Avoiding the sacred cows in travel writing

Photo of cow in India by Nick Kenrick.

Photo of Pushkar by Nick Kenrick.

How to write about your travels in foreign lands without putting your foot in it

I STARTED TRAVEL writing when I travelled in India for six months in 2005 / 2006. I fell in love with the country, the culture and the people, and wrote from my heart. I never attempted to be objective, but to be honest about what I felt and saw, within the bounds of a respectful attitude. Over the years, as I’ve travelled more, honed my skills and brought more conscious thought to my work, I’ve come to realize that travel writing is a tricky business.

I’ve grappled with how to write respectfully, express my truth, tell a good story and stay true to my values — without offending locals. What I’ve learned is that it takes conscious effort and technical know-how to write effective travelogues. In this post, I asked some of the pros to share their tips and their wisdom for avoiding the cringe-worthy cliches and stereotypes that often subconsciously invade travel writing.

Mark Twain travel quote

Sometimes you have to challenge your beliefs to get beyond the stereotypes

In Travel is an experience in perception, I tried to grasp this idea that we see the world through our own window, our own set of assumptions, ideas about reality, biases, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s just about recognizing that your truth is YOUR truth and may not be THE truth.

My photography teacher Tony Makepeace, who regularly visits Nepal and takes portraits of the people he meets there, said, “It’s worthwhile to think about your intentions, reflect on your role as an outsider, and recognize the difference in privilege and empowerment between you and your subjects.”

These first five tips are about how to dig in while travelling and challenge yourself while writing.

Tip 1. Blend in.

“Merge with the place,” Anuradha Goyal recommends. “It helps on two levels. One, with regards to safety and security issues, it helps protect you as you do not stand out. Two, it helps local people feel comfortable with you, and they open up more easily when they see you are making an effort to be one with them.” Anuradha Goyal is a travel blogger & writer, the author of The Mouse Charmers – Digital Pioneers of India (published by Random House) and a voracious reader. She writes a series of Travel Stories on her blog that she says, “would not have happened if I had not connected well by not standing out.”

I completely agree with Anuradha on this one. From my first days in India, I tried my best to adopt the dress and the social etiquette of the culture. When in Rajasthan, do as the Rajasthanis do, was my motto. I found it helped win me respect and trust, and opened up the culture to me.

Tip 2. Talk to locals.

Dan Noll and Audrey Scott of Uncornered Market have been travelling the world for many years, and sharing their stories and photos on their blog. They are driven by a desire “to humanize the places we visit, drawing our readers in through photographs and stories, so they connect with people and places they might otherwise never hear about or actively disregard.” Dan and Audrey’s work exemplifies a respectful attitude, and they have inspired me more than any other travel bloggers.

I asked Audrey to share advice and tips. “I think the main way to write without offending the locals is to expose yourself to a diversity of experiences and people so that you can get a better understanding of a place and breakdown the assumptions that you may make from first impressions.” She offers these writing tips:

  • Talk to several people about a topic (or about the culture/history/politics of that country) so that you get different perspectives from a variety of people (e.g., different backgrounds, ages, genders). This allows you to understand better the diversity of opinions (if there is one) and prevents you from taking one person’s viewpoint and making it sound like it is representing the whole country. Use accurate quotes and avoid generalizations.
  • Imagine that your best friend was of that culture. What would he or she think — were you being fair (note: not always pollyanna positive) and that you were respectful in your writing.

You know you are on the right track when you get comments like this one, in response to Bangladesh: Frequently Asked Questions: “I’m a Canadian-American Bengali currently visiting Bangladesh and the way you handled these questions with class really made me happy. It brought a tear to my eye to see how open and nonjudgmental you guys were to the average Bengali. Many people see Bangladesh as a dirty, poor, corrupt, chaotic, dysfunctional mess of a country, fellow Bengalis included.” And here are three more articles from Uncornered Market that reveal their unique, refreshing and respectful approach:

Tip 3. Avoid cultural imperialism.

In my opinion, the western mainstream media is almost universally based on the underlying notion that western ideals, standards and ethics are de facto superior. Because I often travel in India — a country in the late stages of a post-colonial hangover — I try very hard to avoid this practise, which I call “cultural imperialism.”

It’s one thing to think, as I do, that, overall, women have more freedom and opportunity in Canada than they do in India, but it’s another to unconsciously believe that everything about the west is “right” and other countries are “wrong.”

It’s also worthwhile to challenge media stereotypes, and not digest them whole. Case in point: India has had a bad rap in the media because of some high-profile rape cases, but in the same period that two foreign female tourists were raped in India, many more were raped in Mexico, Greece, Spain, Turkey and elsewhere. “The number of Britons sexually attacked or raped abroad rose 10% last year from 281 to 310 cases in 2011. Greece Spain and Turkey had the worst records,” from an article in The Mirror.

Tip 4. Write from your own experience.

While the mainstream media struggles to present objectivity and balance in journalism, as a personal narrative (or creative non-fiction) travel writer, you are under no such restrictions. Your experience is your truth and it cannot be argued. If you travelled on an overnight train and saw cockroaches on the wall just inches from your face and you couldn’t sleep; or if a child dressed in rags and selling flowers in the market smiled at you and you melted — these are your experiences. You needn’t make sweeping, judgmental statements about what your experiences mean or draw from them conclusions about the culture. You can simply describe them.

As a matter of fact, I don’t actually believe in objectivity. Everything is subjective, everyone has an agenda. I don’t think objectivity is a worthy goal, either. I think the de-humanizing tendency of the media is part of the problem, and that personal voice and personal experience is much more powerful, real and true. As travel writers, we give people a window through which to see the world, and it is our window, with all of our ideas, biases, experiences, hopes and dreams woven in. It’s okay to have biases and opinions, as long as you are aware of them and honest / transparent about presenting them.

travel writing quote Pam Mandel Nerdseyeview

Tip 5. Show interest, respect and humility.

We all walk around with a set of assumptions about the world and an idea of what we think reality is. Travel gives us the opportunity to examine them, and gain a much broader sense of perspective.

Don George is a well-known travel writer, the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing and a travel writing instructor. Here’s his approach: “Being humble, curious, and respectful of local cultures and peoples — trying to understand and evoke them on their level — is a cornerstone of how I travel and how I write about travel. As a guest in someone else’s house — that is, country and culture — I always try to be mindful of how little I know and what a great opportunity I have to learn!”

In these pieces, Don shows how you can write descriptively about engaging with the local culture without making any assumptions or generalizations. These are all good examples of story-telling in travel writing, too.

Photographer Jim Kane wrote about taking culturally sensitive photos on Transitions Abroad: “…responsible photography is very much like responsible travel. With a thorough knowledge of the place you’re visiting, a genuine interest in sharing and not just taking, an alert intuition, an open mind, enough time, and a little luck, photography abroad—just like travel itself—can be a vehicle to build bridges. Ultimately, photography is ideally a form of exchange.” Read his eight guidelines here.

Sympathetic interpretation seldom evolves from a predatory attitude. The common term, ‘taking a picture,’ is more than just an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation. ‘Making a picture’ implies a creative resonance, which is essential to profound expression. – Ansel Adams

And sometimes, it’s just a matter of artistic technique to transcend the cliches

The following three tips are about how to use writing techniques to support respectful travel writing.

Tip 6. Tell a story.

And speaking of stories, don’t forget to tell one. I wrote about this after attending a workshop given by Spud Hilton and Stephanie Yoder at TBEX Colorado. In my post, Top 10 Travel Writing Tips, here’s point #1:

Have a point. Without a point (or premise) you are re-hashing your diary. You need to make a bigger point than simply you were there. Spud Hilton 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.

Travel writer and “story consultant” Mike Sowden on his site Fevered Mutterings has lots of resources for travel writers, including a course in story telling for bloggers, a page of story telling resources and an insightful post that explains Why 99% of bloggers give up from which I grabbed this inspiring quote: “As Andrew Evans explains so succinctly in this video, when you’re doing your best to convey what you really see, without the benefit of 20/20-hindsight, and if you do so with a very clear idea about what you want to be writing, unedited reality can be as compelling as a well-crafted story. In fact, it can be a good story. That’s the essence of quality non-fiction.”

Tip 7. Use the tools of fiction writing.

Paul Theroux is one of the great writers of travel literature. Talking about his unique style, he once explained that he wanted to inject dialogue and discomfort into travel writing as he felt these were largely missing. He has a point. Travel writers often skip writing about characters and conversations. Yet this technique, and others from the fiction writers tool kit, can give you a sense of the people, the place and what happened in a very direct and powerful way.

It is worth reading fiction or even taking some courses to learn about character, dialogue, description, plot development, narrative, and other techniques. These will not only add voice and colour to your writing, they will help give you the discipline to stick to the story, and keep you from wandering into the lazy habits that lead to cliched writing.

This piece about Varanasi from David Farley in Afar Magazine includes some of the characters he met in the ancient city.

Tip 8. Throw out your first idea and your second idea when you write; wait for the third idea.

This is a piece of writing advice I heard once, and can’t remember where. Everyone will have thought of the first one, it won’t be original, and it will originate in the “cliche” layer of our engagement with life. The second idea will also be something others may have thought of. But your third idea is likely to be more interesting, unique, fresh and thoughtful.

NEW: Learn to use responsible language

I was inspired to write this new section because of a discussion on Facebook about a blog post someone wrote with the headline: “Why North India Sucks (sometimes).” I objected to the headline for being irresponsible (as well as disrespectful) and was surprised that others did not see my point. They thought I was telling the writer she shouldn’t write truthfully about the bad experiences she had. In fact, I was saying she should write her truth and take responsibility for it by using responsible language. In my opinion, the headline should have read something like: “Why I’m having a hard time in North India.”

It may be a subtle point, but I think it’s an important one. Having a hard time somewhere and then extrapolating your experience as the definitive truth about a region is on the sloppy-solipsistic scale. It discounts the idea that others may have a different experience, and negates all the positives about that region (in this case: the Taj Mahal as well as many other UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Himalayas, the historic forts of Rajasthan, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government in exile, the diverse people of the region including the world’s original tree huggers, the Bishnoi … I could go on and on …).

Responsible language usually uses the word “I.” It includes an operator (I), it is not vague, nor does it offload blame. Here’s a primer on responsible language.

Personalizing your writing and taking responsibility for it will help you side-step all kinds of tricky issues, and lessen your chances of offending.

What do you think? Do you care about avoiding cliches and stereotypes? How do you achieve fair and accurate travel writing?

Photo of cow in India by Nick Kenrick.

Photo of cow in India by Nick Kenrick.

Cow in India – Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick . via Compfight cc

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26 Responses to Avoiding the sacred cows in travel writing

  1. Ceci Snow August 12, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    Another stellar example of your unique writing style and commitment to encouraging “meaningful travel adventure”. Many of these excellent tips also apply to traveling within one’s own country, not just to the ‘exotic’ destination of this world. Since Canada is such a huge country, geographically, it is inevitable that there are numerous local and regional idiosyncrasies and sensitivities as well and aspiring writers and photographers would do well to become familiar with those, too, when setting out on a travel adventure. 🙂 Very helpful article.
    Ceci Snow recently posted..Making MemoriesMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 12, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

      Thanks so much Ceci. I am trying to be a good writer, and for me, that also means a respectful writer.

      You make a good point. We also need to apply some of this conscious sensitivity and insight towards writing about our own culture. There are loads of regional differences we could miss or trample on, unknowingly. Cheers.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Experiencing Canada’s sacred forest in VancouverMy Profile

  2. Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog August 12, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    Great tips! I definitely agree that writing from experience is good advice. It helps you to write sensitively and knowledgeably – especially if you try to live sensitively and inquisitively as well! Excellent post 🙂
    Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog recently posted..Theatre by the Lake: The Comedy of ErrorsMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

      Thanks Katie. The more consciously we live, the more awareness and conscious thought we bring to everything we do, including travelling, interacting with people, making photos, writing, etc. It’s a good point, thanks for underlining it.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..An epic journey across Canada by trainMy Profile

  3. Kevin August 12, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    What a fine piece! From the Mark Twain quotation at the beginning and running right on through, the tips could be applied to virtually any traveler, not just to travel writers. The “talk to locals” tip — undoubtedly a good idea. After all, did you travel half-way around the world only to look at buildings? — brings to mind some of the advantages of solo traveling. Much as I’ve enjoyed traveling with another or others, it can be more difficult to get out of one’s little safety bubble and make connections with strangers. For those of us who aren’t professional travel writers, Mariellen’s suggestions can do a lot to help us write our blog, postcard, emails, etc., or simply hone the anecdotes we’ll eventually dine out on once we get home.

    • Mariellen Ward August 12, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Kevin. Personally, I love travelling alone and one of the main reasons is that it “forces” me to reach out and contact locals. It is probably the single best strategy for getting to know a new culture.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Female solo travel tipsMy Profile

  4. Elaine J. Masters August 12, 2014 at 3:01 pm #

    Very helpful points and validation. Writing’s a solitary art but travel writing comes from just the opposite pole with human interaction, even the solo traveler. I hadn’t heard about throwing out the first two ideas and waiting for the third. There’s a caution with that – listening and trusting the muse enough to sit down and capture the first ideas without censure, then taking a break to wait and see what was caught. Thanks again and again for your thoughtful and provoking writing. Perhaps you’ll grace our writing panel at the 2015 San Diego Trav Fest…
    Elaine J. Masters recently posted..Car free Los AngelesMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

      Hello Elaine, great to read your comment here on Breathedreamgo. Yes, I suppose every tip or piece of advice comes with a caveat: your mileage may vary. What works for one person may not work for another.

      But I do think it’s helpful to give more thought to writing, and not just go with the first thing that pops in your head. It may turn out to be the best idea, but unless you think about it, you won’t know. Personally, I re-write like mad. Thank goodness for computers. I rarely end up using my first draft or my ideas from it, but you never know.

      My godparents live in San Diego and I’ve never been there. Maybe it’s time!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..An epic journey across Canada by trainMy Profile

  5. Brad Bernard August 12, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    I love this advice, Mariellen. I need to read this a few times, actually. I always have a goal of having locals reach out and say, “thanks for telling our story.”

    With such a cultural disparity between the readers and the physical setting, explaining the bigger point to a foreign audience can be challenging. I do love that concept about the 3rd point and that maybe that really dumb first idea is actually the necessary first step on a glorious path toward a great piece of writing.

    I really love your writing, such an inspiration to those of us just starting down that glorious path.
    Brad Bernard recently posted..The Secret Lives of Bajau Sea Gypsies: A True AccountMy Profile

  6. Tammy August 12, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    SO MUCH good advice in here! I think so few people realize the care that has to go into travel writing — not just to craft a story, but a story that has a point, that is accurate while still admitting the subjective, that is careful of culture sensitivities. Good travel writing makes for some of the most fascinating, engaging stuff you could ever read. Bad travel writing can range from inane diary drivel to flat-out ignorance.

    I always laugh at the “I like travel, I want to be a travel writer!” comments I hear. Yeah, that’s great (and required) that you like travel, but you’ve got to like writing first. That’s why I liked this comment you made most of all: “You needn’t make sweeping, judgmental statements about what your experiences mean or draw from them conclusions about the culture. You can simply describe them.” To me, that’s how you know someone is a talented writer — they understand that sometimes a scene can tell enough, can sometimes say so much more than anything else you could write.
    Tammy recently posted..A (slightly) less touristy guide to Hoi AnMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 12, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Tammy, it means a lot to me because I think of you as a natural born travel story teller.

      You are right, the best travel writers are writers who travel. Travel is easy. Writing is hard. Travel writing is really hard.

      I’ve been writing my entire life, but mastering the art of telling an engaging story is something I still have ahead of me (I hope). It takes technique and confidence to let a story tell itself, and to trust the story expresses what you want it to.

      Keep writing and travelling Tammy, cheers.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..An epic journey across Canada by trainMy Profile

  7. Nick Paton August 13, 2014 at 2:52 am #

    I needed to read this! I remember when i started out I was trying to be somewhat objective and figured I’d only write positive things until I decided that wasn’t an accurate representation of my thoughts and experiences and it left people with only half the story.
    Nick Paton recently posted..Ping Pong Shows in Bangkok: Why You Shouldn’t GoMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 13, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      Nick, I know what you mean. I’ve been travel writing for years and only now starting to get a handle on the profound underlying issues. I’m evolving and so is my writing and my approach. Which is how it should be.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Female solo travel tipsMy Profile

  8. Dale August 13, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    Really wish I’d had this to read before we started blogging back in 2012.

    I sometimes wish that we’d done things differently, but wouldn’t change to much because I’ve liked the lessons we’ve learned along the way, but these tips certainly would have helped to craft our articles better and sooner.
    Dale recently posted..Don’t Miss Madrid’s Design Market at El MataderoMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 14, 2014 at 8:28 am #

      Thanks Dale, I know how you feel. We live, we learn. And hopefully, we grow in our understanding and maturity.

      ps I couldn’t have written this in 2012. I needed a few years to start to gasp these issues.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..An epic journey across Canada by trainMy Profile

  9. Charles McCool August 13, 2014 at 11:19 pm #

    Wonderful tips. 3rd idea. Hmm, that is interesting!
    Charles McCool recently posted..Best Travel Article Ever Written (With Best Travel Advice)My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 14, 2014 at 8:30 am #

      Yes, I wish I could remember where I heard that, so I could credit the source! I think I have been practising this, actually, without knowing it because I re-write a lot and my lead and story usually ends up quite different than when I start. I think as I write. I wonder how many writers are like this?
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Experiencing Canada’s sacred forest in VancouverMy Profile

  10. Florian (GreenCityTrips) August 20, 2014 at 12:26 am #

    Not sure how many blogs and websites I have read with stellar tips like yours, but at the end of the day I tend to forget or ignore most of them and just follow my stomach feeling. While strategy is fine, it’s about enjoying what you do and letting loose just the same! 🙂
    Florian (GreenCityTrips) recently posted..New Green City Destination – Welcome to Singapore!My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 24, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Yes, I know what you mean. It’s good to learn the tools, become aware, have some mastery and all of that … but then follow your heart, your instincts and your interests and enjoying what you experience and what you create. Thanks for a great comment!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..A 5 year blogiversary and a 7th trip to IndiaMy Profile

  11. Cristy September 15, 2014 at 2:04 am #

    I definitely agree with your points here Mariellen. Travel writing indeed is a serious business because sometimes (most of the time, actually) we have to detach ourselves with our accustomed norms to see other people in a positive light. At the end of the day, everything will boil down to respect.

    Thank you for sharing your mind to us, I really enjoyed reading your post… 🙂
    Cristy recently posted..Searching For Your Soulmate? 5 Tips On Finding Your Date AbroadMy Profile

  12. I do hope you are continuing to enjoy your current trip. Great advice for good travel writing practice. I think another reader mentioned that these points can translate to local travel too; I agree. Engagement and respect will generally result in a story worth reading…I do like the idea of throwing out the 1st two ideas – currently sitting on a pitch and I will keep this in my before I send it out.x

  13. Glamourous Traveller November 25, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    Great writing tips for us aspiring writers! I do want to add that one other pitfall that tends to happen is even before the pen touches the paper, when there is an internal comparison of the things you are seeing and experiencing to what you had seen and experienced.

    It’s not so much ‘Cultural Imperialism’ as it is ‘retrograde imperialism’ where almost everything you have seen or heard or experienced is better in retrospect. This in itself may challenge your ability to really soak in and enjoy the present experience
    Glamourous Traveller recently posted..Weekly Travel Outfit – Bali, IndonesiaMy Profile

  14. Rana Singh December 26, 2014 at 4:09 am #

    Great article and amazing tips. Loved it. Tip 6 great.
    Thanx for sharing.

  15. Brad Bernard July 18, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    I appreciate this post more every time I read it, Mariellen. One thing I’ve learned over the past year is the power of metaphor, especially in travel writing. A story is really a series of metaphors that help us navigate the challenges of life, it is how the character relates to the challenges and how relevance is created in the mind of the reader. ‘Wild’ is one of the best examples of metaphorical writing I’ve seen, where each chapter relates to a life challenge that is mirrored in the landscape and the characters, and the internal conflict is mirrored in society, her childhood and even the challenges her mom faced. Everything is weaved together so elegantly that you would never know unless you were looking, but the reader is left with an impression that just “feels right”

    I’ve started to use this in the story-planning process because that’s how our brains think in a normal conversation… in tangents. I start by asking myself, what is a similar way of describing this same concept? How would I explain this to a 5-year-old? What conflict from my past sounds similar? Does this remind me of a movie or book I’ve read?

    Writing. Simplified.
    Brad Bernard recently posted..Caminito del Rey – A New Look for Europe’s Most Dangerous PathMy Profile

  16. Gaurav Bhatnagar July 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

    The depth behind your thoughts, quality behind your writing and enthusiasm to take travel writing to a next level is so evident. I am glad I read this article. I am taking back many tips for my own writing and bookmarking this to read time to time. 🙂
    Gaurav Bhatnagar recently posted..Kewzing – Traditional Himalayan Bhutia villageMy Profile

  17. Donna Meyer July 19, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Thanks so much for this sage and thoughtful advice, Mariellen. You have given us much to think about. I have been writing for more than 30 years and I had never heard the “third idea” process explained. It is brilliant. Your comments on storytelling are also spot on. People have been communicating with stories since we were living in caves. It is basic to the human DNA. If we really want to communicate the sense of a place, make our readers feel they have been there with us and/or want to go there themselves, then we have succeeded in our task. Using the fiction techniques of character and dialogue as well as setting help with that task. Thanks again for a great post.
    Donna Meyer recently posted..Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende: The Conchero DancersMy Profile

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