Reviewing Lonely Planet's Travel Writing Book

Travel Writing by Lonely Planet and Don George
Travel Writing by Lonely Planet and Don George

I chat regularly with guys and gals around the world pursuing the same interests as my own, and what klobbers us all with confusion are questions like:

  • I love to travel. I need to make an income. Should I then be a travel writer?
  • In what ways does my writing need help before it's ready to be sent out?
  • If I love to write about travel, how do I push my way into the industry?
  • What should I charge or expect as compensation as a newcomer?
  • I need resources, contacts, wisdom from the greats...where can I find all this?

Even before I reached the half-way point of this book, I was recommending it to these fellow travelers. In regards to travel writing, photography or videography, the rules don't seem all that cut-and-dry, especially when you're dealing with intellectual property.

Fresh out of college and yet to begin a full-blown career, how do we value our own work, especially at something for which we didn't receive formal training? Unfortunately, I didn't realize during school that I would ever need skills in journalism. I actually believed (and still do to a lesser extent) that learning journalistic tricks would make my writing process more mechanical and less organic and honest.

But, after reading Lonely Planet's Travel Writing book by Don George, I am now more aware of the rigors of the profession, the courtesies that are known but often go unspoken, the necessary steps toward success and that I can still retain my writing style if I understand the needs of publishable travel articles.

It's Not for Everyone

Don George begins by subtly discouraging those who just love to travel from writing about travel for a living. He makes the very necessary statement that travel writing is still writing, and even the most fantastic trip or experience cannot carry itself in a poorly crafted article. For many, travel writing isn't the expected dream job because the majority of a writer's time can be spent fact-checking on location and soaring through cities like a blur, not in the manner in which most people love to travel. And if you couldn't write before the trip, there's not much hope in selling that trip's documentation afterward [without monumental amounts of editing, of course].

Luckily, a longstanding passion of mine is writing (I'd be pretty bummed about now if it weren't). Previously, I leaned on the place to do the talking and not the craft of writing. It's about being a wordsmith and a storyteller, not just a globetrotter with a pen. And from George's explanation of the laborious lifestyle, I realized I'm not opposed to slaving for the work if I continue to reap such happiness from its quality completion.

Great Insight Often Overlooked
Great Insight Often Overlooked

The Art of the Story

George describes at length, over the course of three chapters, what makes a quality piece of writing and how to harness such skills: write a lot and read good writing. It's a theory pounded into the reader over and over by not just the author but by the vast majority of interviewees from the publishing community highlighted in this book. One specific tip that resonated with me was about the difference between what you document and what belongs in a diary:

Writing about everything you did on holiday should be kept strictly between you and your diary; you need to find the theme that will interest an editor...Ask yourself this question: what most impassioned you? ...What's the first story that comes to mind [from your trip]? Focus on that story, because for some reason your internal filter has decided that that particular story embodies the quintessence of your trip.

While I don't often scribble down every activity of a trip, I have the problem of focusing too heavily on my inner landscape, my mentality during the trip and how I responded to the place of my physical presence. Though this can often be useful insight for a piece, it can also take away from the most interesting meat and potatoes of a trip that would interest a stranger, not just a writer's mother.

Journalism Elements to Implement

Prior to reading this book, I sensed the following points were important, points that were then reiterated and accentuated to the point of absolute necessity thanks to this book:

  • Be accurate with your facts and numbers, or people won't hire you.
  • Find a specialty in travel writing where you become an expert and the indispensable resource in that field for publications
  • Use dialogue, describe characters and bring all senses to life.

This list could easily expand, but I guess you'll just have to read the book to hear the rest.

The Publication Game

Without the chapter on getting published, I wouldn't know how newspapers, magazines, websites, book publishers and agents worked - information which proves pivotal for knowing what's plausible. A writer unattached to a certain publication must tap into many of these arenas simultaneously in order to make a solid income. There are courtesies to note when submitting articles and characteristics you must exhibit to get your work published. More tips include:

  • Know that magazines work months to a year in advance. Approach them about a story to be published way down the road.
  • Understand that some contracts will compensate for your newspaper article in print but not for its addition to the newspaper's website.
  • Be aware of the advantages when using an agent to get a book published.

And then the Practicalities

Though I found the "Tools of the Trade" chapter to be stating the obvious, George delivers for Lonely Planet the truths behind writing for guidebooks. The much-appreciated explanation on royalties and fees brought my attention to something I hadn't yet thought about much: reusing material from previous work for future work. Though it seems one should always write specifically for a publication or audience, some work can be regurgitated if the writer retains ownership. And of course, George reiterated the rigors of fact-checking, which are compounded for guidebook researchers. Without the luxury of time, the sheer number of establishments in a city or region seems like a daunting task for documentation.

The last forty-seven pages supply online publications, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses all with an interest in travel, as well as resources like a sample model release form.

The Bottom Line

If you skipped out on journalism classes in college, this may be a great resource for an aspiring travel writer, or writer in general. I used my highlighter selectively (yet, often) and plan on keeping my copy to continue my education on the topic. I'm anticipating using it frequently as a guide to starting my freelancing career. And so should you (smile and wink).