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Travel Writing 101: The Freelance Life

It requires not only your writing skills, love of other places, and stamina, but your organizational techniques as business manager, traffic controller and trend spotter.

"Get paid to travel" reads one headline. "How to Make a Six-Figure Income Traveling the World" is another. In the last few years, several websites have popped up urging you to learn how to become rich while writing about travel. For fees of several hundred dollars, they promise to teach you how to lead the good life.

It's a life I don't recognize as being anywhere near the reality of those led by many friends of mine who are freelance travel writers. To me, the freelancer is a knight errant, the leaderless samurai, a solo gun-slinger, and my hero much of the time.

As a hiring editor for guidebook publishers, I had to seek out the best freelancers, the hardest working, the rare person who did more than the minimum asked for, and the one who could meet deadlines, and I found them everywhere in the world. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the good ones among them, recognizing what they have to go through to make a living.

The bad news is how difficult it is to make a decent living as a freelance travel writer. It requires not only your writing skills and stamina, but your organizational techniques as business manager, traffic controller and trend spotter. Not to mention avid researcher of available markets, and successful networker of editors and travel industry people.

The good news is that you will be your own boss, all the time and wherever you go. And your work and fortune will expand as you put more time and effort into the battle.

Mark Twain, First Among Freelancers

Many freelancers become famous, many more do not. Mark Twain was not only the father of American humorous writing (Faulkner says he was the father of American literature), but one of our first real travel writers. (The Midwest Travel Writers Association names its biggest prize for him.) In such works as The Innocents Abroad (1869) and A Tramp Abroad (1880), he created the American version of the Grand Tour of Europe. And in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (much of which was written while he lived in Heidelberg, Germany, by the way), he refined the use of travel as the thread binding together the sections of a great novel.

Like many skilled authors, he had several voices. One of his great loves was Hawaii, so I have chosen two of his articles about that paradise. The first voice here is evocative. Speaking at a dinner held in honor of a baseball team about to embark for Hawaii on a world tour (sponsored by Albert Spalding of baseball bat fame), he said in 1889:

No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun, the pulsing of its surf beat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brook, in my nostril still lives the breath of flowers that perished 20 years ago.

Editors today (and readers) might not fall for all the long sentences, but should appreciate phrases like "the spirit of its woodland solitudes" and "still lives the breath of flowers that perished 20 years ago."

Then there is Mark Twain the outraged citizen, who deplores the proposed annexation of Hawaii in 1873, writing in a preaching or persuading voice, yet one drenched with irony:

We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent governments. We can introduce them the novelty of thieves, all the way up from streetcar pickpockets to municipal robbers and government defaulters, and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose -- some for cash and some for political influence. . .We can give them railway corporations who will buy their legislature like old clothes, and run over their best citizens and complain of the corpses for smearing their unpleasant juices on the track. . .We can furnish them some (robber barons) who will do away with their old-time notion that stealing is not respectable. . .We can give them lectures! I will go myself. We can make that little bunch of sleepy islands the hottest corner on earth, and array it in the moral splendor of our high and holy civilization. Annexation is what the poor islanders need.

The Freelancer Life

My first advice to aspiring freelance writers is to marry rich, or otherwise obtain a partner who has, at least, a steady income. Markets are hard to break into, payment is often laughably cheap. One young writer for a major series of guidebooks approached me on a press trip a few years ago and asked me if I had worked for the series and what they paid. I mentioned some figures, and he said, "Good, I'm working for nothing right now, but they told me if I did a good job, they would pay me next time." The figures I mentioned then were a range from $75 for updating a small chapter of a book through a few thousand to revise the entire book up to about $15,000 for the original writing of a new, fairly small title (under 300 pages of print).

Your writing in a newspaper can pay as little as $75, in a magazine $250, though there are higher and lower figures, depending on the publication. When you are successful, you can command a figure of $1 a word or even higher, however. Traditional print outlets (general purpose newspapers) are down, but niche print publications (birding, ballooning, kayaking, etc.) are up. The Internet is fraught with possibilities, very few of them paying much, if anything, though. You may have to self-publish, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

You have to be well organized to freelance. You must keep a meticulous record of where you send each article, date, name of contact, and then have a tickle file system to remind you to call/email the editor, get paid and send out a thank you note. You also have to keep in touch with editors who like your work, sending them proposals for new articles and for feedback. At the same time, you are scouting for new markets, researching new publications or websites, and developing your own website and/or blog to keep editors appraised of your work and talents. If you are planning a trip, you will let editors know in case they want something from the area. And you will network a lot.

In short, be prepared for a life of work as hard as you can make it, unless you have that rich spouse/partner, of course.

A Note on Six-figure Incomes

As to those six-figure incomes mentioned earlier, one scheme advocated by a website involves buying heaps of cheap handcrafted items, health supplements and the like in Thailand or Latin America, exporting them back to the USA, then reselling at vastly inflated prices. Doesn't sound like travel writing to me. Moreover, one site has its sample author writing "In fact, my own editor is crying out for correspondents to report on destinations throughout the world ... and she's not the only editor seeking fresh talent. To be honest, I have to turn work down -- there simply aren't' enough hours in the day to take up all the writing commissions I'm offered." Not bloody likely, as many of my freelancer friends would say.

A six-figure income is possible, of course, though it will take very hard work and probably will represent the combined income of writing and selling really good photographs, or perhaps earning additional bucks also from some form of electronic work, such as broadcasting.

This is the fifth in a series on "How to Be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor and columnist for, is a former editor-in-chief of the Fodor Travel Guides, a former president of the Society of American Travel Writers and director of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He teaches his Key West Travel Writing Workshop every January and February in that Florida resort. Details at