Many moons ago (like, a year) I was MatadorU’s lead writing faculty. I started as a student and then worked my way up. I also studied travel writing in university, and through independent courses.
So while I’m certainly no pro, I’ve learned a bit over the years.
Travel narrative is my favourite form of travel writing. When it’s done right, it can offer the best insight into a destination.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely done right, and even I fall victim to some of these no-nos. On my recent Buzzfeed piece, I had to work out a few of my own biases that I didn’t even really know were there. (Editors are awesome.)
Here are my top narrative travel writing tips.
Stop using cliches and overused words
If the phrase comes too easily to you, it’s probably because you’ve heard it repeated countless times.
Every now and then it doesn’t hurt to toss in a word like “quaint” or “stunning,” but really, what does that add to a piece? You’ll end up writing something that sounds like a PR bit for a Mexican resort. Tell it like it is, and use details to paint the picture.
Instead of “a quaint wooden lodge nestled into the mountain valley,” try “the Emerald Lake Lodge with its century-old fireplaces sits in the middle of Yoho National Park.” Dig deeper, and be specific. This MatadorNetwork.com piece offers some common cliches and overused words to avoid.
Try some non-linear storytelling
Stop crafting your stories like your travel diary. Don’t give us a rundown of what you did in a day. Think about the message you’re trying to say, and experiment with the style.
What decisions brought you here?
What is the history of the place?
What is your role in it?
What is the end goal for your piece?
Some of my favourite travel pieces are non-linear. As an example, read this VELA piece titled “Snow in Mongolia.”
Remove judgment and bias from your work
Of all the advice to heed, this one is the most important.
When you go into a foreign destination, you MUST understand that you’re the foreigner. You are not just a traveller — you’re a tourist, and an outsider. You absolutely cannot make judgments or unfair observations about a group of people or a place that you do not belong to.
Tell us what you see, and how you feel, certainly. But remove your biases, and allow the reader to figure things out on his/her own. Simple observations go a long way. Instead of describing a slum as a place of depression and squalor, tell us exactly what you’re seeing: kids tossing wood on a fire, a man fishing in a dirty river, etc.
It won’t do to make grand sweeping statements like “all Germans are so blunt.” And yep, I’ve done it.
Honesty is the best policy
Although the previous point is the most important, this might be my absolute favourite. Honesty is the way to go, always. How many bloggers and writers do I know that cower away from being open, honest, and personal? Or they’re apologetic for their actions? (“I know that I should have been paying more attention to the road but I…”) Too many to count. The writing often falls flat, and gives absolutely nothing for the reader to connect with.
Self-deprecative humour is always greatly appreciated and underrated in the travel writing world and is a good way to convey honesty without coming off as a total jackass. A favourite author of mine, Will Ferguson, pulls this off brilliantly. (For authors in the same vein, think David Sedaris and Bill Bryson.)
Stop using comparisons
“The Paris of Asia” or some similar comparison has got to be the most annoying travel writing attribute in the world.
Why compare a destination to another? Aren’t we seeking something different, something unique?
Sure it’s fine to draw similarities sometimes, but be specific. Does the tiny cafe on Rue Saint Laurent carry a coffee cake that reminds you of your favourite restaurant back in Australia? Sure, that works. But for the love of god, remove all value judgments from your writing! The best, the grandest, the most. All of them.
“The five best places in the world to make value judgments.” There.
Use strong images and actions
Using strong images to pull a reader into your writing will really carry your piece along. Especially if you open with strong action, or a strong, jarring image. This narrative by Lola Akinmade titled “Fake Birds” is an excellent example.
I’m constantly using passive voice instead of active voice, and it’s a hard habit to break. But using strong, active verbs will give your writing a whole new edge. Trust me on that one. Check out this article on this exact subject.
Has anyone ever given you winning travel writing advice? I’d love to hear it!