Ask An Amateur Travel Writer: What Makes Good Travel Writing?
I’ve been asked a few times in the last months about what makes good travel writing, to be honest, I don’t think I should be a go-to authority on the matter, but I did want to give my best attempt at answering. So, the following is my opinion about travel writing today:
The internet is littered with a slew of poorly written travel blogs. I don’t mean that to sound quite as disheartening as it comes off. The internet has allowed most of humanity to gain access to an unlimited amount of information with relative ease, but it inversely creates a need to dig through much of the unusable information and unreadable stories that somehow keep reaching the top of Google’s search queue. That isn’t to say that great travel writing doesn’t exist on the internet, I am merely stating that you have to dig a bit to find a diamond, and you have to dig deep into yourself to create travel literature that is provocatively enticing.
So, what makes great travel writing? A great deal of travel writing on the internet tends to be egocentric writing: “I went here, I did this, I had this deep introspection because of this.” The majority of travel blogs are written in this manner, and their audiences tend to be more of family and friends; people who already know you (which is fine). The reason for this type of audience is that the writer fails to take care of the needs of the reader. For those that know you, they want to know more about you, and will thus read your writing. However, for those who don’t know you, they most likely don’t want to know what kinds of foods you ate at a restaurant you went to once in Kuala Lumpur (oh, hey look, a picture of food again)…that is, unless you can artistically depict why the food was so important. That is because there is one reason above all others that people read travel writing: experience.
A well-written travel piece will draw the reader in so that they feel as if they are experiencing the travel itself, or as if they cannot stand another moment of not experiencing that same travel. Allow me to give two brief examples to further explain. When arriving at Deer Cave in Gunung Mulu (which is the largest open-cave-entrance in the world) you immediately are blown away by the sheer size. A picture could never truly do the cave any justice. A writer could state, “When we got to Deer Cave I was blown away by the size. It was the largest cave I had ever seen.” The problem with writing that way is that you are telling the reader and expecting them to have the experience. In a song by The Format titled “Inches and Falling,” Nate Reuss sings that “pictures only prove you can’t convince.” This couldn’t be more accurate. Taking a picture at one of the largest caves in the world shows people that you were there, but it doesn’t really convince people of just what you saw, but great travel writing can do that. Good travel writing ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells’: “Each drip that falls from the karst formations above takes an eternity before it hits the ground below and echoes through the giant chamber. You imagine the Boeing-747 that brought you to Borneo flying through the giant opening of Deer Cave as the guide quickly mentions that eleven jumbo jets could be placed into the cave tip-to-tail. Swiftlet birds dart back and forth, guiding themselves through the narrow dark passageways with short clicking sounds…” It is exceptionally important to decide what parts to focus on when painting a picture for the reader, but you don’t need to only focus on the good things. For example, an example that immediately comes to mind is a piece that started out, “The boat skips and dances across the dawn ocean. An empty milk carton floats by, ignore it…” I love that the author kept that in her piece. In Malaysia, when you are diving you are surrounded by beauty, but yes, there is also trash that floats in the ocean water, and she resigned herself to writing the full truth of her experience, good and bad, in order to give the perfect picture. Each simile, metaphor, and description of one of the six senses works like a paint brush, gently placing more and more life onto the canvas until the reader is not only reading, but are living in your writing.
Great travel writing can move you, literally. I remember reading the piece, “The Filthy, Fecund Secret of Emilia-Romagna” by Patrick Symmes. It was an extremely detailed travel piece that spoke about living in the Italian heart of “Nona-cooking” (grandma cooking). I was immediately captivated by the writing and took a plane a few months later to experience what I now considered to be my “Food Mecca.” The trip resulted in crying happy tears over the most delicious prosciutto I had ever experienced. It was transcendent; both the writing and the prosciutto.
All that is to say that “poor writing” focuses on telling the reader about a place while focusing on yourself. This only allows those who know you personally to fully experience your writing. “Good writing” focuses on the place itself, adding bits of yourself into the writing, and shows the reader rather than tells. “Great writing” can only be defined by the power it has to effect a reader, because great writing physically moves the reader to the location (or away if the experience you are writing about was less than awe-inspiring).
Some great tips to follow for great writing are to keep your verbs active, start with anecdotes, avoid all the heavy cliches (“The morning river looked like glass”), don’t break your narrative thread too often, and use quotes (especially from locals, tour guides, hostel workers – the people on a country and their dialogues with you are great resources for your writing!). Many other travel writers/tip givers often remind people not to waste words, especially in the case of over-explaining personal situations (such as a hostel being over your budget, or a bathroom less than clean, etc). I would add to that one VERY important rule: revise, revise, revise. Many travel writers are bloggers who will write something up quickly and put it up on the internet before they really have a chance to proofread. Once you put something on the internet, that is part of your travel writing portfolio, so always put out your best work.
The last thing I will write will completely annoy you and undermine everything I have written about being a “good travel writer:” A “Great” travel writer can ignore all of those above guidelines. I would never instruct anyone to use the same blatant disregard for punctuation as Hemingway did, but no one would question his place in the canon of great writers. Rules, tips, and guides go a long way to improve your technique and the size of your audience, but if you already weave stories with ease, then breaking the rules is the next step to becoming unique.
P.S. – If you found this post useful, check out Why Do We Travel Write? and How To Push Your Travel Further Pt. 1