Earlier this month I attended the National Geographic Traveller’s first ever festival, a feast of travel writing and photography sessions run by the team and numerous established professionals. It was probably the best educational event that I have ever attended and I left feeling wholly inspired to improve both these fields.
Lead by the Deputy Editor and a handful of travel writers, all published in NGT, a selection of travel writing sessions looking at how to develop a story, smash that introduction and of course, the pitching process. I wrote every tip and idea down like the front row geek at a university seminar, ready and willing to use their methods on my next piece. Because sharing is caring, I’ve highlighted some of the top things I learnt below so that you too can write a damn good travel story.
Write it down now, not later
As much as we think we’ll always remember the scent of St Lucia or the strange comment we heard passing through Times Square, unfortunately the small details that seem unforgettable often slip our minds upon returning home.
Always record your impressions and instincts about a destination as they happen. Jot down your immediate feelings and take that second to scribble the throwaway comments and names of those you meet.
Smash that introduction
The introduction of a piece is the foundation. It’s the audition with your reader where they’ll decide whether or not you’re worth their time, or if they’d rather go back to feeling envious of their engaged friends on Facebook. To stop people flicking (or scrolling) past your story; you have to start with a surprise. You must make them feel so involved that they have to read on, purely just to answer their own questions that have arisen from your introduction.
Don’t put people off
Don’t meander, just get to the point. Readers want to know what they’re in for within the first few sentences, their time is precious after all. However, don’t put all your best material upfront, just entice people in and grab their attention.
Another way of losing readers is by confusing them with statistics and translations. Everyone has a ‘reader’ voice in their head. If it can’t pronounce a local word, it won’t keep reading. Instead save this information for the bulk of your story.
“…and as I looked out the plane window, I saw the mountains, I was finally here”. YAWN. The beginning of a trip is point blank boring, unless you get kidnapped or end up sitting next to Tom Hanks on your journey.
Think cinematically, how would your trip unfold on a big screen? Let it develop into a few paragraphs which will naturally help to flow through to the middle and end of your story. Introductions don’t have to be short.
Pick the most memorable part of your trip
Was it exotic? Throw the reader into a middle of an electrifying moment (an in media res introduction). Was it terrifying? Make them jealous of your misery with evoking descriptions. Was it someone you met? Make it about them and how they summed up the destination. Or is it just a simple tale about one experience? Use a thematic opening for an effortless introduction that sounds as natural as if you’d told a friend.
Use signposts and tent pegs
And no I don’t mean whilst you’re travelling (although that’s probably helpful, particularly for the campers). To structure the flow of your story, firstly make lists of what you definitely want to include and what isn’t quite so thrilling (keep the reject list for things like listicles and top 10s). These key moments are your tent pegs and will help you keep to the flow of your story and stop you waffling off onto a tangent.
Now to help your reader stay ontrack, use signposts at the start of each paragraph that clarify where you are in the story. A common way of losing your reader is with mixed tenses. When referring to a time gone by, be clear and concise, for example “back in 1889, the city was…Now in modern day Athens…”.
Always ask someone who hasn’t been on your trip to pre read your piece. Do they know what’s going on? Do they understand where you are in the story?
Less is more (unless you’re writing a guidebook)
The more you write, the more of those boring linking sentences you need to use. They're an essential part of writing but are the least exciting part and can chip away at a quality story. So before you write out 2000 words on your Indonesian adventure, be selective about those key points and don't over-cram it with everything that happened.
Yes be creative, but not too much
Sometimes the most wonderful stories are actually the ones that use the simplest language. You don’t have to pull the thesaurus check on every word to be creative. The brain can only handle so much flowery language and a simple ‘he said’ doesn’t hurt.
In addition don’t overfill with subclauses, tips or historical references. Use facts as an adjective rather than a statement, for example “The 500 year old bookcase” rather than “given that the bookcase is 500 years old”.
Write about the destination, not you
The point of a travel story is to immerse the reader in a destination, whether it’s a guy with a plaster cast or someone with their bags at the door. Don’t turn the story into a personal memoir by flooding it with ‘I’s. Instead of “the guide said to me” just write “the guide said”. Write so that the reader can become the character in the story.
To give that strong sense of a place, evoke all the senses through your writing, and don’t be obvious. When you think of Marrakech you think of spices, bright colours… but what about the sounds? Make sure to immerse your readers in the destination. To do this, be specific with your descriptions and detail. What material were the curtains? What shade of red was that wall?
End on a...
The hardest part; the ending. A good one can leave the reader feeling inspired and entertained, but a bad one can undo all your hard work. Have you ever watched a film, tensely enjoying every moment, a build up commencing and then boom… it ends. No explanation, no action. You’re left screaming “WTF was that?!” Don’t be that movie.
If you can, think about your ending before you even begin, taking one of the following paths…
Sum it up
This can be tricky and often a little corny, but summing up with a quote or new event can avoid that ‘history paper’ feel. This particularly works if something happened that perfectly sums up the point of your piece. Just absolutely don't sum it up with a throwaway comment about how as you sipped you Sauvignon you already dreamed of a return trip. Firstly, boring. Secondly, there is no connection to the destination or story whatsoever.
Not your best piece of writing? Tight deadline? Save it with a recall. Give a sense of narrative cohesion by referring back to a point you made in the introduction.
A cheeky reveal
Offer up a cliffhanger midway through your story and make your readers wait until the end to solve the mystery. See it as a little reward, a congratulations for reading my entire piece. Just don’t make it disappointing.
If you’re really struggling with how to end it, just stop. Sometimes a story is best left, well, somewhat untold. Leave your readers with questions by cutting it dead… just be prepared for the inevitable tweets demanding to know what happened.
I hope you find the above tips helpful, please do let me know what you think! And of course, if you have any other tips you've heard that make a great travel piece please leave them in the comments. I can't wait to read your stories!