4 Tips on Travel Writing

4 tips on travel writing

With a PhD in Creative Writing and a passion for travel, Travelling Writers was a long time coming. I (Rachel) teach Creative Writing to adults on a regular basis, and this week, I am teaching my students about travel writing. I thought it would be a good idea to share four keys pieces of advice with anyone else who has that travel writing desire burning within.

‘As a literary form, travel writing is a notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed. It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality.’ Jonathan Raban (The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing)

The above quote is often mentioned when discussing travel writing, and here’s why – it’s a great point to make. Travel writing can include so much. My idea of travel writing may even be different to yours, and certainly, there are various types that fit beneath the umbrella term. However, my favourite type of travel writing is the ‘personal essay’. Why? Because I am interested in real peoples experiences. Yes, I often read a ‘How to’ guide and I enjoy reading reviews, but when it comes to travel writing and reading, you can find me immersed in another’s experiences.

  • Which sort of travel writing is for you?

This is your decision entirely. If going down the personal essay route – here’s a little ‘suggested watching’ from me (a great TedTalks): Travel Writing and Global Change: Lavinia Spalding at TEDx  

Other kinds of travel writing exist, however. You could write a guidebook, telling people exactly where to find that gorgeous restaurant or that amazing view. You could write a travelogue, your own version of Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’. Destination articles could be for you, giving people an impression of an area while informing them of fascinating history and facts.

Do a little (or a lot of) research and consider which type of writing would suit your own personal style, and most importantly, interests.

  • Fact or Fiction?

‘All travel writing – because it is writing – is made in the sense of being constructed, but travel writing cannot be made up without losing its designation…travel writing is certainly literature, but it is never fiction.’ Peter Hulme (The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing)

Often we embellish stories when we recount them to others to make them more interesting. This is fine, but remember that your travel writing should be based in fact. Ask yourself the following question: Why would someone read this piece of writing?

If the answer is to find out more about the place, the history, your experience etc., do them justice by providing them with the real thing. If the answer is for entertainment only, it might be worth embellishing your piece to the point of fiction, and calling it so.

  • Be a traveller, not a tourist. 

So what’s the difference? You might equate a tourist with someone who has a two week holiday, vs a traveller, who spends six months abroad. Well, for myself, it isn’t the time so much, as the behaviour once away from home. Here’s a quote that sums it up well:

‘You must absorb your surroundings, note details, contrast and compare – whether it be a resort, an airline, a village, even a country. You’re inherently observant and must put these observations into texts – honestly, interestingly and accurately.’ – Cynthia Dial (The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing)

Involve yourself in your travels. Talk to the locals. If taking the path less travelled, document it well. If taking the path well travelled, do the same. A tourist is someone taking a break / a holiday from their everyday life for relaxation. Travel is not relaxing. A traveller is someone who works to involve themselves in a country, in a new culture. Take a notebook with you, and make notes on what you see and experience. Make sure (this is vital to any writing) that you pay close attention to your senses. This is what draws a reader in to your writing, and this is how you make them feel as though they were there too.

  • Read other travel writers work.

You won’t be without options. There are plenty of amazing travel writers to choose from, from Paul Theroux, to Bill Bryson and many more in-between. The key to being a good writer, and I say this to my students all the time, is to be a good reader. Reading doesn’t just improve your vocabulary, but it improves your knowledge of what an accomplished piece of writing is. Travel writing has been around for thousands of years, so you have quite the backlog to get through!

A great start, if you are interested in the travel writing and the history of it, is The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing by Tim Youngs. It is full of fascinating facts, and the great quotes that you see in this blog post.

‘As recorded on an Egyptian tomb, Harkuf, an emissary of the pharaohs in the third century BCE, was ‘the first long distance traveller whose name we know’ and ‘the first one leave a written account, or narrative, of his (four) journeys’. Modern travel literature has its roots in such older forms of writing: the factual record, as well as mythical, the legendary and the ancient epics, including the four thousand year old Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, which was ‘widely known in the second millennium BCE, and through which ‘we are shown a very human concern with mortality, the search for knowledge, and for escape from the common lot of man.’ – Tim Youngs (The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing)

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