My Top Travel Writing Secrets That I Probably Shouldn’t Share.
I have been writing about travel for close to two years now. When I started this blog, I wrote on personal growth and life inspiration. But because I travel a lot and enjoy writing about nature, people, and experiences, I began writing travel articles on On My Canvas.
When I first ventured into travel writing, I was horrified about putting down a sad solo travel story of Thailand or a photo essay because I didn’t know how to write about travel. I didn’t have the right tools. I remember telling my partner that I would need a lot of time to write good, relatable travel pieces that readers will enjoy.
As a beginner travel writer, I wrote subjective pieces like why I travel and my thoughts on the Cambodian dictatorship. I was always inclined towards penning down personal essays based on my travel experiences, such as this Panchapalli Dam memoir, rather than writing about the five things to do.
Some of my travel writings turned out to be good and some were bad, as expected. So while this piece on my love and hate relationship with India won me many accolades, I am still ashamed of this Vietnam Photo Essay.
Now instead of fumbling with how to start a piece of travel writing, I was engaging with heartwarming comments and emails from my readers.
A traveler and beginner travel blogger messaged, “I was going through your blog in detail for some inspiration to build my blog. Probably it is the most useful blog I have come across. Most of your posts are stories and experiences rather than what you see in usual blogs. It helps the readers connect.”
I pitched guest posts to big travel blogs and all of them accepted my writing pitches as soon as they read my travel stories. I got the Best Travel Writer tag on Medium(which has expired as I don’t publish travel articles there anymore). Editors and freelance clients reached out to me after reading my blog. I pitched some editors, who checked out On My Canvas, and said, to quote, “No doubt you’re an excellent storyteller.”
I would be lying if I say I hadn’t practiced writing before starting a travel blog. I began my writing career as a fiction writer, someone who does creative writing. The first-ever rules I learned about writing were creative writing tactics. So to say, I was born in this travel writing world with a creative writing spoon in my mouth.
Within a few months of writing about traveling, I realized that I was not really doing travel blog writing.
To quote a reader from the comments on one of my articles, “Beautiful written, your prose is lyrical that reads less like a blog and more like a novel.” Later that reader told me she has a Ph.D. in literature.
I was not doing travel blogging, but I was writing short travel stories and memoirs using the creative writing skills that I had learned.
And those are the same indispensable creative writing tips that I will share with you today.
Please note: Recently in a storytelling workshop, the six attendants gave me the feedback that I need to add more exercises to the class. I took the advice to the heart. So with every writing tip here, you will find a writing exercise. You can do these practices while reading these tips on travel writing or you can bookmark the article and do them later. But do the tasks as they will help you practice the points.
Feel free to leave a comment on the blog with your attempt on the exercise. I reply to all comments 🙂
Travel writers, put your seatbelts on, for I am going to take you on a ride.
1. Tell a story
Stories hold the text together.
Have you ever wondered why we don’t look forward to reading academic texts or instructional blogs? Why do you think that Sapiens or A Short History of Nearly Everything aren’t the dull non-fiction reads they could have been but are entertaining and inspiring?
The former don’t have a story and the latter have.
Readers need to hold onto something in a piece of writing. Without giving your reader a story, you are taking away from their reading experience.
Travel blogging needs more storytelling. Blogging doesn’t mean that we only give the information and don’t make the writing a fun read. Jim Carrey or Zakir Khan won’t come to entertain our readers, we will have to.
The usual story arc is — a scene or an event introducing the story and the characters(exposition), a buildup on the scene using the characters and their background(the rising action), a high-tension point(climax), then arriving at the end while resolving those tensions or providing(and refusing) what the characters desire(the falling action).
This video by Chungdahm Learning explains the story arc well.
To give you an example,
In this piece on hiking the Volcano Villarrica in Chile, I start the travelogue with these lines — “The alarm rang at 3:30 at night. I peeked out of my blanket into the dark dorm room and wondered why I had decided to hike the 2,800-meter-high active volcano.”
I set a perfect thriller opening making the readers want to know what happened next.
Then I wrote about why I was climbing the volcano and that the hike was so challenging — I laid out the background, the exposition.
Bringing the memoir to a middle point I say, “A thought that I might not be able to complete the hike knocked my head.” I make the characters clash, too, “So after a few hours when I was climbing up the volcano and wanted to give up, but Alejandro and Alison told me that I had gone very far and I had to continue, I didn’t relate with their relentlessness. Why couldn’t I watch the summit from a lower altitude and enjoy the majestic vista bordered by icy volcanoes?” — Though the character clashes here are more subtle, this much tension is usually enough to drive a travel story.
I take the travelogue further by talking about how the guide and my friend cheered me — the falling actions. The story ends with me making it to the summit.
Every story is about something bigger than ourselves, Neil Gaiman says, and I concur. The main point of the story was not hiking the volcano. It was about conquering my greatest fears and then pushing myself to climb despite them. Remember your purpose while writing the story.
One of the loveliest comments I received on the travelogue is, “You have such a way with words. I really enjoyed reading your story. It made me want to hike the volcano but it also made me slightly terrified of it.” — Purpose achieved for I wanted to share the hiking experience without sounding like a superwoman, for I am not, but I still wanted to inspire people to do the hike for it is an incredible experience.
Write about travel experiences like you are telling a story. Either you are penning down the five things to do in Coorg or a day in Tokyo — you can narrate these articles like stories or a collection of many small anecdotes. Or, for logistical pieces such as how to get a visa to Malaysia, you can tell a story in the beginning, and then continue with the information.
Writing Exercise — Look at your drafts. Or a piece you published. Or pick up a new story about a day or a place you want to talk about. Now rewrite or write these ideas as if you were telling the story to your best friend.
How cool would be to tell this story! The Sleeping Gypsy and The Lion, by Henri Rousseau / Public domain
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell was one of the first advice Bhumika, my writing instructor at Bangalore Writing Workshop, gave me.
What does show, not tell mean?
When you tell, not show, you tell the reader the information, rather than letting her deduce it.
In the travel blog on Manikaran, Himachal, I could have written — The Gurudwara is white. The Parvati river flows by its side.
But I wrote — The milky gurudwara complements the white froth of the unstoppable Parvati bellowing by its side.
Some other examples of telling and showing.
Telling — I sat down on the chair because I was really sad.
Showing — I threw myself on the bed and pushed my face into the pillow.
Telling — Manikaran is a cheap place to travel and live.
Showing — In Manikaran, you can walk through the town and drink as many chais and eat as many samosas without lightening your pocket much. Rooms are also just 300 rupees per day.
Telling — The salt flats of Bolivia cover a large area.
Showing — When you stand upright in the salt flats of Bolivia, you see a salt desert billowing into the infinity and beyond.
Telling — It was going to rain. I was scared.
Showing — Thick clouds threatened us from above.
Humans are visual animals. We like to imagine.
You have to show the people, how they are feeling, and the place. You have to paint a picture of the scene. So that the reader sees the picture, feels that she is there in the story, with you, makes her own deductions. Thus you let her feel a part of the journey rather than throwing all the information at her and having to create her own story.
When we tell, the story feels less like a story but more like a boring monologue that we spill out on the page — It was going to rain. I was scared. I didn’t have the raincoat. The power went off. Etc. etc.
Showing also means that we are being visual. When we write visually, we use our senses — sight, smell, sound, touch, taste — to describe a scene rather than just stating how we feel or how a thing is.
Telling — I boarded the van at 3 am. I was hungry.
Showing — The next day at 3 am, I boarded the pickup van with a growling stomach.
Telling — The pillow was dirty.
Showing — The pillow reeked of cat and spoiled milk.
Telling — The sunflowers were beautiful.
Showing — I couldn’t take my eyes off the golden sunflowers.
Evoke the senses.
Reduce the work of the reader else she would trump you for another writer who paints a story. And you can’t blame the reader for even while focusing on your story her mind is processing a hundred thousand thoughts about how the cat has not purred for twenty-one and a half days and her husband has.
Writing Exercise — Pick up some of your existing work, maybe the piece from the first bullet. Or write about what you are seeing now. Don’t tell, show. You cannot use the words sad, angry, hungry et cetera. Use your senses.
Describe not just the people but also the mountains and the lakes. The Lone Lake by Franklin Carmichael / Public domain
3. Be Descriptive – One of my most important rules while writing a travelogue
This point is in continuation of what I said about showing, not telling.
To create a story, we need to describe the setting, the scene, and the action.
In the travel blog on Manikaran, Himachal I could have written — Tourists were getting photographed. It was a beautiful place with narrow streets. Shops lined the roadsides. People were shopping. Sikhs were visiting the Gurudwara. Mothers were taking their children to the hot water springs to bath them.
But I write — Young girls dressed up in traditional bright Kullu dresses and Himachali topis waited to be clicked. Streets were lined with kitschy souvenir shops that flaunted neon plastic toys, rudraksha malas, and brass bracelets.
Devoted Sikhs with their Kirpans hanging around their waist walked swiftly towards the Manikaran Sahib Gurudwara. Hindu families strode to the Shiva and Ram temple to bathe their young ones who trailed behind eyeing the hot jalebis and crispy samosas that were on display at the roadside sweetmeats’ shop.
I am showing the Manikaran bazaar descriptively. I have added colors. You can see the dresses of the girls. The shops are not empty but filled with souvenirs. Sikhs are shown with their kirpans. Children are drooling after sweatmeats and not just walking behind their mother.
For that is how Manikaran was on that rainy afternoon.
Even when you just want to talk about one place, like the Louvre museum or the Vitthala temple in Hampi or the Manikaran gurudwara, you have to describe the surroundings to give the reader a sense of the place. Neither the Louvre nor the Vitthala temple stands in a void, right?
Zoom in. Use the five senses to show the reader what is happening.
Writing Exercise — Pick the story or the paragraphs that you wrote in the above exercise. Edit the piece while filling in the details. You might have a rough outline, but now you want to draw more fine lines, more leaves, more grass, and then pour in some color.
Such was travel about some 160 years ago. The Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg / Public domain
4. Be specific.
Ditch common nouns and use proper nouns.
She kept her copy of The Color Purple (not a book) down on the table.
Celebrations were spent huddled around the barbecue with terremotos (not a drink) in hand.
When I got tired, I walked back to the homestay and listened to Anoushka Shankar (not just any music) fill the treehouse.
There was a white ambassador with a broken headlight (not a car) on the road.
Common nouns are only good for children’s books. Use proper nouns as much as you can.
Writing Exercise — Continue with the piece that you have from above. Wherever you can, replace all the common nouns with proper nouns.
To help the reader relate, talk about your fears and apprehensions often. Franklin Carmichael / Public domain
5. Tell what you care about, but make your writing relatable for the reader.
Most of the creative writing teachers emphasize the importance of writing what we know and care about – so that the best stories come out.
I only write about the places I have been to and the things I care about. But I make sure that all my travel pieces are relatable for others.
I could have just talked about myself in Manikaran — I arrived in Manikaran at noon. I wanted to take a long hot bath in the thermal pools so I walked to the temple. But as families and their children had already crowded the bath, I got out early. After the bath, I was hungry so I ate a samosa. The rudraksha males were beautiful so I went to one shop to buy.
A lot of travel blogs read like above.
Why would anyone be interested in what I was doing? People would rather binge-watch Netflix.
People only read when they learn something while getting entertained (I will talk about entertainment in another point). And they would only learn if they can relate to the writing – if they can imagine themselves in your shoes. No one can easily relate to the struggles of an astronomer, but most of us can understand how it is to be a hungry backpacker.
Also, if your writing is relatable, it will be enjoyable, too. The reader would laugh along and would be embarrassed when you fall flat on your face on the crowded Andheri railway station.
To make the writing relatable, we still talk from our point of view, show what is happening with us, but we won’t skip the world. The floodlight would be on us, while lightning the people and the places we are interacting with. Else the travelogue would read like a boring monologue by an egotist.
I would rewrite the above lines like this —
When I arrived in Manikaran at noon, the town was bustling with activity. Without wasting time, I headed to the temple to take a hot bath in the natural springs there. Some twenty children were playing in and around the temple pool while their mothers howled at the children asking them to get out of the water quickly.
Postponing my desire to take a long bath until tomorrow, I was out of the water in a few minutes. As soon as I was on the street, the thick fragrance of the freshly fried samosas pulled me towards the sweetmeat shop. Few children in the queue, but I got my samosa. Right opposite the shop, an old man sold some beautiful rudraksha malas. The sunlight seemed perfect to click the ruddy necklaces, so I walked in his direction. Who knows, I might buy one mala this time.
It is not about you, it is about your readers.
Writing Exercise — Read what you have written. Do you hear I, me, I, me or does the story care about others, too? Make a friend read the draft. Asks her what she thinks.
Quiet a landscape, eh? Karl Paul Themistokles von Eckenbrecher / Public domain
6. Weave the facts in the story
Like a fiction writer never gives all the facts and data in the first paragraph of the story, make sure you never stuff all the logistics and information at once. Or you will risk your travel blog becoming a read-before-sleep rather than a read-for-you-can’t-stop concoction.
The museum was opened in 1871. With the ticket, we got an audio tour of the museum. The museum had four walls, all painted white, and four galleries. The first gallery is of the realism paintings. Then comes the second gallery with oil paintings. The third gallery is of natural paintings. By the fourth gallery, the writer d..o..z…e..s.s. off… The reader d.o.z…z…e.s off……
Now consider this.
The ticket to the museum said that it was opened for public in 1871. Out of the four museum galleries, I first walked towards the realism paintings’ gallery.
…Journey in the realism paintings gallery…
After half an hour, I exited the realism to enter into the world of oil paintings, the second gallery. The audio tour is so full of information that I haven’t had to look up anything on Google, yet. Et cetera. Et cetera.
As travel writers, we have to share information and facts about a place. But we can’t burden the reader with all the information in one go. Unfurl the truths of the place slowly. Weave the dates and the data in your narrative. Else the reader will not only get bored but will curse you for writing.
Writing Exercise — Check the piece you have been working on for facts. Weave them subtly in the article.
7. Show more than you are comfortable with – Writing travel articles would need you to open up.
Personal essays and travel stories read real when we share how we feel. Of course, it is not always easy to open up on a public platform, and neither it is always good to have others know about our personal lives.
But to become a writer, you have to compromise on privacy. You have to let people inside your head. Else you will not be writing books but would only be protecting your identity.
Here is something personal I wrote in a piece on my first solo travel in Thailand: On one morning in Chiang Mai, I was walking in the middle of a street, starving, clutching my bag close to my chest, and trying to read menus written in Thai. Just then, on a phone call back home, my mother said that she would never forgive me as I was not going back to India even after traveling for a week. Then she hung up.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable sharing my conversation with my mother, but to get the narrative going and give context to my subsequent feelings and actions, I shared a lesser dramatic version of the phone call.
If we are not writing a travelogue from a personal point of view, then the piece would just read like a report on the destination.
Don’t be shy. Share how you feel so that people can relate. After all, you are not the only one struggling with angry mothers and Thai menu cards.
Readers want you to get them hooked. Christen Dalsgaard / Public domain
8. Don’t bore the reader. Make her laugh, make her cry, but never bore her.
We read to entertain ourselves.
Recently in a storytelling workshop, I asked the six attendants that why do they read. Their reasons ringed in close harmony with entertainment though they never used the word.
There is nothing wrong with reading for fun. Even though we might be learning alongside, growing as a person, getting out of the mundane, and venturing into different worlds, experiencing something we wish we could do, we wouldn’t read unless we are getting entertained.
By enjoying a book or a story or an article, I do not mean to say that the reader would always be rolling on the floor laughing. She might cry. Her heart might get broken. She may miss her family. She might regret something she did ten years ago.
As writers, our job is to make her feel all those emotions — that is the entertainment.
How would you make sure your writing isn’t boring?
Read your work out loud. Cut out any syllable or word or line that seems redundant or dull. Be more frugal than the Michelin star chefs.
Laugh upon yourself if you have to. Talk about your fat nose. Tell us about how you were blown away by the wind. Open up about that embarrassing morning when the hostel bathroom was occupied and you had eaten too much salsa picante.
Use metaphors. They will be a hit and miss in the beginning but you will soon make sense.
In an essay on changing my career to become a writer, I wrote — Parents didn’t allow their children, especially girls, to go out and play with friends, and Voldemort wasn’t the reason. Men ogled women on the streets freely, and I was grabbed a few times even in crowded places as soon as I hit puberty.
I talked about why children weren’t allowed to go out by sharing a dark reality but putting in a little punch of Voldemort laughter there.
Now imagine if I had written this: Parents didn’t allow their children, especially girls, to go out and play with friends, because the city wasn’t safe. Men ogled women on the streets freely, and I was grabbed a few times even in crowded places as soon as I hit puberty.
I am essentially saying the same thing here but in the same old boring way. It is almost as if I didn’t want to write this line.
Another example from an essay that I wrote on being clueless in Chile when people spoke in Spanish and then learning the language there,
Suddenly, I was the toothpaste cover girl: silent and vacuously smiling. Like the referee in a tennis match, I turned my head from one speaker to another to understand the expressions. I was the excluded newcomer of the class; rarely asked for advice or answer unless directly involved. Avoiding conversations was a new skill that I was assimilating. The quick cat who used to jump at everyone (literally with words) was out of breath and was watching silently from under the bed — I am making fun of myself while using metaphors to help people picture the scenario.
Unless my piece entertains me, I keep editing it. When you can’t enjoy your writing how would anyone else?
The scene could be soft and slow. But you have to write it in a way that people don’t get bored. On the Desert by Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain
9. Read as a Writer
As I am writing more, I am reading more, too. I have talked about the importance of reading in my 27 tips for beginner writers, too.
But I am not only talking about reading, I am emphasizing that reading as a writer is one of the most important practices for any writer.
When I started reading travel blogs, I was overwhelmed by their sheer number. But I realized I could finish only some of those blogs end to end. The rest were either boring or too short or long or just talking about how the writer enjoyed the place and was unrelatable or didn’t give enough information, and I can go on(no offense to anyone for I am only giving my honest feedback).
No surprises there that I picked up the dos and the don’ts of a good travel piece from my own experience as a reader.
Don’t just read. Make sure you notice what made you laugh or which part of the travelogue made you stop reading. Was there an awkward word? Would you read other pieces from this writer, and why? How was the information weaved into the story?
Learn from others.
Writing Exercise — Pick up any story. Maybe take one from my blog (could be this BR Hills piece)or any other blog that you love. Print it out, if you can. Now keeping the travel writing tips discussed here in mind, read the story. Underline the descriptive words. Circle the boring parts. Mark the sentences that are telling instead of showing. Understand where you got bored or what kept you going. Now do it with one of your pieces. Rewrite the things that don’t feel right.
I hope these tips on writing a travel article help you write better. Word by word, my friend, word by word.
Are you writing about travel experiences, too? To which one of these tips for travel writing did you relate to the most? Let me know in the comments.
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