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How Travel Writing Works

The travel writing genre comprises everything from blog posts to lengthy accounts of people's adventures around the world.
The travel writing genre comprises everything from blog posts to lengthy accounts of people's adventures around the world.
Labelled/iStock/Thinkstock

Steve Callahan never found out what sank his boat. A whale? A big shark? It didn't really matter. He was alone in the dark in the middle of the ocean. He managed to inflate his life raft and throw in some survival equipment before his little sailboat went down. From then on, he baked under the hot, cloudless sky during the day and shivered through the nights, eking a few precious drops from a still that slowly made potable water from ocean brine. Sharks hammered him from below, and one even flung itself onboard his raft and ripped the lining as he fought it off with a spear. Boat after boat passed him on the horizon, oblivious to the flares he shot into the sky.

Somehow, Callahan survived for more than two months at sea, spearing fish and eating them raw and maintaining his sanity by diligently keeping a journal. Luckily, he was a skilled navigator and survivalist. Using rudimentary equipment, he plotted his position daily, calculating his rate of drift and the amount of time it would take for him to make landfall if no boat picked him up. This allowed him to strategize his survival, rationing his food and water carefully so that he had just enough to get by but no more. In the end, he drifted from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, where he was finally rescued by fishermen, the only man known to have survived more than a month at sea alone.

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After he'd recovered, Callahan turned his journal into an account of his ordeal. "Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea" is a gripping read that does what the best travel writing can do: transport you from your armchair to another world. Of course, calling Callahan's work a piece of travel writing might strike some as unusual. But if the genre comprises journeys taken and recorded, then "Adrift" belongs. And the travel writing genre remains a baggy knapsack with lots of room for variation. Let's see what else we can stuff in there.

Travel writers must get to know their environment in order to provide the best details, stories and tips for readers.
Travel writers must get to know their environment in order to provide the best details, stories and tips for readers.
Encrier/iStock/Thinkstock

When we think of travel writing, many of us mentally leaf through a narrative account of a trip. Classics like Patrick Leigh Fermor's "A Time of Gifts," Dervla Murphy's "Full Tilt"or Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" belong in this category. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, Fermor's work is the record of a walking trip he took from Holland to what was then Constantinople in 1933 when he was just 18. In 1963, Dervla Murphy climbed onto her bicycle and pedalled alone from her native Ireland all the way to India. The journal she kept became the legendary "Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle." Published in 1975, Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar"epitomizes the genre, serving as an account of his train trip from London to Southeast Asia and back via Europe, the Middle East, India and Siberia.

These are all stories of narrators in movement. But what of people who write about travelling somewhere and staying put for a while? Think, for instance, of George Orwell's non-fiction works, from "Down and Out in Paris and London"to "The Road to Wigan Pier"to "Homage to Catalonia." Or the modern-day equivalent, Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" about life in a Mumbai "undercity."

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Interestingly, when writers stick to one place, they tend to dig deeper, coming up with more than a record of exotic locales and often providing penetrating analysis of the politics and culture of their new surroundings. In the case of both Orwell and Boo, the writers don't just observe, they immerse themselves in the impoverished communities they visit, participating in the day-to-day life they discover there [source: Jack].

At the other end of the spectrum is the guidebook. From the ubiquitous "Fodor's" to the hipper "Lonely Planet"and "Rough Guide"series, these non-narrative guides can be useful travel companions that offer important details needed to tour a city or region. And, although they don't include the personal accounts we associate with the classic travel books, somebody did write those guidebooks. And it took a lot of work, too. We'll see just how well guidebook writers are compensated for their sweat a little later on.

Somewhere between long-narrative accounts and guidebooks are newspaper travel sections and travel magazines. These short-form pieces often include the story of a trip taken and some practical info about places to stay, what to see and where to eat.

All of the sub-genres listed above consist of non-fiction writing. And typically that's how travel writing is categorized. But how reliable is this categorization? Is "On the Road"a novel or a travelogue? Marco Polo's work might not hold water as non-fiction according to many scholars, but it makes for good fiction. And what about the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson? In many ways, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" fits neatly into the travel literature category. In most ways, of course, it does not.

To get a better sense of what constitutes travel writing, let's go back to the beginning.

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An early example of a travel writer, Italian scholar Petrarch penned a letter describing his pleasure-seeking trek up Mont Ventoux.
An early example of a travel writer, Italian scholar Petrarch penned a letter describing his pleasure-seeking trek up Mont Ventoux.
Alison Cornford-Matheson/iStock/Thinkstock

When mobility meets the invention of writing, travel literature begins. The Greek geographer Pausanius is considered to be among the first known travel writers. Travelling around Greece in the second century, he composed a work called, fittingly enough, "Description of Greece." Short on scenery but long on cultural idiosyncrasies, "Description"remains an important reference for modern historians and archaeologists [source: Elsner].

During China's Song Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th centuries, travel writing was something of a fad. Travellers like Fan Chengda and Xu Xiake intrigued readers with records of the topographical and geographical details gleaned from their journeys through the Chinese provinces [source: Hargett].

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The great 14th-century Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta spent 30 years voyaging over land and sea, from the Middle East to Africa, China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. His report of these travels, dictated to the scholar Ibn Juzayy, established him as one of the world's most legendary travellers [source: Kowalska].

Ibn Batutta's Italian contemporary, Petrarch, is best known for his poetry and humanist writing, but a letter he wrote recounting a climb up the Provençal Mont Ventoux, is often cited as one of the earliest examples of modern travel literature. That's because Petrarch writes that he made the climb not for religious, political or mercantile reasons, but for pleasure alone [source: Schama].

The pleasure of travel. That, perhaps, is the sentiment we most associate with travel writing. And the possibility of experiencing that pleasure vicariously through reading about it is probably what draws most readers to the genre.

In 19th-century Europe, as travel became easier and more frequent, those privileged with leisure time picked up where Petrarch left off, voyaging, trekking and climbing for pleasure. Travel literature took off. Famous novelists like Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain joined in the fun, writing popular accounts of their travels by land and sea [source: Hulme].

The 19th century was also a time when women were making themselves heard in greater numbers than ever before, and some chose travel writing as their medium of expression. Examples include French women's rights activist Flora Tristan, who published an account of her intrepid journey to Peru to claim a family fortune in the unforgettably titled "Peregrinations of a Pariah" [source: Pratt]. In "Station Life in New Zealand," the British journalist Mary Anne Barker detailed life raising sheep in what was then one of the most remote corners of the world [source: Spender].

This 19th-century expansion of the travel writing genre coincided with the apex of European colonialism, and many contemporary scholars have pointed out that much of that era's travel writing is saturated with the exoticism and racism that were endemic to the empire-building mode. In the post-colonial world, these attitudes can still be found lurking in the background of much contemporary travel writing [source: Pratt].

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Your success as a travel writer depends on your drive to just go and do it, but that drive doesn't always equate to lots of cash.
Your success as a travel writer depends on your drive to just go and do it, but that drive doesn't always equate to lots of cash.
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So, how do you become a travel writer? There's the self-starter mode: You could do what Flora Tristan did and go on a trip, keep notes, turn them into a book when you get home and then try to get it published. This is probably the method that guarantees the most autonomy and the most frustration.

But there are many other routes to becoming a published travel writer. You could start with some professional training. Many universities now offer courses related to travel writing. Montreal's McGill University, for instance, offers a course that includes a brief history of travel literature followed by practical instruction in pitching ideas, developing interviewing skills, and working with text and images [source: McGill].

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Some newspapers also offer workshops specifically designed for aspiring travel writers. You can take a course through "The Guardian," for instance, which is taught by an established travel journalist over two six-hour days. Then there are entities like The Travel Writer's Life, which has products designed specifically for beginners. Their services include something called "The Lazy Man's Guide" and "The Ultimate Travel Writer's Program." Alternatively, you can go the DIY route and take notes while reading the innumerable Web pages featuring tips for up-and-coming travel writers. The Lonely Planet website, for example, sports a page with "Five expert tips for getting started in travel writing."

Now for the big question: Is there a living to be made here? It depends on whom you ask. On its FAQ page, The Travel Writer's Life addresses the question with a few caveats about how hard you have to work to make it in this field and then dangles the number $50,000 as the yearly income earned by an "established, successful full-time freelancer we know" [source: The Travel Writer's Life].

But on the useful travel resource site Transitions Abroad, writer Tim Leffel is a bit more pessimistic in an article titled, "The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer." Even after more than a decade of working at it, he says that most of the articles he writes pay between $25 and $300. As for a plum assignment like a guidebook, Leffel says a new writer often gets as little as $10,000, and can expect to work for close to a year on the thing.

At the top end, an established guidebook writer might make as much as $30,000, but that includes expenses. When all is said and done, the pay could amount to little more than a few dollars an hour. Leffel doesn't want to discourage would-be travel writers, but his main message is, don't do it for the money [source: Leffel].

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The image of the lucky travel writer on an all-expenses-paid trip isn't a reality for most.
The image of the lucky travel writer on an all-expenses-paid trip isn't a reality for most.
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Websites like The Travel Writer's Life promote the idea that travel writing isn't just a viable career, it's a glamorous one at that. Get paid to see the world – it's not exactly a hard sell. Not only will you get paid to travel, goes the pitch, but resorts and hotels will be more than happy to foot the bill for your accommodation and dining in their pursuit of a positive review.

There's some truth to all this, according to Tim Leffel, but only for a lucky few. Resorts and hotels do indeed invite travel writers for all-expenses-paid sojourns, but only if you're writing for a famous guidebook or travel magazine. And those assignments are few and far between, even for established writers. He quotes the famous contemporary travel writer, Pico Iyer, who reported that his first assignment writing for the Rough Guide series involved "covering 80 towns in 90 days while sleeping in gutters and eating a hotdog once a week" [source: Leffel].

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Still, there are some scribblers out there who seem to be living the dream. In an article published on the site Freelance Travel Writer, Megan Wood talks about the path she took to fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a travel writer. After a stint in the Peace Corps, she took some courses through an online school called MatadorU. In short order she was publishing articles and had launched her career as a travel writer [source: Wood].

But glamour and remuneration aside, if you have an itch to travel and an urge to be read, the Internet provides that peerless tool of self-publishing, the blog. There are countless travel blogs out there, and some of them are very successful. So successful that one of them, Grrrl Traveler, poses the question, "Will travel bloggers and social media kill guidebooks?" Her answer: mostly yes [source: Kaaloa].

And is it possible to earn money as a travel blogger? Again, yes. It took Matt Kepnes just 18 months to make a living from his blog Nomadic Matt. But he's not just a writer; he's an entrepreneur who uses his blog as a means of selling e-books and other travel-related products. Still, he's doing it, and he's not the only one [source: Clark].

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Author's Note: How Travel Writing Works

If the digital age is in the process of transforming travel writing as we know it, think of what will happen when space tourism takes off! The blogosphere or twitterverse (or whatever replaces them in the decades to come) will be rife with tips on the best freeze-dried ice-cream to pack, how to pee in zero gravity and what SPF you need outside Earth's atmosphere. Come to think of it, will travel writing survive, or will we be sending holograms of our adventures recorded by the cameras embedded in our eyes? I'm optimistic — the written word has come this far; surely it'll make it to Mars. And beyond. It's only a matter of time before we're reading about the "Top 5 Things to See on Ganymede Before You Die" (on your way back home).

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Sources

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