"I think all good writing is travel writing," says Russell Banks, "it's an account of a journey." He said this at the Key West Literary Seminar back in 1991, and went on to explain that "conventionally, the journey is out, and spatial," citing Melville's Moby Dick. But "there's another journey, a journey inward and across time, rather than across space," and he referred to Hawthorne. Finally, he said, "all good travel writing is written to make a point about home" and mentions Homer. Whew! That's a lot to think about, and you can argue any of those points with equal validity, I believe.
But the question today is not what travel writing is, but how to do it. My mission, which I chose to accept, is to describe how a reader, you, can become a travel writer. The answer lies mainly in how you choose to go about life. You are either a planner, with specific goals and targets, or you let life happen, and serendipitously find your way. Or maybe a little of each.
If you are a planner, you can go the academic route or the school of hard knocks route, now known as "life experience." In the first instance, consider finding colleges with courses on travel writing and maybe a workshop or seminar (such as the one I teach in Key West each winter). You can Google for colleges and come up with a handful, such as Chatham University in Pittsburgh, or Oklahoma University, as well as a lot of chaff. But precious few campuses offer classes in travel writing.
For workshops and seminars, Google again or better yet, go to Shaw Guides (www.shawguides.com), which is a marvelous website devoted to different kinds of writing courses, workshops on the arts and more. There are hundreds of writing classes, workshops, seminars, retreats, some with grants and scholarships, but very few with instruction in travel writing.
The School of Hard Knocks
If school or workshops are not your thing, but you still want to plan the direction you will be taking, consider getting into publishing somehow, and after that into the specific niche of travel writing. (A fair number of my students have been professional writers who want to branch out into travel.) You can make a good living by being a technical writer, for instance, carving out a reputation for yourself in a specific field, the more difficult the more profitable for you. You could be a medical writer, a food writer, a business writer, you name it, somebody is writing about it and many are making a living doing so.
A few experts used to advise young people to go into the travel trade publishing field, where you get miserable pay but plenty of experience in the travel industry. There are several publications in the shape of magazines (e.g. Travel Agent), newsletters (Travel Industry News), even newspapers (Travel Weekly), all three with electronic versions on the web, devoted to the travel trade. Lately, there's more on the Internet than on paper, however. Perhaps you will become an expert in the fields of cruises, or airlines, or tour operations, hotels, and the like. With your knowledge and contacts, it becomes easier to shift from the low paying job to writing for a better class of publication, to start your own niche website or even to become a public relations contact in one or more specialized fields.
In PR, you will be writing a lot of press releases, though they will all be 100% positive about your client, and are usually not expected to be of any literary merit. Some PR people have even parlayed lucrative promotion jobs over the years into a nest egg that gave them the chance to branch out into travel writing itself. You could even go into the travel industry directly, working for an airline (with the great opportunity for free travel in some cases), a hotel chain, a tour operator or the like.
Whatever you do, spend your spare time traveling, gaining experience, and always, writing, even if only for yourself. Then network like crazy, even if you hate the idea. (Personally, I hate networking, and get through it by imagining that I am an actor playing a role of networker. Since I believe very little networking is done with sincerity, anyhow, it seems to work for me.)
Opportunity Calls, the Serendipitous Road
Whichever route you take -- planner or not -- the time will come when you decide to be a travel writer. Or not. Every road runs in two directions, if not more. Some people in the business started out intending to be lawyers, or diplomats, actors or cooks, and suddenly found themselves in the travel writing field. That was the case with Arthur Frommer, a lawyer, and Eugene Fodor, an art book salesman, to mention only two famous cases of the road running in the other direction.
Two more examples: Jan Morris was a prominent economic and political journalist for the Observer in London, writing a bit of travel on the side before changing sex and devoting herself to full time travel writing, with spectacular results. Pico Iyer, on the other hand, worked for the Let's Go guidebook series while still a student, and says travel is only part of the writing he does for a living. Every author has a different background story, as yours will be, too.
I haven't mentioned money yet, so will say only that you should have resources of your own, or a spouse/partner with a regular job, so someone can pay the bills. The travel writers who have good incomes are either on the staff of some publication and drawing a salary, or have honed the art of freelancing well, usually after many years of hard practice. Newspapers pay chicken feed (e.g. $75 for a column of print), magazines maybe $1 a word at best for writers without a famous following, websites little, and books smallish advances (if any, maybe $5,000) or flat fees not much more than that for a small book.
This is the first 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 www.heritagehousemuseum.org.