Advice on becoming a travel writer

I’ve spent the last five days accompanying Hanna Butler, winner of the World Nomads/Rough Guides travel writing scholarship, around Bali. We’ve surfed, had magical massages, driven across the island, eaten fabulous food, met practitioners of both black and white magic, climbed half a volcano and woven (part of) a traditional sarong. It has been a blast.

Right now I’m on the patio of our last stop, a small guesthouse overlooking Candi Dasa’s pond in East Bali and I’m wondering what I’d boil down five days of discussion to. We’ve talked about everything from crafting story titles to setting up a blog: in summary, here are a dozen points I’d suggest to anyone considering working towards making a living out of writing.

The quality of your writing matters and the best way to improve yours is to read the writing of others. Read vociferously. In the age of Kindles and iPads carrying a truckload of books with you has never been easier. Also, use your dictionary.

Write every day. There’s no need to write the Communist Manifesto every afternoon, but do set aside a period of time, every single day, to write. It might be a clutch of words or an essay. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you’re developing a hobby into a routine into a discipline.

Big picture travel is easy. Take a closer look. Take photos, lots of them. These will serve both as reminders later in the day when you’re trying to remember if the fishing boat had blue or yellow stripes, but also as gateways to the minor details you didn’t notice when you were there like the dried sticky rice stuck to the sash around the longtail’s prow.

Don’t be shy. Ignore language barriers. A genuine smile breaks the ice in most languages. Every person you interact with can bring colour to your story — or lead you to completely new ones.

Set up a blog. It really doesn’t matter all that much where, but ideally under your own domain name. Start collecting your writings there — it will be the first place potential publishers look when you contact them.

Twitter, Facebook, Google+ et al — try them all, settle on the one you feel most comfortable with. Use it to network with others and to showcase your work. There is no “right” way to do social media — do it whichever way you feel most comfortable with.

It doesn’t matter if travel to you is swimming up the Amazon or walking to the corner store to get milk — you need to do it, you need to read about it, and most importantly you need to write about it.

Who are you? What is your angle? You want to grow into a specialist, not a generalist. Everything you write should keep in mind what you want to be a decade from now.

Keep it simple. Research the publication you are approaching. Read material they have already published. Contact the right person even if it means picking up the telephone to find out who they are.

Second uncle of the father of the guy you used to date back in 1992 is the Travel Editor at the National Lao Daily? Give him a call and ask for an in.

Travel writing is hard — physically and mentally. Having the energy to write at the end of a full day can be draining, but the more you do it the easier it gets. And know that to make a living, the hours are long. To be successful these days, every trip needs to be written about for multiple publications and using multiple angles.

Don’t quit your day job/marry wisely
It can take a long time — often years — to achieve enough success for travel writing to become your primary source of income. Many people who attempt it fail. Having a reliable job or a partner who can financially support you can be crucial in allowing you the time to develop.

Travel writing can be an exciting, rewarding occupation, but the elbow grease required is substantial. Work at it, every single day — and don’t forget to have fun.