Home » Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer

Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer

I write for a living; I am a writer by occupation. Not a travel writer, specifically, I’m “just” a writer. I sit at a keyboard, put words in a certain order to describe things, and then, I get paid. On technical projects, where I make most of my money, I’m paid by the hour. Rather well, I must say, and no, I’m not going to publish my rate here, please don’t ask. I do a little bit of copy editing, I’m paid hourly for that, too. Someone sends me a bunch of sentences, I move the words around and try to make them better. I’m pretty good at it, though I’m a lousy proof-reader, meaning it’s best you find someone else to scrub your documents for typos and grammar nits. When I have regular clients, I make a decent living, enough to pay for a mortgage and groceries and overpriced health insurance and the day to day stuff that a life lived mostly in one place is made of.

I also do some travel writing. Just over there sits a check for a short piece I wrote last month; and oh, I’m overdue on invoicing that site I write for regularly, and I have a magazine assignment related to a trip I’m doing this summer. That work pays poorly; my best gig right now pays 25c/word with no additional compensation for photos. I would be unable to pay my bills were I to pursue that line of work full time. I do it on the side because I enjoy it.

Sometimes, like over this last month, I need to focus on the bill-paying work, and the work that I enjoy suffers. I can’t do both things well at the same time, so I choose, in a tactical move, to focus on doing the work that pays well. I negotiate for understanding with my other markets. The best editors understand they’re not paying me well enough to demand my full attention. Those who can’t offer me that kind of flexibility find someone else — in my cynical moments I figure they’ve found someone who doesn’t need to be paid well for their time.

I spend a few hours every week reading blogs written by travelers. I enjoy it, I enjoy finding new writers, I love seeing where people are going and what they’re saying about it. My favorite bloggers are typically expats who really dig into writing about their location, but sometimes, I’ll find travelers who can keep my interest during their travels. Those travelers are most often people who are striving to become better writers, who are not just documenting their adventures. They head out into the world, carving out their identities as writers, the travel is sometimes secondary to the writing. Forgive the hairsplitting, but they seem to be traveling writers, rather than claiming they’re travel writers. There is a difference and if you spend any time reading, you’ll see it.

Recently, I read a piece by a blogger who had done the thing so many hope will launch them — quit the day job, gone traveling, started a blog, jumped on the well worn path of pursing the career of Travel Writer. This blogger was feeling a bit frustrated, like it was not coming to fruition, like there were no good answers, like Things Were Not Coming Together. The blogger in question is a decent writer, I’ve been following along for a while and been consistently engaged. And I really felt for this person, too. “Oh, honey,” I thought. “Don’t quit your day job.”

There’s a lot of flowery rhetoric out there about how to make money as a travel writer/travel blogger. I call bullshit on most of it. It sits on top of a layer of crappy writing or affiliate sales programs or specious get rich quick e-Books. You can pay for membership in echo-chamber forums where you’ll receive the same information you can get for free by doing a few targeted Google searches. You can engage in skeevy ad schemes (“Just publish it under a guest poster’s name, no one will know it’s you!” — Actual Ad Pitch) or you can sign away your rights to networks that promise you traffic bonuses and visibility. You can devote your energy to writing copy that Google loves or you can bait controversy for the traffic gains. If you’re really willing to slog, you can apply to write a guidebook and sign away several months of your life to “seeing everything, experiencing nothing” — as a friend at Lonely Planet put it. You can follow that up with months of tedious documentation, and then, oh, don’t calculate your hourly rate, that way lies madness.

Next month is the Travelblog Exchange (TBEX), a conference for travel bloggers. I had dearly wanted there to be some kind of reality check discussion, not because I want to depress hopeful writers, but because I wanted to blow away some of that fiction around what it really means to be a travel writer by profession. X1, who writes for a prestigious publication and travels a lot has told me, “Yeah, it’s great. I love the work. But I’m poor. I live in a tiny apartment.” X2 admitted to winning big in the technology lottery and living off those funds. X3 has a full time day job and a spouse with a full time day job. X4 admits to churning out fluffy, uninteresting stories for custom publication markets.

The folks I know who are full time freelance travel writers are in a continuous cycle of pitch, write, edit, research, travel, repeat. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not clear to me that money is that good. I know a few staffers, too, and you know what? They’re just like your friends with day jobs. They have meetings and process and office politics and frustrations. Sure, they get to go some places, but so does the outside sales guy, and he doesn’t have to see his story eviscerated before it goes to press.

What I wanted at TBEX was a session that presented the reality of writing as a profession, not as a quixotic pursuit or a weekend hobby or gap year boondoggle. Admittedly, I wanted this for myself as much as anything. Because I struggle with what I do (what is that, anyways?) all the time. I wanted to hear people who I think of as grown up, professional travel writers speak honestly about how they juggle all this stuff, how they manage to make it work. I’m always grateful for time with writers who will share, honestly, how they get by — a recent conversation revealed a writer’s need to sell multiple stories about one destination with every trip in order to make the travel pay off. “I can’t go just because I want to. I need to sell that story five times over to have it be worth my while.”

[Note added Sun, 5:21pm: Kim Mance, the mistress of TBEX, states in the comments below that these topics are, indeed part of the TBEX agenda. Just in case you don't see her response in all the conversation that follows.]

There are those who have made the jump to an itinerant lifestyle, bugging out to places where the low pay is enough, effectively outsourcing this work to places where 30 dollars goes much further than it does in my chosen home. That’s not something I’m willing to do. And keep in mind some basic math — even were I to make 1000/month blogging, I could not live on my annual income. There are also some who manage to generate a decent income, but they have a highly targeted market, they have a sophisticated understanding of what the web likes, they are backing up all their words with the sale of a product or service that people want to buy. Having none of those things, I don’t expect to live off the first person scribblings of this blog.

I have only my skill as a writer, such as it is, and it would be naive of me to believe that is enough. No, I also need a deep understanding of the market for the kind of writing I want to sell, the ability to package myself and my work as desirable, and the time to do exactly that. Ironically, it’s my understanding of what it takes to be a full time travel writer that keeps me from pursuing it full time.

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129 Responses to “Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer”

  1. [...] just read a thought-provoking post that delves into what makes you a travel writer over at Nerd’s Eye View. The author debates whether or not people who call themselves “travel writers” are [...]

  2. Lola says:

    Very poignant piece Pam and certainly lots of food for thought.

    However, I did want to chime in because I see two distinct sides to this post.

    On the one hand, I agree with you that people should, in essence, do due diligence when finding out what it is they really want to do with their lives.

    And on the other hand, one of the things I’ve quickly realized in life is that everyone does have their own path to follow.

    One can draw inspiration from various sources, but ultimately what I’ve learned is to try not to compare my path to that of others. Something that isn’t naturally easy to do, I know.

    I can state reasons why I’m a writer or photographer or artist or programmer or whatever without indirectly saying someone else’s path in life – be it “travel blogging”, “travel writing”, selling ads, whatever rocks their boat, isn’t up to par.

    Personally, I didn’t quit my day job (which was pretty sweet and also included technical writing – strategic plans/scopes/tech manuals/user guides in addition to actual software development) until I felt I’d gathered a bit of traction. And even that bit of traction still requires diversifying skill sets, finding good clients, and putting in the hard work.

    Personally, I’m just trying to balance learning Swedish and local integration with constant travel and assignments.

    What works for others certainly may not work for you and me.

    I value hard work. And anyone who works hard and honestly to achieve their dreams (whatever it may be) certainly should be commended – whether they sell ads, “won in the technology lottery” based on years of hardwork they put in upfront, or are simply carving it out as they go.

    • pam says:

      I’m totally with you, Lola. Also, I HOPE you don’t think I’m saying anyone else’s path isn’t suitable — only that in some cases, there be monsters. Go prepared. Talk to the cranky old traveler by the gate post, first, and then, hey, it’s your call.

      Though I stand by my generic “Don’t quit your day job” advice, at least not until they’ve done exactly what you did: Got traction.

      The idea of due diligence, though, here’s a funny thing: My career, such as it is, is a testament to the lack of diligence.

      I won’t claim to be a self taught writer, I learned under the tutelage of editors in other topics. I took one writing class. I went to a writer’s conference that left me no more informed than the day I walked in the door. That’s about the extent of my due diligence. Had I done the research, it’s likely I’d not have bothered. You’re SO right about this, but also, I’d like to audition for the role of exception to that rule.

      I’m accidental in my day job too, I needed work, there was an opportunity, I said yes, and now, I’ve been a freelance tech writer for more than 10 years.

  3. [...] not at my house). And now, with TBEX looming and Pam Mandel’s recent, thought-provoking post “Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer”, it seems like a good time to update my experiences and thoughts on Lonely Planet guidebook work in [...]

  4. I think that this not only goes for travel writers but a lot of other industries as well. Though there are actually people making money(few)most are TRYING to make money by selling the idea that you CAN make money even though they are not making money.

    • “most are TRYING to make money by selling the idea that you CAN make money ”

      BINGO. That’s the stuff I call bullshit on. Just for grins, I looked to see what Don George’s Travel Writing book costs. It’s 10.00 from Amazon. And Tim Leffel’s? 15.00. These guys are the real deal. Compare that with the eBook from the someone I met last month? The price? $100. Um.

  5. [...] better?  Sigh.  If only. But, as Pam (AKA “Nerd’s Eye View) writes in a post entitled “Why I’m not a full-time Travel Writer”, once you’re on the inside, you realize that the reality is quite different from the [...]

  6. Pam –
    LOVED this post — so much so that I riffed on in today on our blog: http://undecidedthebook.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/slaying-the-green-eyed-monster-or-hoping-to/
    Your post is a great example of one of the themes of our book, grass-is-greener syndrome, which tends to hit so many of us, especially when it comes to the big questions of what to do with our lives. It’s not that we shouldn’t follow our dreams, but we need to realize that nothing is perfect — no matter how great it looks from the outside — and that there are always trade-offs involved.
    Our book, “Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career — and Life — that’s Right for you” explores the impact of the illusion of unlimited options on today’s women — and suggests some strats for changing perspectives.
    thanks for your post. bk

  7. Amen, lady. In the end I’ve come to realize that I’m doing this because I love it – not because I expect to get paid for it. Of course, it’s still a pipe dream I hold on to … just not very tightly. :)

  8. Sunee says:

    A very well written piece, thought-provoking and eye-opening. I struggled with the urge to quit it all and become a travel writer and thank goodness I never did! I’m slowly shifting my thoughts from “maybe something will come of it” to “I’m doing this because I love it and to hell with the rest”. My regular job pays well, well enough to allow me to travel often enough to keep me motivated and the writing/journaling of those travels will remain a hobby that gives intense satisfaction only.

  9. Hope says:

    Pam I read your post when you first tweeted it. When I came back, it had over 100 comments so I saved it to read the rest! I think your point– “You have got to have a Plan B until Plan A comes to fruition”– is a really strong one. As a new writer, I know that carving out a certain niche, even if it’s one I like, should give me focus. But I’ve realized that “niche-ism” actually gives me tunnel vision. I would have missed out on other opportunities for diversifying income had I not taken advantage of gigs outside the travel and tourism markets. I guess what I’m adding is that as much as I’d like to have a Plan A and Plan B, in the end Plan C worked out even better.

  10. I loved this article and all the comments with it, it certainly explains why I am not a full time travel writer. (although perhaps my approach to writing is quite similar to my approach to travel … lazy!)

  11. [...] – Why I’m not a full-time travel writer on Nerd’s Eye View [...]

  12. [...] is the case for writers of certain publications, the reality of the situation is that most aspiring travel writers work way really hard for little pay.  For every Rolf Potts or Leif Peterson, there are hundreds of freelancers making the equivalent [...]

  13. [...] is the case for writers of certain publications, the reality of the situation is that most aspiring travel writers work way really hard for little pay.  For every Rolf Potts or Leif Peterson, there are hundreds of freelancers making the equivalent [...]

  14. Tim L. says:

    Hopefully everyone wanting to be a travel writer—and especially a blogger—will read this and the comments beforehand so they’ll have reasonable expectation. And beyond selfish reasons, I hope people will read the Travel Writing 2.0 book. Then they can understand how money is made at this in the modern age, not how it was made 20 years ago. (Thanks for the plug Spencer!)

    “my skill as a writer” has almost never been the determining factor though for earning money. That has always come from being good at marketing and being great at generating ideas. Anyone with a reasonable level of education can be a writer—zero barriers to entry. Only a few have the skills, determination, and patience to turn that into a good living. That was true in the print-dominated world, it’s even more true now in the digital age.

    Yes, you can make good money at this and I have done so for years, but it’s real work, like most anything worth succeeding at in life.

  15. [...] the case for writers of certain publications, the reality of the situation is that most aspiring travel writers work way really hard for little pay.  For every Rolf Potts or Leif Peterson, there are hundreds of freelancers making the equivalent [...]

  16. [...] But travel-writing is far shakier a prospect as a source of income. Better writers than I have decided against it, and the intrepid few that do it are very honest about its shortcomings as a profession. Sometimes [...]

  17. reuben says:

    Aah…dreams mixed with a perception of reality in this post. Always makes for interesting reading. It seems that you already have the writing skills necessary to get paid handsomely. You’ve even identified the need for specific knowledge which is easier to acquire than the skills youve already developed. Would always be encouraging to see people “just go for it”. I guess we’ll see. Thank you for the insight nonetheless.

  18. Linda says:

    Thank God to see someone talking sense for once! Years ago I too thought becoming a travel writer was the be all and end all… then I looked more into it (before selling up and hitting the road) and realised it paid next to nothing. I still gave it a go, just to see, then when I was offered a total of $3000 (about 1700 pounds at the time) to write a guidebook for London that included 200 restaurant reviews all to be paid by me (including 30 high-end joints) I decided to take a different tack… and asked them were they having a laugh.

    So, instead I’ve put the effort into finding sites that pay really well – even though I’ve sold my soul and sometimes write about topics that would make watching paint dry unbelievably appealing – but that’s the trade. It means I can get to write about what I want – travel – but am financed by the other writing. Means I probably won’t ever be a full time travel writer, but that’s ok… all these years later I don’t want to be a full time anything!

  19. [...] to pay off. We had a conversation last year – in the comments section of this post on why she is not a full-time travel writer – where I told her that I thought she was on the verge of breaking into some big markets. She [...]

  20. Esther says:

    Expats have a job and can write without marketing in mind.
    (just read your other post)
    To follow or not follow (you)?

  21. I love this piece–the let-me-tell-you-how-it-is frankness. I think the idea of travel writing is so glamorized. I know it seems very noble and brave to say “the hell with it!” and storm out of one’s corporate career to pursue a dream as a travel writer, but I’m actually sort of ashamed to admit that I love my career working for a Fortune 100 Company with long hours and a crazy travel schedule. I’m in communications and am a writer at heart, but now I’m a Director with 11 direct reports, lots of meetings and no end in site of really catching up with email, BUT I LOVE IT! Crazy, I know. I just started travel writing (of sorts–I actually think of myself as a writer of experiences or story telling, to use an over-used expression in travel writing these days) because I missed the writing about things I love. So now, it’s turned into a bit of an epic hobby, where I’m writing two separate blogs each weekend just so that I can “leave the office.” Maybe one day when my husband and I retire I can monetize it a little and supplement retirement. But for now I’m really loving the perks I’m getting from Corporate America (v. nice salary, all those frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rental points, etc.) that funds my travel. For me, I might be a little ashamed about it, but I ain’t poor.

  22. 30Traveler says:

    I respect what you’re saying here. Sometimes it all seems like a pyramid scheme.

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