to know places, as well as the general experience of travel, before you can write about places with any degree of insight. Living overseas for an extended period of time is extremely useful in forcing a writer to get to know places at a slower, more immersive level. For this reason a lot of great literary travel writers and journalists cut their teeth in the Peace Corps, or working as English conversation teachers.” For anyone interested in long-term travel, Potts’ book on the subject (Vagabonding) is an excellent resource for not only practical tips, but also the philosophy behind immersive travel.
Many of the online venues and print journals feature both narrative travel but also service-oriented, tourism writing, which provides practical knowledge to help travelers plan their trips through destination-based articles or consumer advice, often in the form of the bucket-list (The top five beaches in Hawaii or the ten best pubs in Dublin). Although sometimes this type of travel writing is boring to write and to read, I do think that the writer can figure out ways to have fun with these listicles, and in truth, there is a larger market for consumer-based travel writing, and in general, it pays better than literary travel writing. A way for a writer to do both is to multi-purpose trips. The same trip to Northern England might result in a long-form essay about organic farming practices, a profile on a female shepherdess from Yorkshire, an exploration of Wordsworth’s Lake District, and the top ten things to do in Cumbria. Many writers get multiple stories out of one trip, so being able to write different kinds of travel articles will increase your chances of getting paid to “travel the world.”
Guidebook writing is another branch of travel writing, and quite frankly, most of my students would be thrilled to write for Lonely Planet or Moon Guides—when they sign up for my classes, this is what they had been picturing in the first place, which is why they are mystified at first when I ask them to write place-based narrative full of conflict. Although guidebook writing is very different from the travel memoir and place-based poetry or fiction, it does exist as a branch of travel writing and, for some, an excellent way to see the world, write, and get paid for it. Since the advent of the internet, publishing has changed, and guidebook travel writing is no different. Although many people are now accessing free information on the internet instead of buying a guidebook, Kevin McLain, the senior editorial director at Avalon Travel Publishing whose core series are Rick Steves’ Europe and Moon Handbooks, says the guidebook is not dead. He says, “The printed book is still the most efficient, most accessible way to present travel information. On the go, I can find the information I need quickly and easily in a printed book. It beats searching or scrolling through pages of dense text on a tiny screen every time. I also don’t need to worry about limitations like no WiFi connection or low batteries, or high data-roaming charges when traveling abroad. Our print guidebook sales are still much higher than our ebook sales, which after several years of climbing have plateaued.”
Though the guidebook is not dead, it has had to adjust because of the glut of free information on the internet. McLain notes, “As with any writing job, travel writers are now competing against nonprofessionals who provide content free of charge on blogs and crowdsourced websites like Trip Advisor. The kind of content Trip Advisor provides—lists of hotel and restaurant reviews, for example—has been devalued. So travel writers need to work harder to provide more than that kind of basic information, they need to provide strategic advice. Which places are worth my time and money? Which can be skipped? How can I avoid crowds and long lines? Which places should I go based on my personal interests? How much time should I spend at each place? Travelers are looking for memorable experiences that they can’t get at home, and they rely on travel writers to tell them how to find them.” As the landscape of publishing continues to change, those publishers—and writers—who survive will be the ones who figure out how to work with, rather than against, the changing publishing landscape.
The Travel Blog
Many travel writers have opted to join an online community, sharing their travel tales on sites such as Maptia or even starting their own travel blogs, which could be monetized through sponsorship and advertising. Jodi Ettenberg, who originally started her travel blog LegalNomads, as a way for her mother to follow her travels, says blogs are “[a] way to communicate… [with] other ancillary components for some bloggers—sponsorship, advertising, etc.—that traditional travel writers writing pieces for magazines or papers didn’t have to deal with. If you are a good writer, you can choose to write in a variety of ways, and a blog is one of them.” David Miller, senior editor of Matador, worries, however, that this practice isn’t good for the writing, though he admits that “the fact people are able to support themselves through successful travel blogs (setting up advertising deals, doing custom content for clients) is pretty interesting.” He says that monetizing the travel blog is “right at the center of ‘the future of travel media’ conversation,” and therefore part of the travel writing curriculum at MatadorU, an online program for travel writing, photography, and filmmaking.
Travel Writing and Photography
Being both a writer and photographer can work for and against the travel writer. I started taking pictures on my travels to help me remember the images for the writing. This paid off when a fact checker from a national magazine called me to ask how I knew that the top Mongolian wrestler won a color television set. I said, “Because I saw them give him the TV.” She asked me the same question again, and I repeated my answer, “I saw it, with my own eyes.” That wasn’t good enough. So I finally said, “I have a picture. Do you want me to send it?” She did, and we were done—fact successfully checked. It was then that I realized I needed to record things not just in my journal but also in my camera.
But then an interesting thing happened. The magazine decided that they didn’t want an article about Mongolia but a photo gallery instead. This came as a surprise because I never considered myself a photographer and didn’t even really know how my camera worked. Since then, I have intentionally worked on my travel photography, as a separate thing from the writing, and then if a magazine wants a shot, and some do, I have images at the ready. And some journals, particularly those online, want the writer to provide his or her own images. Miller says, “One important thing to keep in mind is that while pro photography may take special talent, training, and expensive equipment, ultimately you can get away with imagery for the internet simply by getting into the practice of taking shots via smartphone. The key is just having imagery, period.” While it’s true that imagery can be key, that is only sometimes the case. This is a tricky issue, because if you tell a magazine you are both a writer and a photographer, you might seem like an amateur at both, a hack who has not specialized in anything. I never offer photographs up-front, but if I am asked for them, I always have some to send.
Getting Published, Getting Paid
Travel writers follow a similar path to publication as any other kind of writer, which means determination and hard work. Anytime you think that a writer “came out of nowhere,” you should probably do your research. Most writers have practiced their craft for a long time before you ever hear of them. The same is true for the travel writer. Before “getting paid to travel the world,” writers put in years of work, often taking classes and degrees, attending conferences and workshops, reading widely and deeply, networking with other writers, and most importantly, sitting the seat of their pants in the seat of the chair and writing.
Once the writing has been fully attended to and is ready for the world, the best way to get travel writing published is to start small. Brown says, “Work the publishing food chain. Start with local and regional publications. Almost every community has a free newspaper or magazine devoted to culture, recreation, and nightlife; these are good places for beginners to get published. The pay can be very low, but when you’re starting out, getting paid is not the point, getting published is. Once you’ve had success getting published in these types of magazines, you can move up to national magazines.” Another way to break into publishing is to submit to online travel magazines. Because they run more material than print magazines, they tend to be less competitive. Online journals that publish travel articles include Matador, GoNomad, World Hum, Nowhere, Transitions Abroad, and Vela (women writers only). The rate of pay is generally lower for online publications, $25 to $100 dollars on average, but publishing online can help a writer to quickly build a platform, especially because the article is easily shared on social media sites.
Before and after publication, the travel writer is also responsible for marketing herself. According to Brown, if you want to sell your travel writing, you are going to have to spend at least one hour a day “sending query letters to publishers, researching markets for your pieces, updating your website and other digital media, and so on. That one hour per day is what leads to a paycheck.” If a writer puts in many years of hard work, makes the right contacts with editors, and markets herself, she can expect to make between $10k to $20k a year from magazines. A writer just starting out should expect to make no more than $1k to $3k per year, and that would mean pitching a large number of magazine stories, and actually being paid for two to six stories, which is a large number for someone new to the business. An editor is not going to go with an unknown writer for a $2,000-dollar feature, so the travel writer must first put in her time, make contacts, and prove herself, which means, as Brown says, starting small.
And when entering the business, McLain stresses the importance of being professional. He says, “My advice on getting any work as a writer can be summed up in two words: Be professional.” This includes communicating with your publisher and editor, responding to email messages and phone calls within twenty-four hours, and meeting your deadlines. The writer who meets deadlines is the one who will get the next assignment. In order to build positive working relationships with your editors, McLain suggests that “If the deadlines are unrealistic or you think you’ll be late, communicate that to your editor in advance. Show that you can work collaboratively. Follow the guidelines and meet the expectations of your editor. If you don’t agree with what your editor is asking you to do, explain your reasoning. While this may be a passion project for you, your editor needs to meet the expectations of the publisher, the marketing team, and ultimately, the reader. That means your work will be more heavily edited than a more personal piece of writing like a poem, short story, or memoir.” Once a piece goes into production, the writing becomes a partnership between the author and the editor, and chances are, the editor knows more about the audience than the writer does. Being too attached and not wanting to make suggested cuts or changes does not serve the writer, the work, or the reader.
For me, travel writing has not so much been a way to make money but a way to combine the two things I love: travel and writing. When I asked Keith Bellows how many of the National Geographic Traveler writers make the numbers add up in terms of their income, he said, “Many of our writers teach.” One benefit that the travel writer enjoys in terms of teaching is that teaching travel writing is more fun than teaching general composition. Not only do you get to explore the world, you also get to talk about writing with motivated and inquisitive students.
At the end of the term, I ask my students again where they would like their writing to go; now their answers vary: some want to write better descriptions of places they have traveled to hand down to their children or grandchildren; some want to start their own travel blog or have a travel piece published in the local newspaper; others would like to publish their work someday in order to connect to other travelers. Some of them want to do what I do—write but also teach travel writing, which is a great gig not only because it’s a fun class to teach, but it makes the college administration happy because the class usually fills to capacity—who wouldn’t want to learn how to travel the world and get paid for it?
But more than anything, I get to watch my students become better writers and better travelers; students cultivate their curiosity. They become better at observation and more open to the stories of each place. And even if they don’t make a living as a travel writer or even publish an article in their local newspaper, they will get more from their travels, because they will have learned to notice and interpret the small wonders of each new place.
List of Resources for Getting Started
- Book Passage Travel Writers’ Conference: http://www.bookpassage.com/travel-writers-photographers-conference
- GoNomad: http://www.gonomad.com/
- Maptia: https://maptia.com/
- Matador: http://matadornetwork.com/
- Nowhere: http://nowheremag.com/
- Q and A with Travel Writers on Rolf Potts’s Vagabonding: http://www.rolfpotts.com/writers/profiles.php
- Transitions Abroad: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/information/writers/writers.shtml
- Vela: http://velamag.com/
- World Hum: http://www.worldhum.com/
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry, including Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel. She was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, and her work has been published in many journals and anthologies, including The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, Tahoe Blues, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information may be found on her website at www.suzanneroberts.net.