So you’ve not quit your day job but you’re writing away whenever you get the chance because you love the work itself. Very good, the Bhagavad Gita would approve:
“You have no right to the fruits of work, Arjuna, work only for the love of work itself.”
The style and techniques of travel writing vary a great deal depending on the format. The way you set about writing a thousand words for a newspaper column is rather different to putting a 90,000 word travelogue together (first hint – no one serious ever talks in terms of pages or sides of A4 – only word count).
To begin with, almost every good writer was an avid reader first. You need to read far and wide to unconsciously pick up a feel for language, vocabulary, pace and tone. These aren’t things that can really be taught any more than someone can teach you how to swim. It’s something you eventually feel and just do.
What you choose to read is a matter of personal taste but you won’t go far wrong by immersing yourself in the likes of Paul Theroux, Tony Parks and Tony Khowitz. Just read all you can get your hands on and observe what carries you away, what moves you and what just doesn’t work for you at all. You won’t write well by imitating anyone else but it’s important to write material that you enjoy reading. There can be no pretence in your writing, it has to come from a place of feeling.
After that it’s important that you just begin to write without much attachment. Never mind if a piece will be publishable or whether it’s a good basis for a book, just start writing and get the process moving. For most writers it’s necessary to write a hell of a lot of bad stuff before anything good comes out.
Or if you do write something good it’s likely to be mixed up with a hundred literary voices you’ve unconsciously picked up. You’ll likely be influenced by the clichés of guide books, archaic phrasing from childhood reading or pretentious formality from newspaper articles. Writing, like most arts, is a process of removing the shit so that the quality can be seen.
So mostly, the tips for a new travel writer are in what not to do:
1. Don’t put anyone or anything down just to take a step up. That’s the worst part of journalism. Ugh!
2. Don’t write something that you know isn’t true just because it sounds good. Pretty phrasing doesn’t justify a blurred feeling. Hunt that impression down and find expression for it.
3. Understatement is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Don’t feed your conclusions to the reader in way that makes them feel you’re condescending. E.g. And with that the boat sank. Along with everything in it. The family was left in poverty and now they had nothing left.
4. Watch your pace. And the cadence. Ernest Hemmingway wrote with short sentences. Crisp, manly phrases. It worked. For him. But for everyone else – pretentious.
5. But likewise watch for sentences that never end as the writer gets so excited and has so much to say (oh so much) that he needs to use extra brackets (see!) and warbles on until the poor reader has almost fainted from exhaustion until the sentence concludes with a treble exclamation mark!!!
6. Lastly, eliminate all worn out phrases and platitudes. Off the beaten track, a bustling marketplace and a land of contrasts have been used to death. Let them rest in their graves to haunt the travel industry hacks.