How to be a travel writer - top tips from Irish Times writers
The Irish Times Amateur Travel Writing competition is in full swing. For inspiration, we asked some of our writers to give their tips on how to write great travel stories
We've recently launched the second The Irish Times Travel Writer competition and we're inviting aspiring writers to try writing a feature for the Travel section on irishtimes.com.
The author of the best entry, selected by our judges, will win the title of Irish Travel Writer of the Year, along with a travel-writing assignment abroad for The Irish Times Magazine. You can read all about it here.
To help inspire you we've asked some of our writers to share their experience, with tips on how to write a great travel feature.
FIONN DAVENPORT, Travel writer
Watch your language
Avoid using the particularly noxious language that is travel-writerese. The sea is rarely (sadly) emerald green and there's never been a "breathtaking" sunset, unless someone has punched you in the solar plexus just as the sun was going down. And, speaking of precious stones, the only time you can describe something as a 'hidden gem' is if you've actually unearthed a diamond from the dirt, in which case you're in clover and can write anything you want - but it's never acceptable to describe a restaurant as an "eatery."
Write what you see. The best travel writing comes from careful observation, usually of the smallest details. Set up in a cafe and watch people around you. Observe how they go about their daily lives. Ask for directions and note how they respond. Opt for simple words over complicated ones.
ORNA MULCAHY, Audience Relationships Editor
Bring the reader straight to the destination
Your journey there may have been long and even interesting but the reader wants to find out about the place, not your madcap adventures getting there, nor your reasons for embarking on the trip in the first place.
Dive straight into the action and tell us what it’s like to be there – the feel and colour of the place, the sounds and the smells. Small details can be more powerful in conveying an atmosphere or climate than big sweeping statements. Tell us about the price of a cup of coffee and what it tastes like, or what’s happening straight in front of where you’re sitting. Be brief about this. Imagine you’re writing to a good friend and just keep going.
Aim to give a flavour of a place, not a rundown of each and every attraction – that’s what guide books are for. History lessons should be woven into the story rather than landing in heavy chunks at the beginning of a piece, or halfway through, looking suspiciously like cuttings and pastings from Wikipedia.
MANCHAN MAGAN, Travel writer
Find your voice
You are our travelling companion, it’s important that you share your true self with us. We need to like you, or at least be captivated. The prose should be imbued with your essence. The problem with most newspaper travel writing is the writers are boring. There’s a duty to be honest, to track one’s personal feelings, insights and reactions on the journey and decide which thoughts in distilled fashion might be included in the particle. Be certain that you are clear as to why you travel – Escaping? Searching? Recuperating?
ROSITA BOLAND, Feature writer
Look for the details
Even if you don't speak the language of the country you are in, you can learn so much about a place and its people by simply being observant. Look for the details. In Iceland lately, I spotted anguished graffiti on a wall in the main street in Reykjavik that read "Iceland is fucking pretentious." I used that in my travel story. I thought it was hilarious. To me, it encapsulated perfectly the tension between what tourists come looking for, and what they actually find.
PATRICK FREYNE, Feature writer
Talk to people who live there, not just tourist reps
Small-talk with bus drivers or waiters can give you a flavour for a place. Ask for directions. Ask questions. Notice what the locals are doing. If someone is doing something that looks interesting ask them about it (obviously, if the interesting thing is “mugging someone” call the police or ask very politely).
You are allowed say you don’t like something. For example, here’s my review of Stonehenge: “It’s not my favourite henge.” The Eiffel Tower: “Too pointy.” (Of course, if you don’t like something it’s good to explain why).
JOYCE HICKEY, Journalist
Appeal to the senses
Give the reader a feel for what's real: what sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches will stay with them when they leave? The first thing I tell people about arriving in India is the particular smell of the airport in Delhi and the feeling of being part of the sheer overwhelming volume of people.
CONOR GOODMAN, Features editor
Try to find new ways of saying things. Avoid travel-writing clichés (“land of contrasts”, “hidden gem”, “the real Paris/New York/Chiang Mai”) and simplistic descriptions like “brilliant” or “dreadful”. Enliven your copy with an original writing style.
Think for yourself
Ignore what Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet have said about the place. How was it for you? What did you think of it on a personal level? Your view is valuable, and if it differs from other people’s, all the better.
Don’t forget the facts
Conveying atmosphere is nice but tourists crave information. Sprinkle your copy with tips on local customs, attractions, restaurants and places to stay. Name names and put some websites at the end of the article.
Write the story the way you tell it to your friends
Before you start typing, think back to how you told the story of your trip to your friends in the pub. You’re at your most relaxed with your friends so you tell stories better, jumping straight to the meat of the story. Where did you start, what made them laugh, what made their eyes glaze over? Edit that conversation and write it in your own voice. You’ll find it has a natural rhythm too.
CIARA KENNY, Feature writer
Take notes - and lots of them
No matter how much your mind was blown by a beautiful view or exhilarating experience, you won’t have half as many words to describe it when you’re back at home typing up your story as you will in the moment. So bring a small notebook everywhere and jot down your thoughts on a place or the anecdotes people tell you as you encounter them. Your notes needn’t be long-winded – even a few words of scrawled shorthand will be invaluable when it comes to writing the final piece.
MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBY, Food writer
There are great stories in food
Food and travel are wonderful story companions. Take a walk around a local food market. It’s the best way to find out what’s good to eat, wherever you are. And market cafes often serve excellent food at reasonable prices. Plus, ask nicely and you’ll get tried and tested restaurant recommendations, and useful cooking tips too. Readers want to hear about these.
EDEL MORGAN, Special Reports editor
Not all your readers are you
Remember, your readers come in all shapes and sizes. Let readers know if where you're writing about is family friendly. Can they bring their buggy, would they be better with a sling? It’s always good to build in some tips on how different groups of holiday makers can get the best out of a holiday. These are the kind of travel articles people will remember because they offer practical advice.
(Why not submit your own travel story to our Travel Writer competition)