9 questions you asked me about Travel Writing

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Last week I asked you to ask me anything on travel writing and these are the questions that made the cut. So let's get on with it and I hope you find this helpful!

1. How did you get started as a travel writer?

As someone who had no training in writing or mass communication, I took to blogging before writing professionally. I started my blog in 2008 to record my travels. But more importantly to write quick guides for those asking me same questions again and again about my recent travels. While I never had the idea of writing professionally in mind at that point, publishing on the blog helped me hone my non-existent writing skills.

Four years later in 2012, I visited a small village near Kodaikanal that I was driven to write about, not for money but just to get the story out. So I googled and sent the most stupid pitch I’ve ever sent to The Hindu. Surprisingly, the editor accepted the story and it ran in Metro Plus. That’s was my first print publication, for no money.

Few months down the line in the same year, National Geographic Traveller India edition was launched and I saw some of my blogger/photographer friends’ images get published in the magazine. I was green with envy and wanted a piece of the action myself. Who here hasn’t dreamt of publishing with the iconic yellow box? So I quickly googled “how to pitch a photo editor”, “how to find an editor’s email” and shot this amateurish mail (see image above). To my shock and surprise, I got a response, and a positive one at that! I took a chance and asked the photo editor to introduce me to the deputy editor. She did and I googled some more on “how to pitch a travel story” and fired my first pitch for a story. I was a published travel writer with a brand new story featuring words and images by yours truly in January 2013. And that’s my how my journey began. Since then I've written consistently for a small but niche selection of national and international publications. You can see all my published work here - https://neelima.contently.com/.

2. How difficult is it for new writers to get published in magazines?

I wouldn’t say it’s difficult but I wouldn’t say it is easy either. Thing is, it is quite possible for a new writer to get published in a publication. The important thing to keep in mind is that you should have a great story to tell, know how to sell the idea and you’ve found the right publication for your story. I think that’s where experienced writers have the edge over new comers. They’ve enough experience to glean an idea from a trip or vacation. A week spent in Nepal is not a story idea; it is a trip report. A week spent in Nepal chasing an elusive mountain or rarely covered cuisine is a possible story idea.

3. Do you have any advice for emerging writers/bloggers?

If you’re an emerging writer, write as much as you can and edit your work with a vengeance. I always assumed that writing well is an innate skill. But soon I realized great writing happens with a lot of practice than just talent. So it is quite possible to hone your craft, might take a lot more work for some of us but the good news is that we can all get better at this. So start a blog or open an account of any public platform and publish your writing to an audience. I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to get direct and instant feedback. Also, invest as much time in reading good stories.

If you’re an emerging blogger, hone your writing by practicing as much as possible but also understand the nuances of writing for a publication vs. writing for a blog. Both are very different requiring unique styles of writing and approach. Read this helpful post detailing the fundamental differences between travel writing and travel blogging just published by my friend Lakshmi Sharath. Decide if you’re in it for the long haul because both require quite a lot of effort and there’s very little intersection in the kind of work you’ll do in each one of these fields.

And read up on the art of story telling!

4. How do you decide what stories you want to tell and what you want to skip while writing about your travels?

Before pitching any story to a publication or writing about it on my blog, one question I ask myself is “why will anyone care about this?” Let’s say I had a brilliant epiphany on my recent trek and I want to tell everyone about it. But why would you be interested in it unless it is funny or revealing or surprising or relatable or evokes an emotion that’s not boredom in the listener?

Our adventures seem great to us because we have a whole lot of context to process it but it is very difficult to translate that feeling to an external audience. So you’ll have to ask yourself, what will the reader take away from this story? If it’s five minutes of a monologue about how great my trip was or me dealing with what I thought were great adventures but were really quite normal, I’d skip that story. A good story should inform or inspire or surprise the reader in the very least. At best, it can take you along on a fantastic journey to discover other worlds within our world.

5. Do you take lots of notes while travelling?

I used to but now I’ve gotten very lazy. I need to up my game in taking notes diligently. Because it’s most important task for any writer, to be able to notice and reproduce those little details that make any scene or story complete.

6. How do you find balance between documenting travel vs. enjoying?

Oh the eternal paradox! I haven’t found that balance. I am always at odds on whether I should be taking notes/photographs or just enjoy the moment. More often than not, the latter wins but only due to my own indolence. But it is an occupational hazard you simply cannot escape, to have your head buried in a phone or notebook as a travel writer.

7. What is a good pitch? What are the main components of your pitch, what format do you deliver it in, and how short do you generally keep it?

I guess a good pitch is the one that gets you a commission! ;)

Cheekiness aside, a pitch should have these three things to make a sale -

  1. A concise story idea with a unique angle. It doesn't help to say I went to Rajasthan. I did this and I went to that place. I want to write a story for your magazine. You should have an angle. Think about it, have you ever read a travel piece which talks about all the places writer went to and what he saw? Exactly. So read the publication, target the section you want to write for and think of a story idea that matches that particular section. If it's a newspaper with no particular sections, think of a clear and unique angle to write the story.
  2. You will need to prove your writing skills to a large extent through the pitch itself if you are just getting into publishing because you'll have no previously published stories to substantiate your claim that you can write a story well. Have a strong lead and do not cram the pitch with unnecessary details. Save that prowess for later when you get the commission.
  3. Lastly, you should end the pitch with your qualifications, where you say why you are the right person to do this story. You can tell what other publications you have written for. It is alright if you never written for any publication before. You can say I worked in so and so field, which makes me an expert to write this story or anything else that might work in your favor in convincing the editor to assign you the story.
The general guideline is to keep your pitch within 2 paragraphs but if you're pitching a complex or nuanced story, you can always ignore that rule and write a longer query. But make sure you don't go overboard with providing unnecessary details that'll tire/bore the editor. See a sample pitch of mine here.

8. Which all publications should I contact to get my articles published? How to find such publication firms?

Totally depends on what kinds of stories you want to write. Looking for the selection of magazines available at airport bookshops is one way to find out about all sorts of niche publications apart from the famous travel magazines. The other way is to Google. Wikipedia can be of great help to figure out regional publications. You can also look at other writers’ portfolio to see their published clips, gives you a fair idea on the available market in a similar field.

Here’s a helpful resource on the various markets available for pitching - Where Travel Writers Can Get Published: 16 Places to Look for Sales Leads

9. What is the basic skill or practice that one should work on to improve our writing?

I’d say writing and reading daily. Invaluable!

Come along with me, on a virtual journey! Find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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