How to be a travel writer

By Tom Sykes

I’ve been lucky enough to go all around the world and get paid to write about it. I’ve trekked up an active volcano in Indonesia, turtle-watched in the Middle East and visited a legendary punk rock venue in San Francisco. I’ve taken epic train journeys in China and India and am looking forward to my first visit to Africa.

If you’re interested in travel writing, here are my five easy steps:

1. Go somewhere, anywhere
When I teach my university travel-writing course, my students often complain that they haven’t been anywhere exotic enough. This really doesn’t matter, as any destination in the world is worth writing about, even your home town. Indeed, Portsmouth wouldn’t be a bad place to start – it’s a wonderfully historical city full of fascinating stories which have yet to be written down.

2. Read, read read
As the great travel writer Paul Theroux says, ‘Anyone who wants to be a writer has to be a reader first.’ Read as much travel writing as you can lay your hands on and look out for how the stories are structured, the language used, and how people and places are described.

3. Write, write, write
A lot of aspiring writers sit around hoping for inspiration to visit them and tell them what to jot down. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. Writing is like any other job in the sense that, if you want to do it well, you have to really focus and put the hours in. When I’m writing, much of my time is spent ‘problem-solving’: How do I choose which of my travel experiences make it into the story and which don’t? How do I move from this scene to that? How do I start or finish the story?

4. Absorb
When you’re researching a travel story you can’t rely on your memory alone. Note down important facts and figures that you’d otherwise forget. Take photos of interesting sights. Talk to local people and record what they say. Gather as much information on a place as you can. I often come back from a trip with half my backpack filled with books, brochures, leaflets, newspapers and anything else that might help me write a better story.

5. Find your angle
When I decide to write about a particular place, I’m aware that, chances are, a lot of other people have written about that destination before. So I ask myself these questions: ‘How can I make my story different?’ and ‘What aspect of this destination hasn’t already been covered?’. It’s unlikely that anyone will want to publish a story that has been told before, so it’s really worth brainstorming until you find that unique angle.

Tom’s travel writing has appeared in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, The London Magazine and numerous airline magazines. He grew up in Hayling Island and teaches travel writing in the School of Art, Film and Media at the University of Portsmouth.

Read more about Tom and his work at www.tomgsykes.co.uk.

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