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How To Become a Travel Writer in 20 Messy Steps

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  1. Be a bookish child. Have a preference for the kinds of books that involve maps. If it’s Tolkien, it’s not your fault, you’re of a certain generation.
  2. As a young teenager, discover you have a gift for language. Ace French until you’re bored to tears, switch to Spanish, annoying your Spanish teacher who will tell you he can’t give you an A because you don’t come to class. Have your teacher recommend you for foreign exchange in spite of your obvious “issues” with school. When you ask for Spain (after all, you’re acing Spanish) get sent to Sweden instead because your Youth for Understanding councilor thinks you’ll find Spain a bit too… conservative.
  3. Spend a summer in Sweden drinking beer, sometimes kissing a Swedish boy, sometimes learning wacky regional Swedish. Get the fever for travel, get it bad. Cram massive amounts of text on to the paper thin aerogrammes you send back home.
  4. Scrape your way through high school and, as a graduation present from your Dad, get shipped off to work on a kibbutz for the summer because it’s “what the tribe does.”Β  Your fever for travel uncured, extend your stay until you sign up to learn Hebrew, and meet a bad English boyfriend who also loves to travel. Master wicked street Hebrew, but never learn to properly read or write. Cram massive amounts of text on to the paper thin aerogrammes you send back home.
  5. Run out your visa and return to the US to work in order to save enough money to get out of the US again. Obnoxiously declare “abroad” superior to the US. With your savings, buy a ticket to London where the bad English boyfriend lives. Cram massive amounts of text on to the paper thin aerogrammes you send back home.
  6. Work out an insane scheme to travel overland through Europe, then get to India via Pakistan. Do exactly this in the company of the bad English boyfriend. Through Pakistan. In the 80s. Have the kind of adventures that years later, you won’t believe are real even though you did them and still have the curved edged photos to prove it.* Cram massive amounts of text on to the paper thin aerogrammes you send back home.
  7. Ditch the bad English boyfriend and go back to the US with a wicked case of traveler’s gut, skinny as a rail, culture shocked as fuck, and angry. Cry in the shampoo aisle at the supermarket because how can there be so many kinds of shampoo. Take a good two, three, years to wrangle your life into a kind of meaningful state while riding a bike everywhere and applying to art school.
  8. Meet a guy who loves to travel as much as you do. Get married, do a fair bit of traveling, graduate from art school with honors. After graduation, travel around Europe for a while, first with the husband then solo, hanging out in Portugal for a while to make art. Make lasting friendships with fellow travelers. Cram massive amounts of text on to the postcards you send back home. Go back to the US to do … something.
  9. Get divorced when it becomes apparent that your fever for travel (and a number of other mitigating factors) mean you and your spouse just don’t have the same view of what life should look like. Move to Seattle. Watch your international travel budget collapse because you’re always strapped for cash, but don’t find that particularly crippling because you live in the Pacific Northwest, a region that is full of marvelous places to see and play outside. Ease up a little on the snottiness about the US because the PNW, man, it’s great; you can get a close enough hit of “travel” without getting on a plane.
  10. Catch the dot com wave when it arrives and get a gig at Microsoft as a caption writer when it turns out your ability to squeeze a meaningful text into small space is a marketable skill. Work on a variety of contract gigs that pay more than you ever imagined making after art school. Spend your free time hiking, riding a bike, and generally playing in the outdoors.
  11. Say ‘no’ to your friend when he invites you on a trip across Australia. When he asks you what else you’re doing that’s so important, come to your senses and book a flight to Brisbane. Meet another traveler and fall hopelessly in love.Β  Cram massive amounts of text on to the postcards you send back home.
  12. Embark on what any sensible person would call a ridiculous commuter relationship between a small town in Austria and your home in Seattle, and do so just as this thing called “blogging” is taking off. Stop cramming text on to paper and start cramming it on to “the Internet.” During your stints in Austria, get a few stories published, here and there. Ponder the idea of being paid to do what you’ve been doing since you were 16.
  13. Through the magical networking powers of the web, get a referral to write a guidebook to the Hawaiian Islands. Say yes even though the math is terrible, because… travel writing! Take on another guidebook after that, one to British Columbia even though the math is terrible because…travel writing! Continue to write for your blog because it’s fun. Publish the occasional travel story here and there; it’s early days on the web so find it’s not that hard to land a story if you just do a little research.
  14. Become, accidentally, an early adopter of a practice that later becomes a juggernaut of marketing in travel, a thing called “travel blogging.” Have a session proposal rejected by BlogHer, a giant women’s blogging conference, for being “too niche” but later, present on that same topic at SxSW to a packed room. Continue to write for your blog because it’s fun.
  15. Meet all the players in travel and the web simply because the space is so new that everyone’s trying to figure it out. Get invited to speak and teach at blogging conferences. Find your tiny blog is surprisingly well respected and have that lead to all kinds of crazy possibilities — a trip to Antarctica, a safari in East Africa, and also, actual paid writing gigs. Build lasting relationships with like-minded editors and writers who share your values and appreciate your style. Enjoy the early adopter edge even while you don’t know that it is rapidly slipping away as a monster named Google shadows the horizon, shifting the landscape from a creative free for all to one designed to appease the Google monster over all other masters.
  16. Decry the exploitation of “new media” for marketing and search even while you don’t understand that you’ve been a pawn in that scheme. While refusing to adopt them, become increasingly versed in the less-than-ethical tactics of buying popularity and gaming traffic on social media, because a) social media is now an inseparable part of being on the web and b) popularity is the number one determiner of value in the marketplace. Watch the traffic for your own little blog enter gradual decline as hundreds of blogs become thousands of blogs become literally millions of blogs. Wonder if the people you call sell-outs and hacks and pyramid schemers and a number of other things it wouldn’t be polite to list didn’t have it right with their unethical tactics. Rather than being associated with the terms “well respected blogger,” migrate to being associated with the terms “Get Off My Lawn.” Lose friends and professional contacts over this, fearlessly (or stupidly, depending on who you ask) burning a very public bridge with TBEX, the best known travel blogging conference*. Emotionally divest yourself from the blogger cons, rationalizing that if you wanted to be a marketer, you’d have taken that path long ago.
  17. After a year or three of bouncing between intermittent anger that the medium you love has become the equivalent of the kid that’s good at math going into dealing crack and accepting that the medium isn’t the message, it’s what you do with it that’s the message, realize that the whole time, you’ve been following a respectable career path, go figure. Look back at your portfolio — you have a portfolio that includes some fairly fancy magazines and newspapers and you’ve done some very good work for your own blog, work you’re proud of. That regional visitor’s bureau didn’t hire you because you had a zillion “impressions.” That boutique creative agency didn’t hire you because you had good “engagement.” Nope. Those folks — and many of your other projects — wanted insightful, well researched writing. Finally understand that monitization — making money from blogging — isn’t just about getting paid to be a marketing shill or an affiliate retailer. It can also be about creating a showcase for your skills.
  18. Find an uneasy peace with the idea that, as unconventional as your route and some of the work you’ve done is, you accomplished what you set out to do: you became a travel writer. Occasionally write something for your blog because you feel like it and it’s fun, but more often focus on well paid projects that you’re surprised and delighted to find yourself working on.
  19. Realize that you’ve squandered far too much time overthinking it. You have a deadline for a glossy magazine and this stuff isn’t going to write itself.
  20. Get back to work.

Oh, hi. Are you here from WordPress? Did you read the whole thing and you’re STILL HERE? Wow. Okay, a few bits of advice, because a few people have asked.

  • Read this book: If you really want to be a travel writer, I recommend The Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing. Yes, that’s an affiliate link, I get a few nickels if you buy, but your price is the same.
  • Attend this conference: I teach at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in California. It’s not cheap, but it’s small and you will get a great deal of personal attention from seasoned writers and photogs who will — get this — honestly answer your questions. I think that’s rare and it’s why I recommend it. I wish I could give you a discount code or something, but nope.
  • Follow this program: There are a bunch of blogging conferences and sure, you could pick one and you’d probably meet some great people and hear some decent talks. But if you want to be a professional blogger, save your money and read everything Darren Rowse publishes. Problogger has been around for a good long time and knows what’s what. This isn’t some fictional lifehack crap, this is tactical blogging for those that want to go pro. (FYI, I did not use this method and I am not a financially successful blogger, but also, that wasn’t my goal.)

Anything I missed? In the comments, please, or via Twitter (@nerdseyeview) — I’ll answer what I can.

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108 thoughts on “How To Become a Travel Writer in 20 Messy Steps

  1. I loved this list. Most “how to” essays are not that honest and insightful about how hard doing something so different really is. Unfortunately, I will never be able to follow that prescribed path (having been born at the beginning of the .com bubble), but I will try to find my own that will let me write and travel. Thank you for sharing!

    • Yeah, I think there’s a lot of tactical stuff that just isn’t helpful. I’m not being particularly helpful either, but that’s kind of my point. That said, there are some very practical skills that might have helped me shortcut some of this nonsense; it would have been useful for me to understand how to pitch a story LONG ago. But so it goes.

      Thank YOU for reading.

  2. Hey, this is so brilliant to read. I’ve just started writing a travel blog, it’s about 6 months old now, and I’ve found myself unwittingly over-thinking what I write to pander to marketers etc. But I’ve tried to distance myself from that. I just want to write πŸ™‚ Nice to read about someone with similar thoughts! Very envious of your career by the way, I’d love to achieve similar success.

  3. How many of us out there sit and dream of traveling this big, beautiful world of ours, write about, photograph it and then get paid for it??? I like the idea that as far back as my bookish childhood my parents made me study atlases. I never thought that could’ve been my first step to travel blogging! All that aside, I am new to your blog. I know I will find incredible inspiration to pick up and see that beautiful world, no matter how close or far from home that may take me, even if I never get paid for it. xoxoxo

    • Close to home is hugely under-rated. It’s good to love where you live, but also, when you live in a place you can write about it in much deeper ways. Godspeed.

  4. Nothing wrong with Bad English Boys! Anyhoo…..
    Loved reading this. So entertaining and emotive! Made me feel like putting my trousers on and getting out there!
    Thankyou x

  5. Thanks. Fun read, but I’m too old to start on that path. Nothing against marketing, but I see no reason for me to tie my writing string to a marketing string.

  6. I love your style of writing. When I clicked on the article I thought it would be one of those preachy, do’s and don’ts kind of article but I was pleasantly surprised. Loved it!:)

  7. Such a glorious life! I’m 19 and a long time sufferer of travel fever. However I’ve only recently developed a real interest in photography. My parents bought me a Lumix G7 for christmas and I haven’t put it down since – since then I’ve had a photograph published by National Geographic and recently received an email from El Pais which has really encouraged me to keep going. The difficulty nowadays is being original – everyone seems to have done everything, and unfortunately doing anything everyone hasn’t done involves a great deal of money. I’m trying to teach myself more about my camera and potentially invest in some lenses. I’ve been enrolling in endless online competitions to try and scrape together some money to fund these lenses or some form of travel. So far I’ve used my student loan to book flights to Norway in September, in the mean time I’m trying my best to improve upon my photography in preparation and I would really appreciate any advice!

    • I don’t recommend anyone going into debt to travel, so there’s that, take it for what it’s worth. But don’t get caught up in everyone’s done everything, been everywhere, either. I don’t know you, but I’m sure there’s a story that only you can tell because of who you are, what interests you, how you see the world. Also, my career advice is useless, pretty much, but I would advise studying the work of those you love. I think there’s a lot of confusion in travel around making a distinction between “I love your work” and “I want your life.” Start with “I love your work” and focus on learning from THOSE people. If you want their life, well, that’s nice for THEM, but they’ll rarely tell you how much they had in the bank when they started, that their spouse has a day job and pays for everything, that they had no student loans… Learn from the people who make work you love. That’s my advice and I hope you find it helpful.

  8. I initially skipped through the post because I thought it was too long, but my curiosity got the better of me. Really happy that I spent the time reading it. It’s amazing!!

    I loved the post!

    Cheers!

  9. Read all the way to the end as I thought it was really interesting. Sounds like my dream job! Do you know of any conferences in the UK?

  10. An absorbing rant, highlighting a very interesting career in travel writing. Just having entered the blogging world a year and a half ago, I’ve been quite disillusioned by #16, not that I had expected anything better. What never fails to amaze me, however, is how there are so many people who want #20 without having gone through any of the previous numbers in whatever shape or form they would have taken if these individuals had ever set out to have some sort of experience before setting pen to paper. This causes many rants in my own head, but in the end I’m forced to acknowledge how important #16 is, and really it’s just a modern twist on “journalism” with a lot more people in the mix.

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “it’s just a modern twist on journalism.” I suppose journalism has, historically, had its fair share of trashiness, I’m looking at you William Randolph Hearst, if that’s where you were going. But I also think about how we have decades of learning from mass media behind us, but we choose to engage in the same sins even though the tools allow us the opportunity to be So Much Better.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a thinky comment.

  11. Hi Pam — I spent some time digging into your site, your LinkedIn profile (I’m not creepy, I swear) and I’m pleased to see someone doing so much cool stuff, stuff I’d like to do myself. Kudos to presenting yourself and your work in such a well thought-through, personable fashion. And I’m a Seattleite too! We just spent nine months in Europe (my wife, two kids) and we’re back now, a mid-career/mid-life ‘figure it all out’ thing, trying to well, figure it out. Cheers to you and yours, Bill Pearse

    • Well, all that stuff is linked to from my profile, so I’m not gonna call it stalky, let’s call it curious and a little flattering, plus, you left me your full name, so hi, Bill. Thanks for reading.

  12. “Continue to write for your blog because it’s fun.” I think this in itself is enough (except when you need to pay the bills, of course). A great read, and not the least boring, even when it’s hellish long πŸ˜€

    • I absolutely need to pay the bills, I’m the main breadwinner at my house and I have a mortgage. I write for my blog in addition to doing work that pays the bills; I think that’s pretty common.

  13. Lol – fluid, accessible style, delicious, underhanded humor – a win! Thanks for sharing. My travelling days may be on hiatus (this baby boomer has worked her way through your list in decades past), but I’m signing on for the ride!

  14. “Cry in the shampoo aisle at the supermarket because how can there be so many kinds of shampoo.” Hehe, this made me smile! Cool summary of a life-time journey!

    • I’ve written a lot about home, too. Traveling is great and I really love it and I’m not going to deny that I’m super lucky to get to have it be part of my life. But I write when I can’t afford to travel — which is often. I won’t tell you that there’s always a way to travel, but you can always find travel-y things to write about, that I believe is possible.

  15. “Nerd’s Eye View” catchy and cute.
    Fast and fun.
    He wasn’t “bad” he was misunderstood….But that’s my story; not yours.
    Travel to the Camden Daffodil Festival and meet the Bad Boy. Give me a nice review on my yard. Give me writing advice.
    Send it home in a blog.

  16. I didn’t get the opportunity to travel until later in life, but now I am obsessed. I have made it a priority to help my kids travel because I think it adds a maturity and understanding of the world that you just can’t get from a history book.

  17. Really enjoyed reading this. Informative, well-written, and funny. Looks like there isn’t a “like” option.

  18. It seems like you’ve got a lot of cool stories to tell! Thanks for the tips, and keep up the good posts πŸ˜€

    I’m currently blogging my way around Europe, and have been for the last 5 months. Maybe I’ll take inspiration from you during my travels!

  19. Hi Pam,
    you hit on something I have realised only recently. If you like doing something then find the way to do it and let it bring you personal happiness. The way you describe your adventure so far makes a great read. Thanks for this!

    • I’m *not* a “do work you love and money will follow” person, I’m more, find a way to do work you love, but it doesn’t have to be everything. That keeps me from going crazy when I have to do work I don’t love to pay the bills.

      Thank *you* for reading.

  20. ahahha. You got me there. I knew there was something (that feeling of “there hasssss to be something”) at the bottom of the 20 fat list.

    I read #1 and then #2 and skipped to the end. now that i do know there is something below.. πŸ™‚ i’m going back up to read the rest.

  21. Friends tell me “You should write…”
    Your life experiences mirror my own…
    Blogging may serve my purpose…
    Living the Life in Hawai’i.

  22. love this post πŸ™‚ get to the heart of what travel is about and reveals your experience as well. inspiring! check out my blog if you get a minute πŸ˜‰

  23. A bad -what ever language you speak-boyfriend is an essential to a budding travel nut. My favourite was a small town Dane who hid me under his bed when his
    Mother came to take him to church.

    I enjoyed your blog. Our hopes of popularity faded and were replaced with realism and the freedom to travel blog for the sake of chronicling our sabbatical.

  24. I really loved this piece! Only last night I found myself in tears because (ironically) the stress of writing a blog in this day and age on mindfulness for mums was making me a)less mindful b)more stressed c)less focused on my child! I decided to reprioritise, find my focus again, and do it for the love of it. As fate would have it, at that very moment an email popped through inviting me to write a feature piece. Then I read this and it made me smile and the similarities!
    Thank you for sharing 😊

  25. Love it… especially how in the mess of life going one way and another, your path unfolds. It seems like the point is to enjoy life, and let that lead you to what you enjoy… thanks!

  26. Such a great post! My uncle had a similar 80’s experience of hitchhiking over land through Europe and ending up in India. It sounds like the most exciting adventure. I’ve just started a blog of my experiences through Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia. I would love to be as successful as you, but I doubt I’ll ever reach the trials of #16!
    Thanks so much, really enjoyed it!

  27. What I love about this post is that, though we have never met, I feel like I know you (at least a small part of you). You’re writing is so raw and transparent – inspirational. You are exactly the type of writer that I want to be. I read this post all the way through TWICE (and let me tell you, it took a little time) and I will surely be reading your stories again! Thank you for the extra special “nerds eye view”!

  28. This was an interesting piece, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It goes to show that travel writing isn’t as smooth sailing as some people assume it is!

    Sam

  29. I loved reading your story. Honest and skillfully told. Love the bit about the Pacific Northwest, I haven’t found a more lovely part of a the world. Would you mind if I did a reblog with some response writing?

  30. I agree that there are so many ways to “travel” inside Seattle. Rainier Valley 98118 is one of the most diverse zip codes in America. There are so many urban exploring opportunities, and as you mentioned, the natural spaces are just as incredible. I feel pretty lucky, as I’m sure you do!

    • I guess I knew Rainier Valley was diverse but I did not know it qualified as one of the most so in the US. That’s cool. I have a friend who just moved there, so I’m going to be spending more time in that part of the city.

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