How to write

Since I regularly get emails asking for tips and advice on writing, here is a link to writer Shoba Narayan’s great piece on how to write (yeah, yeah, linking is not the same as blogging – just call me lazy).

Not to scare you but as she says, “No matter what kind of writer you become, realize that it is a painful lonely life.” I agree. Ergo, the discipline – routines, deadlines, timely queries, patient follow ups and such.

And today, Shoba has also linked to an interesting piece from Brain Pickings on routines for writers – I am heading there to read it now. You too?

While on this, here is a longish post I wrote a couple of years ago on breaking into travel writing (yes, that seemingly glamourous profession where you get to cavort across the world, all expenses paid. Not). Have a dekko.

Travel writing traps

Linear narratives, flat adjectives, too many superlatives – this piece on Matador talks about the common mistakes rookie travel writers make. But here is the thing – it is easy for seasoned writers to fall into these too. These, and the story (of the how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation essay type) supported entirely by cliche and adjectives, with adverbs sprinkled all through without restraint – of course, this is not specialty of travel writers alone, but there it is just easier.

My favourites – and yes, I have been guilty of some (all in the past, I hope) – Hidden gem (so how did *you* discover it?), I promised to be back (really, every single place you visit?), amazing (it is bad enough you use it in spoken language and really, you must be naive if you are that easily amazed), quick pitstop (that lasted four hours?), carried back a mind full of memories (one, good to know you have a mind and two, why are you not working with a sleazy travel agency yet?) and finally, lap of nature (even I do not have anything to say about this).

There, I feel better already. Nothing like a little snarkiness to spice up the day, what?

So you want to be a travel writer

I keep getting asked for advice all the time on how to become a travel writer. Now, that is a question I cannot answer easily because I hesitate to call myself a travel writer. The likes of Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer?, they are travel writers; the rest of us write on travel, sometimes sponsored by a publication, mostly not and write on our travel experiences. And if you do not understand the difference, stop right here. Go back to read Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris and the other greats and come back.

So, why do I want to write about this now? For one, I get roughly an email a week on this question and I figured it would be simpler for me to write this out on my blog and start pointing future queriers in this direction. And then, I realize that I now have over seventy published pieces in my portfolio, and it is therefore time I stopped feeling like a poseur and admit that I am a writer (along with freelance, travel, whatever other words I want to add or dispense with). So here goes.

And for purposes of convenience, I think I will stick to the phrase ‘travel writer’ here but remember what I said about the Brysoneshwar and Iyernath kind of writers being the real deal.

There are two things you can do – write steadily for a magazine or freelance. What follows is mostly about the second thing. The first role is tougher to get but it means paid trips and cushy holidays, not to mention a steady income. Far greater people have written about this already; the venerable blogger-journalist zigzackly’s pearls of wisdom come readily to mind at this stage. So head there right now.

Start writing. Even if only on your blog.

Alright. So now you know what the v.b.j has to say. I didn’t want to be rude and ask you directly, so I sent you there since he has already asked this; you can write, can’t you? Really. Believe me, there is a large gap between writing on one’s blog (or free content for websites) and writing a piece that is fit for publication. So the ‘I travel a lot and I can write, therefore I can be a travel writer’ logic does not quite work that way.

Sure, a blog is a great way to start – if you feel you have it in you to be a writer, start writing regularly on your blog. Apart from bringing some discipline to your writing, it is a good way to showcase your talent. There are many editors who do not insist on previous published experience and your blog (or some selected posts) can serve as your portfolio. If you have not traveled anywhere recently, then write down stories from your earlier travels – it is a great way to bring back good memories and get writing practice.

Build contacts. Or search for them.

While writers are usually happy to share / exchange contacts of editors that they know or work with regularly, it irks being asked for a bunch of contacts –‘ I don’t know where to begin, please send me the contacts of all the editors you know’. Er, why? Most publications have a clear masthead, some of it even online and all it is takes is a few minutes of time and effort to find the right names and email ids. Spend some time also going through the ‘contributors guidelines’ to see what their expectations are from a new writer.

Get your query right.

Finding the email id of the editor is usually the easy part, I think. Getting the query right is the big thing, especially with an editor you do not know personally or are writing to for the first time. Make your query letter interesting (there are hundreds of articles on the internet on this, please spend some time reading a few of those). It works better if you send an idea or three (not more, please – and not complete manuscripts unless the guidelines specify it ) and not just a bland introduction. Remember there are a hundred other talented writers out there, so why should the editor choose you (unless she is your friend, in which case I say, good for you!) – give her good reason to.

Get spellings right (including the editor’s) and make your pitch short and attractive. Before you dash off that query, research the publication’s style – some like descriptive travel guides without a personal voice while others look for a first hand narrative. Yet others seek not a travel story but a people story – what is special about the place, the people, their food and culture?

Find a unique perspective.

There are travel stories and travel stories; think about what will set yours apart. There must thousands of Rajasthan, or even Jaipur stories out there, so what do you have to say that is new and interesting? (And remember, you are likely to be writing not for your bunch of friends but for travel-savvy readers, many of them who may be seasoned travelers themselves).

The “big story” is one part of it, a really good travel writer brings alive the smaller stories – if you focus on the details, it will make your story seem fresh and new – for instance, local handicrafts, markets, people you meet, some new cuisine or food you tried – all these can be themes for a story…

Editors are happy to spot good ideas, just as they are quick to trash uninteresting ones – remember, the place does not have to be new (how many of us can travel to the Congo? Or Iceland?) or even interesting (I have read enough articles about the hidden gems of Bangalore to say that this is true) – your perspective, your hook has to be.

Here are a few more tips on being a travel writer from experienced traveler-writers:

~ The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer

~ Make Travel Itself Your First Priority

~ How to be a Travel Writer

~ The problem with travel writing is not the travel, it’s the writing

Good luck with the travel writing!