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Travel Writing 101: What is Good Travel Writing?

There are as many kinds of writing as there are authors, but what type is best for you? As a writer, you should think about what your objectives might be before you touch fingers to keyboard.

As I mentioned in part three of this series, Red Smith, a famed sportswriter a few decades back, said, "Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." (For those who know not from a typewriter, just Google it.) There are as many kinds of writing as there are authors, among the types being expressive, explanatory and persuasive, to mention only three of the most prominent. Earlier in this course (part four), we looked at Mark Twain describing Hawaii in two of these modes. The first was expressive, describing the "balmy airs...garlanded crags...plumy palms" and the like. Another was persuasive, in which, through irony, he deplored the US acquisition of Hawaii, saying "we can introduce them to the novelty of thieves," among other dubious virtues.

The third mode, the explanatory, seems to suit ordinary travel writing best, but merely delineating the good and bad of some destination can be tiresome at times, boring too often. As a writer, you should think about what your objectives might be before you touch fingers to keyboard. Among the countless purposes you may have in writing, let me mention only four possibilities:

1. Entertaining your reader. Reading isn't for sissies, as it demands more than just sitting down and eyeballing the text. Reading is far more demanding than the entertainment of television, film or even music, as it demands working with the author to enrich the words on the page. You as author provide the framework of a dream subject, whether you are describing a castle in Windsor, a town in Provence, a savannah in Africa, or an island in the South Pacific. But your reader will flesh out details in addition to what you write, bringing an individual imagination to add to that you have provided. More about entertaining, which I feel is the best way to approach travel writing, to come.

2. Reporting. This is what ordinary travel writing often amounts to. And yes, editors and publishers, as well as readers, want the bones, the practical information, about your subject. You must provide the minimum, letting your reader get oriented to the place, persons and actions you describe. Then you can be creative, deciding which details to mention, which to ignore, which to make your theme. If you can't entertain, then be a good reporter, at least.

3. Teaching or preaching. No reader wants to be preached at, and few want to be taught in writing, unless they are searching for enlightenment. (Educational trips are something else, being chosen deliberately for the purpose of studying something. My sophisticated sister says her idea of a really good vacation, however, is one "where I don't have to learn anything." Otherwise, she is always eager to take in something new every day. I agree with her about vacations.) Editors will reject your article if it too obviously tries to persuade or harangue. I don't recommend this approach unless you are writing a column and have readers willing to put up with your points of view. (Think Dave Barry, Bill Buckley et. al.)

4. Peculiar. In discussing travel writing with a new acquaintance a few years ago, the woman said she might like learning about Travel Writing 101 in order to warn readers about Montana, "to tell them how dangerous it is out there." (I have changed the name of the state to protect the potential student's identity.) Later, she revealed that she and her husband, "practicing tough love," had thrown their only son out of their home for drug taking, yet had given him an SUV to be on his way. His way turned out to be Montana, where he apparently got involved in the illegal drug business in some manner and was murdered, found in the wilderness in the burned-out SUV. I had to tell her that I couldn't imagine an editor wanting her story unless it was an adventure/men's magazine and then only if she were an accomplished writer. (Unfortunately, she was not.) Travel writing as closure to tragedy is not a good course for the writer of average ability to follow, I will opine.

The Main Point

The main point I want to make in this entire course is: you should introduce the techniques of fiction to your non-fiction work. Don't just convey information, but try to evoke emotion in your reader.

This is nothing new, the technique having become popular in the late 20th century with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, where he re-imagines the emotions of his killer and gets the reader involved, making the book into a real thriller, not just a documentary.

My favorite editor, Sol Stein, in his splendid book, Stein on Writing, gives samples of the differences between traditional nonfiction, "better nonfiction" and fiction, which I repeat (with a few changes) here:

Traditional non-fiction: New York City has more than 10,000 homeless people.

"Better non-fiction": The man who laid claim to the bench at the corner of 64th Street and Fifth Avenue is one of New York City's 10,000 homeless persons.

Fiction: His skin the color of rust, the man sits on his park bench next to his bag of belongings, staring at the brightly lit windows in the apartments across the street, at that strange race of people who still have hope.

Story Telling

Everyone loves a story, just as everyone lives a story, consciously or not. Even our memories are selective, working, experts say, to create a story line acceptable to our egos and ids. When you admit to forgetting "unpleasant things," that's part of your storytelling desire editing out bits and pieces that clutter up or confuse the narrative you cherish, the one you wouldn't mind letting the outside world see, for instance.

To tell a story, you must include some action, a conflict of some kind, some obstacles to the course of the narrative, and you must evoke some curiosity. To keep the editor's attention (and thus the reader's), you have to have a narrative thrust, just like telling a tale around the campfire or when you mute the television and want to get something off your chest and score a point or two in a short time.

Remember these four points, at least: Action, Conflict, Obstacles, and Curiosity. All four are in aid of Narrative Thrust, the direction you want your story to take.

In our next session, we'll look at more on story telling in your non-fiction articles, websites and books.


This is the twelfth 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

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