The best tip I can give you is: learn to write short. Whether you plan to write for travel blogs, newspaper travel sections or glossy
print magazines with gorgeous photos, editors prize travel writers who turn in tightly written copy. No matter how well you think you write, you will sell more work if you write short, especially in the travel market.
Why bother, you might be wondering? Blog postings can be 10,000 words long. There’s no limit. Who’s reading 10,000 word travel screeds these days? Nobody I know. Places to go; events to organize. Democracy to promote on Twitter.
Well, one way freelance travel writers break into the $1-a-word glossy travel and shelter magazine market is through the front-of-the-book sections. In
those sections– which are made up of a variety of short clever items, photos, product reviews, etc. — a “story” is really a fast-paced blurb or a mini-interview, but the writer gets a tag or by-line and usually, a significant check for little effort.
Magazine editors try out freelancers on these midget league pieces because they’ll lose small if the writer tanks the assignment. Worst case scenario, the editor can produce it herself. Best case scenario for a freelancer is the editor likes how you handle the short item and listens to your ideas for a full-length story. Next assignment: a longer piece, maybe with travel expenses. Be aware that many of those little items are written by the magazine’s staff. For insight on whether the items are freelance written, compare tag lines with the names on the masthead.
Those little items can be lucrative. Once you internalize the structure of a 250 to 500 word piece, you can knock them off quickly at proportionately better pay than a longer researched story. Pitch the idea as you would any other, after finding out which editor assigns for the “front of the book” department. If you’re good, editors will be calling and asking if you could dash off 600 words on a trend-setting destination that happens to be in your city, by Tuesday.
You’ll also sell to newspaper travel editors if you write tightly. Travel sections are pinched for space. Long rambling tours of Argentina or Uzbekistan rarely appear in Sunday Travel sections anymore. You will see three to five short (700 to 1,000 word) pieces on specific topics. New Restaurants in San Antonio; Shopping in Shanghai; Medical Tourism in Mexico; Taking the Kids River Rafting in New Hampshire. Sure, there will always be a North American market for destination stories about New England, Florida, LA, Hawaii, the Caribbean, but being able to follow travel trends and hook your story idea to lifestyle changes is an important marketing skill.
I can almost hear you wailing, “…900 words! Travel writing needs space for that scenery, the people, the food, the colorful markets…” You’re thinking about destination articles that appear in Islands or the Smithsonian Magazine. If you can line up that kind of work, terrific, but most of us write for bread and butter markets that need short, tightly written travel stories. Generally, novice travel writers start with newspapers and move up to writing for regional magazines and ultimately, for the big dollar glossies.
Here’s what else not to do: travel articles that start with the trip to the airport are almost always rejected. Another fault in travel narratives is describing every meal, cab ride or museum. Travel writing isn’t just about buildings and landscapes, it’s about people and places. Hone in on what readers can imitate in what you did.
Target your story to the right publication or circulation market. Study where various demographic groups go for their recreation– beyond the obvious. Editors know that Santa Fe is hip, that spa and spiritual retreat vacations have replaced baking on a beach, that soft adventure and nature tours have replaced racing through six European capitals — you need to construct a story idea and a focus that rocks a travel editor back on his heels and appeals to the publication’s readership.
For newspaper travel editors, the preferred method is to send the complete story, 800 to 1,000 words including a short sidebar, and photos. Newspaper travel editors are more interested in your story idea and fast paced writing style than where you’ve been published before. A useful sidebar can sell your story: where to stay, eat, a range of hotels at different price points.
Travel stories with a service focus are hot right now. Easy to research because you use quotes from experts to “tell” the story. Examples might be: taking along a pet, inter-generation travel, active/sports weekend getaways, leaning a language during vacation. Service articles about consolidator airfares or
internet ticketing are usually written by staff, because the lead time for a freelance writer to do the piece would render stale information.
Photos can sell your article. Send snapshots, slides, transparencies, black and white or color, but select images that have strong contrast and distinct close-up subjects — no sunsets, fuzzy beachscapes or minuscule shepherds with flocks of goats on faraway hillsides.
Think regional. Your expertise about a region or city is an asset. Offer stories about your hometown to papers and regional magazines that view your home ground as an attractive destination. Editors will be interested in your local expertise, so mention that in your cover letter (with completed manuscript to newspapers) or query letter (to magazines). Don’t pitch the obvious, give them an insider’s perspective.
Aim for realistic markets to start. Sorry, but you’re probably not going to start your freelance travel writing career in Travel & Leisure magazine. Find your level and work your way beyond it, using those newspaper travel clips to convince editors at magazines that you can handle assignments on contract. If you enjoy wasting time and stamps, go ahead, send your work to the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly.
In the long run, you’ll earn a steadier part-time income and advance your career faster if you focus on regional, trade and special interest magazines. Find those magazines on newsstands, on the internet, on an upscale friend’s coffee table. Almost all special interest magazines are hungry for stories with a travel focus that addresses the magazine’s stated purpose, e.g. antiques, chocolate, glass collecting, railroading, whatever. I’ve even seen a travel article in the Masonry Institute Magazine — a tour of the great monuments of the world made of brick.
Regional magazines are another break-in travel market. Many states, cities, recreational regions put out magazines aimed to attract tourists or promote local business. Sometimes the state economic and development commission has a hand in producing those magazines. Local writers have an edge. Remember that regional travel magazines come and go rapidly. Evaluate the magazine’s finances carefully before sending a query or working on a story.
How do you break in? Send a smart query about a place within the scope of the magazine’s stated objective, then follow up with a phone call and have three other ideas you can discuss casually. Show how you know the region.
Scale back your expectations. The travel writing genre has particular stylistic demands and you probably aren’t going to hit the pages of the Los Angeles Times or New York Times first shot. Pick medium sized publications that use freelance material. Seek out the smaller suburban magazines distributed to upmarket zipcodes near urban markets. For example, in the Washington, DC area, there are publications driven by certain types of advertising that are distributed in the fancy suburban neighborhoods. They need articles to support the advertising.
Sometimes you can break in to a difficult market by having a story in the bottom drawer of your desk, my grandmother the newspaper editor used to say. And it’s true except the ‘bottom drawer’ is a thumb drive or a forgotten desktop folder. A news event can make your unsold travel story suddenly timely. Travel editors at large papers sometimes are confronted with a hole – a planned story that didn’t work out or a story pre-empted by other news events — if they have your story, and it fits (i.e. short enough), you could get a break.
And now, I better quit, because I’m over my assigned word length!
Copyright © 2000 L. Peat O’Neil, all rights reserved.
L. Peat O’Neil is the author of “Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story and Travel Writing: A Guide to Research, Writing and Selling.”
O’Neil blogs at http://peatoneil.com and http://peatwalk.blogspot.com
This article originally appeared in Writing for DOLLARS!, April, 2000. Reprinted with permission.