Last updated: 16 March 2008
The tips in this article complement the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.
A FEW YEARS AGO I was trying to make a flyer at Kinkos. I handed my rough draft to this goth-looking, pierced eyebrow kid, and asked if there was a way to switch around some of the images and text.
“Look dude,” he said, sliding the sheet back to me, and then pointing to the empty rows of computers. “There’s no magic here. Try Microsoft Word.”
Remember this when you’re trying to break into travel writing professionally, and dealing with busy editors: There’s no magic. Getting paid travel writing assignments comes down to doing your homework, having your pitch and story tight, and not wasting time. Here are 10 tips to help you.
1. Blog. If you don’t have a blog already, start one now. For a step by step guide to on how to do this, click here. Editors don’t want to dig through some obscure website’s archives looking for your clips, nor waste time opening .pdf files. They want to go right to your blog, check to see that indeed you can write, that you’re already generating comments, traffic, etc. It doesn’t matter if you pick up a free blog on blogspot or wordpress.com. Just get going. Get writing. Start gaining visibility today.
2. Study the websites where you want to contribute and get on their radar screen. If you are interested in writing for a particular website or magazine, you should know the answers to these questions: Who are the editors? Who are the publishers? Who are their regular contributors? What kind of stories do they run? What subjects have been covered recently?
If possible, before sending your first story pitch / submission, get on the radar screen by commenting regularly to others’ stories. Write letters to the editor. Editors (and publishers) love these free contributions. You’ll already have a foot in the door.
Don’t waste time telling the editor why you’d be perfect for telling this particular story. Hook him or her with the story itself, giving a sample of it that keeps them wanting to read more.
3. Learn how to pitch a story. Pretend you’ll be receiving the pitch instead of sending it. How does it address the site’s content needs? How is it original? How does it fit with the magazine’s overall style? If you can’t immediately answer these questions, chances are you need to do more homework.
Finally, don’t waste time telling the editor why you’d be perfect for telling this particular story. Hook him or her with the story itself, giving a sample of it that keeps them wanting to read more. Usually the way you write the pitch will be a pretty good indicator as to whether you’re the right person to tell this story or not.
4. Be patient, then follow up. All too often your email ends up buried. If you haven’t heard back from the editor in a couple weeks (or months–check the site or magazine guidelines for response times) follow up with him or her. Compose a new email rather than amending the original as these can sometimes stay buried.
Editors are human–they might have simply read your story, liked it, but forgotten to respond because it was the end of the day and they thought they’d do it tomorrow. Sometimes the right follow up letter is the difference between getting published or not.
5. Think long-term and play this into your pitches. Editors of travel blogs are looking for regular contributors they can count on for content each month. Knock them out with your first pieces, and then suggest a series of stories that you could work on and submit over several weeks or months.
6. Send short thank-you notes and feedback. Whether your submission was published or not, send a quick thank-you to your editor. Offer concise feedback to how the story came out. (Editors need praise too.) Too often, the good communication that led up to a publication (or not) suddenly disappears. Perhaps the editor liked your story but it just wasn’t the right fit, only he or she didn’t have time to tell you. Sending him or her a thank-you note encourages them to respond.
7. Networking. Take advantage of online and offline networking as much as you can. Get on social networking sites like Facebook and Matador. Do you have an account on Flickr.com? Are you a member of del.icio.us? Stumble Upon? Editors want to see that you can help their publication gain visibility across the internet, not only by the strength of your story but by whatever connections you can add.
8. Learn basic HTML and photo-editing skills. As travel writing continues to take place online, the more you can offer your editor, the happier he or she will be to work with you. Don’t cop out with “I’m not computer savvy.” Invest a few hours of your time each week to learn how to resize a photo, or provide hyperlinks in whatever format your editor asks.
9.Establish a sustainable lifestye. Building your writing skills, networking, pitching, publishing: it all takes months, years, decades. If you really want to get good at this, it will help to live in a place where you can afford to spend the maximum amount of time reading, writing, revising. Most of us have to make sacrifices, such as living at home, or in a state of semi-permanent travel / homelessness. Either way, make an honest assessment of what living arrangements are the most productive.
10. Come correct. Embrace your unique travel experiences and perceptions. Don’t front. If you’re not a surfer (or whatever it might be), don’t write a story pretending to be one, because the false notes always come through in the writing. Instead, identify and develop your particular niche. Maybe you work with kids? If so, you’ll see the world differently than an architect. Work this into your travel writing. You’re always your own best bet.
*MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.