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Travel Writing 101: Becoming an Expert

Want to get a writing assignment? Make a name for yourself by developing expertise based on geography and curiosity.


Getting published should be easy, I often think, telling my students "you just need to entertain your readers, who are, firstly, your editor and, secondly, the editor's readers." It will shock only older students that travel writing is, or should be, entertainment, not journalism as such. After all, the news departments of the TV networks have been part of their Entertainment Divisions for decades now, and presidential elections have been a kind of entertainment equally as long, to mention only two prominent examples of keeping the public amused.

Travel writing is not traditional journalism, with the possible exception of investigative articles meant to expose some fault somewhere, and there's precious little interest in that on the part of editors and publishers, in any case. In old-fashioned journalism, the writer is supposed to answer the five "W" questions, namely Who, What, When, Where and Why. In travel writing, authors are supposed to capture the attention of their editors, who will then pass along the article to readers of the publication, whether it be electronic or print.

Readers of traditional publications are becoming a rarer breed, anyhow. The Census Bureau in 2002 revealed that fewer than half of adult Americans read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. The same study indicated that only 56% read a book of any kind in the previous year, down from 61% ten years earlier. Literature readers fell from 54% to 47% in the same decade. Women read more literature (55%) than men (38%). Also, the younger the age group, the less the literature readership. The only exception in books was the rise in religious texts, which were up 37% over the previous year.

The Big Q & A

So you have to be entertaining in order to get the attention of your editor. The question remains -- how does one entertain?

The simplest answer is: Become an expert in telling stories.

Becoming an expert in one subject should be easy, in two things a bit harder, in three areas much harder, but to be an accomplished storyteller, you should be an expert in at least three fields. In fact, the more fields in which you are an expert, the better, as your range of writing will expand exponentially.

Three Basic Fields of Expertise

Your easiest bet as a travel writer is to become an expert first in your home area, and you can define "home" as being as small as your neighborhood or as large as your state or region. The bigger the geographical area, though, the more difficult it is to know a lot about such a vast space, so aim for a smaller subject than, say, "the USA." California would be a better example, Napa Valley even more so. When I lived in Key West, I considered that my home territory rather than all of Florida, for instance.

For a second subject, pick a part of the world that is your primary love (aside from home), a place you would like to return to as often as possible, a place you might dream about, somewhere you could call yourself at home if you had to. It might be far away like Japan, close by like your neighboring state, or anyplace in between. But after you feel you have mastered your home area, turn your attention to this, your Big Love destination.

The more popular the geographic area you have chosen, the more likely you will have plenty of competition, so you might be wise to concentrate on a narrower topic than a country. Bavaria might be a better choice than Germany, for example. In my own case, when I lived in Japan, there were few travel writers there and not many back in the States who covered the Land of the Rising Sun very thoroughly, so I picked the whole country as my subject.

As a third choice for your expertise, I suggest a thematic subject, not a geographical destination. This might be your hobby, such as bird watching or fishing or flea market attendance. It could be something relatively abstract such as medical tourism, collecting souvenirs of castles, or painting in odd venues. I once advised two sisters, one of whom loved the fine arts and the other the performing arts, to write a column for their local newspaper entitled "Sisters Act" and taking turns writing about, say, museums in Stockholm and theater in Dublin. It was a success, they reported back to me. In my own case, I picked travel health and safety as my thematic topic, and I have found it a fascinating field and one that I have been able to mine effectively in selling freelance articles.

Establish Your Bona Fides

As you begin your studies of your Basic 3 Fields of Expertise, create your own website, put up a newsletter or blog on it, cram it with information on your three topics and thus establish yourself as an Expert on all three right away.

Then start researching the publications (including websites, etc.) you would like to write for. Check them out on the web, then better yet, look the print ones over at the library to get a feel for the kind of reader you will be aiming to impress (after you win the heart of the editor, of course).


Essential to being an Expert is the tedious task of networking. A young colleague of mine recently has become an expert in at least three fields I know about, in his case two far-a-field destinations and one a thematic subject. (He lives in New York City so chose not to battle the thousands of other writers living there on becoming a Big Apple expert.) In addition to his website, he writes a weekly blog, and cajoles his book publishers (more than one, lucky him) into arranging signings wherever he travels and at the consulates of one of his chosen destinations at least once a year. He also arranges to speak, for a fee, on one or more of his fields at prominent places such as big museums and historic societies. He sends email to all his contacts about every trip he plans and every book signing he will appear at, and shows up at as many travel-related functions he can, becoming a veritable whirlwind of activity. If you don't publicize yourself, practically nobody else will do it for you, so he is already famous in travel writing and at quite a young age.

One of his first steps was to join the organizations where networking takes place. You, too, should first consider joining a writers group. Foremost in North America is the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), of which I am a member. Another nationwide group is the Guild of Travel Journalists, newer than SATW. Joining SATW has advantages other than just networking, meeting its members who are editors (mostly of print publications), and interfacing with other freelance writers. SATW publishes its own newsletter, with job offers, queries from editors looking for articles, news about forthcoming press trips, and more. Details at The Guild's website is

Regional groups of travel writers also exist, such as the oldest, the New York Travel Writers Association (NYTWA), for people living and/or having an office within 100 miles of Times Square. Their website is still under construction, befitting this small group with membership limited to only 80 persons. Other regional groups include the venerable Midwest Travel Writers Association (MTWA), which has annual Mark Twain writing awards. Contact them at

This is the eighth in a series of "How to be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor here and former editor-in-chief at the Fodor guidebook series, teaches at the Key West Travel Writing Workshop, which he founded in 1991, every January and February. Details at