Top 10 travel writing tips

Top 10 travel writing tips

Travel writer and editor Spud Hilton at TBEX 12

10 steps to travel writing that engages

Report on Travel Writing seminar at TBEX 12

“If you just want to write about yourself, it’s not travel writing,” said Spud Hilton, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle travel section. “It’s called a memoir.” Spud was speaking with Stephanie Yoder of the travel blog Twenty Something Travel at the Travel Blogger’s Exchange conference, popularly known as TBEX, in Colorado, June 2012. Together, they were presenting the one and only travel writing seminar at TBEX, 10 Steps to Writing that Better Engages and Keeps Your Readers.

I had the pleasure of introducing the seminar, and I said that I thought it was the most important one on the agenda; and that without a story, you’ve got nothing. Like Spud and Stephanie, I feel strongly that quality writing is important, and that learning to tell a story is essential to being a travel writer / blogger.

What is quality travel writing / blogging? They started the seminar with this defintion:

  1. it meets the informational or emotional needs of the reader
  2. it entertains, informs or inspires the reader
  3. it satisfies the writer

Spud made a passionate plea to the audience to get them to rethink travel blogging: “You don’t want to just get readers, you want to keep them,” he said.  “They will get bored of you a lot faster than of the places you go. And remember that you grossly overestimate your ability to write about a place. When you were there, you experienced it with all five senses. But your readers don’t have that experience; they are using only one sense. You have to convey it.”

Travel writing and the art of the story: Have a point

Spud and Stephanie then went on to present their Top 10 travel writing tips — but to me, tip #1 seems to be the most important.

  1.  Have a point. Without a point (or premise) you are re-hashing your diary, Spud said. You need to make a bigger point than simply you were there. He gave the example of traveling in wine country and then writing a piece about what ELSE you can do there, aside from wine related activities.
  2. Prose is the frosting. The story is the cake. (See tip #1.) There’s no point in describing a setting if you don’t have a point.
  3. Understand structure. At the very least, you can use the standard five-section “essay” format: Lead, premise (aka nut or nut graph), scene 1, scene 2, scene 3, walk-off.
  4. Be unique or original. You are not the first person to go up the Eiffel Tower or even swim with sea lions in the Galapagos. You need to put a fresh spin on your travel experiences to make your writing fresh and engaging.
  5. Organize content in a digestible way. Break up text, add headings, use lists. Be succinct or be engaging.
  6. Cultivate a unique voice and personality. Travel bloggers, in particular, need to do this to stand out. It has been said many time, though perhaps especially by Gary Arndt, people follow personalities online.
  7. Be creative with context. In other words, if you want to express something like a measurement, use a compelling image or example. For example, instead of saying x cubic whatevers of water, say it was more than the combined flow of all the rivers of the world. To get creative measurements, type the measure into Google and “you will get something weird,” said Spud.
  8. Proofread your work. You cannot come off as a professional writer if your copy is full of typos and grammatical mistakes. Stephanie suggests reading your work aloud and having a second set of eyes look at it.
  9. Grab attention immediately! You need to grab the reader in seconds. The first paragraph is the most important. Give them a reason to care.
  10. Fact-check your work. “I cannot emphasize this enough,” said Spud. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” And don’t trust Wikipedia or the tourism industry. Check the facts you are given. You might not have to go to the lengths in this video below, but check everything out.

Finally, Stephanie and Spud’s plea for …

  • using “fewer” not “less,” if a specific number is involved
  • being accurate instead of using attribution (the word allegedly doesn’t protect anybody from anything)
  • reading William Zinsser “On Writing Well” and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”
  • not using a quote for a lead
  • using dialogue only if it advances the story (and be accurate, don’t make it up!)
  • understanding that good writing is important to blog readers
  • writing to intrigue people rather than writing for SEO
  • editing: you need an editor (try creating a partnership or circle of writers and editing each other’s work).

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31 Responses to Top 10 travel writing tips

  1. walkingon travels June 24, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    Thanks so much for this write up. I was in a different session that day. All great stuff for sure.

  2. Mariellen June 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    I know, there were a lot of great sessions to choose from — this one was excellent.

  3. Tammy June 24, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    I loved this session, simply because I loved the passion that Spud and Stephanie have for good writing and editing. I found myself nodding like a fool and tweeting like a fiend the entire time. (My favourite quote – and I’m likely biased, because I’m an editor – “You need someone to tell you, ‘That’s stupid, don’t write it.'”)

    I worry that good writing and storytelling gets lost in our go-go-go online publishing world, and yet it’s so important, as they both (and as you) said. I don’t just want to be the blogger who attracts lots of eyeballs that skim and leave and don’t care; I want to be the writer that lures them in and leaves them with the feeling that they’ve just been told a story. Because THAT’s what communication and writing is about. The other stuff (SEO, social media, etc.) is just gravy.

  4. Mariellen June 24, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    I agree, Tammy, I really liked the name of the session — 10 Steps to Writing that Better Engages and Keeps Your Readers — and the point they made about writing to engage and KEEP readers.

    Anyone can write a lurid title stuffed with keywords and hammer it away on social media. Sure, you’ll get a lot of visitors — but you won’t engage or keep them. Good writing is the killer tactic.

  5. Arun June 25, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    The FCU video is hilarious. I was laughing out loud for a long time.. 🙂

  6. Mariellen June 25, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    THE FCU video is one of the funniest videos I have ever seen .., no, make that THE funniest! I love the Father of Facts, haha.

  7. Reid June 25, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I missed that session at TBEX, so glad you posted this!

  8. Christine Peets June 25, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    If this was the Travel Bloggers Exchange, I find it interesting that there was only one session on travel writing.
    You’ve summed up this session well (especially for anyone who wasn’t at this session or at TBEX.)
    You, and these presenters, make a lot of good points that can apply to any type of writing, but it’s especially good to get the insights on what makes good travel writing, as I’m new to that.
    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  9. Mariellen June 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks Reid, there were a lot of great sessions at TBEX to choose from … but I still think this was the most important for bloggers 🙂

    Christine, I agree, only one session on travel writing seems wrong, but TBEX changed hands this spring so the new organizers, BlogWorld, had to run with what was already in the works.

  10. Britany June 25, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    SO glad you recapped this panel since it was one that I really wanted to go to but opted for another in that time slot. Great tips, thanks Mariellen!

  11. Lauren June 26, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Thanks from the bottom of my heart for summarizing Spud Hilton’s talk. I did not make TBEX this year and seeing reviews / take-aways of individual workshops or lectures is really, really nice 🙂

  12. Mariellen June 26, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    You;re welcome Britany! It was a great session and very important. I certainly hope they have more than one writing session at the next TBEX!

  13. Mariellen June 26, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    TBEX is awesome, Lauren, I hope you make it to one!

  14. Laura June 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Great summary! Thanks for taking the time to encapsulate it for those of us who were at the other sessions. This was my first TBEX and I must say despite the changing of the guard just a few months ago it was very well organized with a lot to offer even a new travel blogger like me. I think next year will blow our socks off! (is that too cliche? Do y’all think that’s too cliche or should I let it stand?)*

    *”Don’t take yourself too seriously” best writing advice ever

  15. Kim Rogers June 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

    Mariellen, so glad I saw your Tweet about this blog post. I wrote about you! on my blog–and about the importance of writing in a travel blog–and I was trying to find you! Love that. Now, I can give you the credit you deserve. Here’s what this TBEX session inspired me to write: http://www.outrigger.com/explore/hawaiian-islands/view-from-here-blog/2012/June/does-the-writing-matter-in-a-travel-blog. Here’s to the writing!

  16. Mariellen June 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    Hi Laura, Thanks for the comment. I wish I could have been at ALL the sessions!

    I’ve never heard that writing advice before … will have to think about it. I take good writing seriously, but I suppose that’s different.

  17. Mariellen June 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Kim Rogers, so awesome that we found each other! Were you the person who put their arms in the air and whooped? I love that person! I wanted to run off the stage and hug her!

  18. Jeremy June 27, 2012 at 4:17 am #

    Seriously. I feel like nobody edits their work these days. Half the travel blogs I end up reading are just people talking with their fingers.

  19. Will - DontFlyGo.com June 27, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    One of the best practical articles to have come out of TBEX with real actionable points. Thanks for the write-up Mariellen!

  20. Mariellen June 27, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Jeremy, that’s hilarious — people talking with their fingers. The problem with writing is that everyone thinks they can do it, which has driven down the value and rates for professional writers. In fact, telling an engaging, well-written story is a very difficult thing to do; the creative equivalent of hitting a fast ball.

  21. Mariellen June 27, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks Will! I hope it does help spread the word, and helps people up their game,

  22. Suzanne Boles June 28, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    I’m a total writing geek. I couldn’t stop watching the fact checking video. So funny. And I teach writing so I’m nodding yes, “reading William Zinsser “On Writing Well” and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and thinking ‘paramount for good writing.’ Moral (if there is one) good writing is good writing whether it’s about travel or any other topic. Thanks for highlighting this important point and sharing your learning with others.

  23. Jeremy Branham July 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Thanks for this! I was not there on Sunday and hate that I missed this. Of all the sessions at TBEX, this was probably one of the top ones I wanted to hear. I really appreciate these and hope I can use them to incorporate into my writing.
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..Early 2012 Fall, Winter, and Thanksgiving airfare sale this summerMy Profile

  24. Ashish Kattel January 11, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

    Well i have my own travel company called everest view travels based on clients from australia and newzealand.I tried to write my contents myself but it’s very hard to me.I googled and came to your page.I have many questions on my mind about travel contents and websites.Can you suggest me whether i should hire someone professional for my content or i can do it myself with good seo?
    Ashish Kattel recently posted..Spiritual Nepal ProgramMy Profile

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