Selling the destination – not the story (Mistake #52)

Disclaimers to start: I don’t much like to travel, I don’t much like to hear about people’s travels, I don’t write about travel (two published travel articles in a fifteen-year career, if you want the figures), and, although I do enjoy a beautifully crafted and fascinating travel article when I stumble across one, I’m fairly indifferent towards travel writing in general. Feel free to take what follows with the proverbial pinch, then, because it does take a fair bit to impress me on this subject. Travel writers, do not be afraid to correct me – or call me a heathen.

The thing is…. I see too many bad travel articles. Well, maybe not always bad. But just a bit… meh. A few bad articles, then, and quite a lot of meh articles. If your travel article is just ‘about’ a place and ‘about’ your visit to that place and ‘about’ how wonderful your visit to that place was then I’d wager a few quid on it being a meh article. Meh travel articles have meh templates. This is the standard:

1. Passport-related flap at Heathrow.
2. Landing safely – phew!
3. Our cab driver is such a colourful character!
4. We love our hotel!
5. Beautiful beaches / mountains / lakes / rivers!
6. The local food is the best we’ve ever tasted!
7. There’s even a MacDonald’s!
8. There’s something for EVERYONE!
9. We can’t wait to go back.
10. You should go too, you won’t regret it.

Meh. Boring.

Here’s my colleague and friend Kelly Rose Bradford on travel writing:

“Most new writers try to pitch travel pieces on places they want to go to or places they have been on holiday. Travel needs a story and you have to sell that – unless it is a very straightforward travel guide or review (which are very hard to place for freelance writers), it’s about the story not the destination. The destination is almost secondary.”

An example, please? “Going to Bournemouth to learn to make chocolate in the country’s first chocolate-themed hotel.”

So, if your story idea is “Well, I just happened to go on holiday there so I’m writing about that” then you’ve a problem.

This doesn’t mean you can’t find a story while you’re on holiday or (better) start to think of a possible angle before you go. Your destination’s local paper can be useful in researching what may be going on, as can any ultra-local blog or website dedicated to the area. If you’re travelling abroad, and you want to do some detective work before you leave, use the country’s local Google. But you probably can’t beat simply chatting to the locals: ask them about anything interesting going on, perhaps that’s only known to them, and not to most visitors. Something off the beaten track. Something that’s a local secret.

And don’t forget to take your notebook and camera…

Comments 7

  • Alex
    I agree with you. Good travel writing looks easy (that's the skill of the writer), but it's actually very hard to pull off.
    Novice travel writers in my classes almost always start their piece with the view from the plane as it circles and then lands…. AAAGH! Nooooo! (They look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them that's the biggest cliche in travel writing. They really can't see anything wrong with it!). I read somewhere – and I think this is a good tip – that, these days, travel writing should read like ficion. By that I assume they mean it needs characters (and not just the hilarious taxi driver) and some kind of message or theme. Helen

  • Yes to the point re: reading like fiction. I agree.

  • Unfortunately, some writers think travel writing is just one long postcard … about the weather!

  • It depends so much on what publication you are writing for.
    Some need the nitty gritty touristy details, hotels, sites, restaurants, prices etc

    Others would throw that in the bin. They want a story e.g. something interesting that happenend there / the chocolate hotel / someone you met ( not the taxi driver) / maybe one particular site, museum, / an off the beaten track site you'd never find without reading this .

    You have to know your target publication

  • Hold on, rewind, what's that about a chocolate-themed hotel in Bournemouth? Tell me more, so I can make a booking, NOW!

  • It drives me nuts whenever I read a hotel review where the writer starts by moaning about a delayed flight. You're supposed to be telling me about the quality of the hotel, not giving me a chronological account of your holiday!

    Now if you go on to say that you arrived at the hotel late due to a delayed flight, but the restaurant stayed open specially to serve you dinner – that could be useful to know.

  • Hearing you, Colin! And I agree about the late restaurant, but it's still not the place to talk about that in the intro, I would say. Thanks for comment!

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