The 44 Faces of a Travel Writer

At least once a week I’ll get an e-mail from someone asking how to break in as a travel writer. I usually take the lazy way out and refer them to the Travel Writing Portal over at TransitionsAbroad.com. After all, it’s the first thing that pops up if you put the phrase in Google and since I helped put it together, I know the links are worthwhile.

If people ask me about a book, I refer them to the one simply called Travel Writing that Don George put together when he was at Lonely Planet. It’s not perfect, especially since it mostly concentrates on narrative writing and not much on “how to” stuff—which is what really pays the bills. But it’s better than most.

The thing is, what is a travel writer these days? There’s no set path like there used to be (a good thing) and there are at least 44 different versions of what that means in today’s hyper-media environment. I was reflecting on that this week as I am devoting most of my days right now to ghostwriting a business book for someone. It’s not as fun as galavanting around the world and writing stories, but it pays better and doesn’t require layovers. So of course I gladly do it when the opportunity comes along. I know other travel writers who write ad copy, do PR, color comic books, or work in an office part-time doing brainless paper shuffling. They’re happier and more secure having different streams of income.

Others, like Lara Dunston, make a living doing guidebooks and travel print articles, but work 7 days a week every week to make the numbers add up. Some, like my buddy Max at GoNomad, have prospered by creating something people want to read and taking some writing trips now and then when they feel like it.

There are a few elite writers like occasional Perceptive Travel contributor Edward Readicker-Henderson, who can get gigs with pretty much any magazine out there at this point, making a good living by writing long features about distant lands. That’s what everyone pictures of course when they think they want to become a travel writer, just as everyone who dreams of being an actor pictures themselves as a well-paid movie star, not as someone who has bit parts in commercials and is really a waiter after 10 years of effort. Unfortunately, the latter is far more likely. It’s just as competitive in writing, with a dwindling number of print outlets making it even tougher.

Although I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, I would say the majority of travel writers are part-time hobbyists. A lot of them are retired or have made their money doing something else. Or they have a supportive working spouse. Or they don’t mind being dirt poor. Some are bloggers who are content to make some pocket change writing about their experiences, no queries to editors required.

So if you send me an e-mail asking a specific question about something related to this odd career choice, I’ll do what I can to help. But nose around and do some research first, because I’ll probably just send you to The 7 Myths of Being a Travel Writer. Because hey, I’ve got somebody else’s book to write right now…

Comments
  1. E. Readicker-Henderson

    Elite? No way. Astoundingly lucky? Absolutely yes. Also, I’ve got to point out, lower middle class at best. Not that I’m complaining, since I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun and seeing things I’d never dreamed I’d get to see.

    And for the record, there are still plenty of magazines out there completely ignoring me. Although I’m working on that.

    e

  2. lara dunston

    Hey Tim, thanks for the plug! But I’ll join Edward in adding a bit of clarification too. Writers can still make a decent living writing guidebooks and articles for papers and magazines working 5 days a week. I’d hate to deter people with our 7-day-16-hour-a day-lifestyles from pursuing something they have a passion for.

    I travel and co-write with husband Terry, so the hours together, as long and as hard as they can sometimes be, are a joy. But we *choose* to do this because we *choose* to make much more than a ‘decent’ living. We had other careers before this – Terry a multimedia designer and publishing manager, me a filmmaker and academic, so we’ve earnt big bucks doing 5-day/week jobs in the past, and simply couldn’t go back to earning the incomes we did when we were 25. Each to our own though. Some travel writers prefer to take it easier and earn less.

    Having said that – and as Edward says too – no matter how hard we work, we absolutely love our jobs: we’re continually travelling the world, seeing fascinating places, and meeting engaging people on a daily basis. We are never bored for a second, indeed constantly stimulated, and rarely (note, I say ‘rarely’) wishing we were doing anything else.

    It is competitive though and your advice is spot-on. If people want to succeed they really have to treat it less like a creative hobby and much more like a small business.

  3. lara dunston

    Woops! Sorry for the novel! I’m a writer – I can’t help it…

  4. tim

    Thanks Edward and Lara for popping by and chiming in. I agree it’s a great gig, even when I’m working 10 hour days for 9 days straight on the road sometimes. It still beats being a janitor. (And I’ve done that before too, so I should know.) And I agree too about working more being worth it sometimes to avoid being a starving artist. I would love to slack off, but need to live somewhere cheap to make that happen. Which is in the works for 2010…

  5. David Whitley

    I’ll back Lara up here. It’s definitely possible to make a good living out of travel writing full time without working every waking hour.

    I’ll probably work six days a week, but usually the equivalent of nine-to-five hours. I just do articles – no books – and probably produce around 5,000 to 6,000 words a week. As long as those words are renumerated at a decent rate, then that’s a good living.

    On the road, it falls into a grey area: Theoretically I’m working, but 90% of the time I’m doing what I’d want to be doing if I wasn’t working. So I’m not sure where that fits.

    I think a lot depends on the writer’s mindset. Some want to travel, some want the writer’s lifestyle. I want a bit of both (although the journalist in me is stronger than the traveller), but I’m also running a business. Making money matters, and there’s nothing to say that travel writers HAVE to earn a pittance.

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