My Top Travel Writing Secrets I Probably Shouldn’t Share
I have been writing about travel for
two years now four years now (update 2022). When I started this blog, I wrote about personal growth and life inspiration. But because I travel constantly and I relish writing about nature, people, and experiences, I began writing travel articles on On My Canvas. (I’m an itinerant writer now.)
When I first ventured into travel writing, I panicked every time I put down my solo excursion tales and travel guides. I didn’t know how to write about traveling. I didn’t have the right tools. I remember telling my partner it would be a long time before I write good, relatable travel stories readers will enjoy. (my ideas about good writing.)
But even as a beginner travel writer, I wrote subjective articles such as why I travel and how can we stop ourselves from turning into the worst dictators (inspired by Cambodia). I have always preferred penning down personal travel memoirs rather than writing about the five things to do.
Now instead of fumbling with how to write a travelogue or a guide, I was rejoicing at heartwarming comments and emails from readers.
A beginner travel writer messaged, “Probably your blog is the most useful one 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.”
So many writers loved my 11 best tips for bloggers I was overwhelmed. I pitched guest posts to many travel websites. All of them accepted my articles as soon as they read my travel stories. I got the Best Travel Writer award on Medium (which expired as I have stopped publishing on Medium). After reading my blog, editors and freelance clients reached out to me. Some editors said, to quote, “No doubt you’re an excellent storyteller.”
When anyone compliments my travel writing or says I have immense writing talent, I quietly remember the nights and days I spent bent on my computer writing, editing, reading aloud, deleting, rewriting, poring through writing tips for beginners, and so on. I want to stand on a rooftop and scream that writing is less of an inborn talent and more of a muscle that strengthens as we exercise it more.
I would be lying if I say I didn’t write before starting a travel blog. I began my writing career as a fiction writer. The first-ever rules I learned about writing were creative writing tactics. So to say, I launched into the travel writing world on a creative writing broomstick.
Within a few months of writing about traveling, I heard many times that I was not doing travel blog writing.
A reader’s comment read, “Beautiful written, your prose is lyrical that reads less like a blog and more like a novel.” That reader has a Ph.D. in literature.
I was writing travel stories and memoirs using my creative writing skills. And travel writing and blogging about travel are all about storytelling — at least they should be.
In this writing guide, I am sharing the indispensable creative writing techniques that have helped me write engaging travel stories.
In a storytelling workshop recently, the six attendants said I should have added more exercises to the class. I took the advice to heart. I have included a writing exercise with all the travel writing tips. Complete the exercises while reading or bookmark the article and get to them later. But remember, you can only master these travel writing tactics if you practice.
Travel writers, fasten your seatbelts as I am going to take you on a ride.
1. Write about travel, but don’t forget to Tell a Story
Stories hold words together. Without a story, words are black noise on paper.
Do you know why we don’t look forward to academic texts and instructional blogs? Why do we enjoy reading Sapiens even though it is a non-fiction book about our entire history?
The former don’t have a story and the latter has.
Expecting your readers to enjoy your story-less writing is like expecting them to enjoy bland food.
Travel blogging needs more storytelling (as I keep repeating and even Jodi from the popular Legal Nomads travel blog started emphasizing a decade ahead of me). To blog doesn’t mean to give information only. To blog implies to weave our experience in a tale that readers not only can’t keep down but believe in (since the beginning humans have got others to join them for a cause by telling stories).
A story arc goes like this:
- 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)
- arriving at the end while resolving those tensions or providing (and refusing) the characters’ desires (the falling action)
This video by Chungdahm Learning explains the story arc well.
For example, my travel narrative of climbing the Volcano Villarrica begins with these lines: “The alarm rang at 3:30 am. In the dark hostel dormitory, I peeked out of my blanket and cursed myself for signing up to hike the 2,800-meter active volcano.”
By opening the travelogue with a hint of the oncoming adventure, I make readers curious.
Then I share why I was climbing the volcano and that the hike was challenging — I lay the background.
Bringing the travel memoir to a middle point I say, “A thought that I might not be able to complete the hike knocked my head.” — This is a high-tension point because from here on either I will give up or achieve my goal.
I make the characters clash — “After a few hours of trudging up the volcano, I wanted to give up. So when Alejandro and Alison told me I had gone too far to quit, 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 conflicts are 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 trekking the volcano. It was about conquering my greatest fears and pushing myself to climb despite them. Ask yourself why do you want to write your story. Remember the reason while writing the travel tale.
One of the loveliest comments I received on the travelogue says, “I really enjoyed reading your story. It made me want to hike the volcano but it also made me slightly terrified of it.”
My purpose was achieved. I wanted to inspire people to climb the thing for I knew what an incredible experience they would miss if they gave in to their fears.
We have to narrate our travel guides like stories or a collection of many anecdotes. And for every travel article that cannot be a continuous story — such as logistical pieces like how to get a visa to Malaysia, things to do in Dharamshala et cetera — I begin by telling a related incident and then write down the information strewing many more tales throughout.
Writing Exercise — Look at your drafts or a published piece. Or write about traveling to a place you loved. Write/rewrite 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 writing advices I got.
What does “show, not tell” means?
When you “tell” (not show), you dictate information to the reader, rather than letting her deduce it.
When you show, you paint a picture of the scene rather than throwing all the facts at the reader.
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.
A few more travel writing examples on telling and showing:
|I sat down on the chair because I was really sad.||I threw myself on the bed and pushed my face into the pillow.|
|Manikaran is an affordable place to travel and live.||In Manikaran, you can walk through the town and drink as many teas and eat as many samosas as you like without lightening your pocket. Rooms are 300 rupees per day.|
|The salt flats of Bolivia cover a large area.||No matter where you stand in the salt flats of Bolivia, a white desert billow into the infinity and beyond.|
|It was going to rain. I was scared.||Thick clouds threatened us from above.|
|Sunflowers were beautiful.||I couldn’t take my eyes off the golden sunflowers.|
If we tell, the story feels less like a story and more like a boring monologue spilled out on the page. But when we show, the reader watches the scene unfold in front of her, becomes a part of the journey, and draws her own conclusions.
To show what is happening, write using your senses. See, smell, hear, touch, and taste. Now write what you find.
|The pillow was dirty.||The stained pillow reeked of spoiled milk.|
Writing Exercise — Pick up an existing work or continue working on the travel piece from the first bullet. Or write about what you see now. Don’t tell, show. You cannot use the words sad, angry, hungry et cetera. Use your senses.
When you are writing about a trip, 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 a continuation of the above tip on showing, not telling.
To create a story, we need to give details about 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 bathe them.
But here’s what I wrote:
“Young girls dressed up in traditional bright Kullu dresses and Himachali topis waited to be clicked. Streets were lined with kitschy souvenir shops flaunting 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. The children trailed behind eyeing the hot jalebis and crispy samosas displayed at the roadside sweetmeats’ shop.“
In the first method, the writing reads boring, incomplete, and doesn’t help us see the place. I could be describing any religious site.
In the second method, I have added colors. I have not only used my senses to show, but I have focused on the little details that make Manikaran the place it is.
Zoom in and then use the five senses to show what is happening.
Writing Exercise — Pick the story or the paragraphs from the above exercise. Edit the piece while filling in the details. So now you want to draw more lines, more leaves, more grass, and pour in some more color.
Traveling 160 years ago. The Traveling Companions by Augustus Egg / Public domain
4. Be specific
Specificity adds nuance and makes the scene real. Ditch common nouns and use proper nouns.
She kept her copy of (
a book) The Color Purple on the table.
Celebrations were spent huddled around the barbecue with (
a drink) terremotos in hand.
When I got tired, I walked back to the homestay and listened to (
music) Anoushka Shankar fill the treehouse.
There was (
a car) a white ambassador with a broken headlight on the road.
Writing Exercise — Take any travel article and replace all the common nouns with proper nouns wherever it makes sense.
To help the reader relate, talk about your fears and apprehensions often. Franklin Carmichael / Public domain
5. Tell what you care about, but don’t ignore others
Consider this paragraph: “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 the above.
Why would anyone be interested in my monologue? People would rather binge-watch Netflix.
“Your entire devotion is due to your story. You cannot leave it to attend to some personal grievance. Let not anger tug at our imagination or devotion and deflect it from its path.”
We only read when we can relate with the writing while getting entertained (I will talk about entertainment in another point). And readers would only relate to our writing if they can imagine themselves in our shoes.
If our writing is relatable, it will be enjoyable, too. The reader would laugh along and would be embarrassed when we fall flat on our faces at the crowded Andheri railway station.
To make the writing relatable, we show what is happening with us, but we don’t skip the world. So the floodlight is on us, but the rest of the stage isn’t dark either. And in this space the reader can scooch in wherever she likes.
Rewriting the above lines:
“When I arrived in Manikaran at noon, the town was bustling with activity. Tired from the journey, I headed to the temple to bathe in the natural hot springs. Some twenty children were playing in and around the temple pool. The mothers yelled to get the children out of the water.
Postponing my desire to take a long bath I was out of the water in a few minutes. Soon I was on the street. The thick fragrance of the freshly fried samosas pulled me towards the sweetmeat shop. There was a long queue, but I got my samosa. Right opposite the shop, an old man sold rudraksha malas. The sunlight seemed perfect to click the ruddy necklaces. so I walked to him. Who knows, I might buy one this time.“
I’m still talking about myself, but while describing the people, places, and scenes I come across.
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. Ask her what she thinks.
Quiet a landscape, eh? How will you describe it in words? Karl Paul Themistokles von Eckenbrecher / Public domain
6. Weave the facts throughout the story
Fiction writers never give all the facts and data in the first paragraph of the story. Travel writers shouldn’t stuff all the logistics and information at once either. Otherwise, the piece will become a read-before-sleep rather than a read-because-you-can’t-stop concoction.
Read this: “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 it opened to the 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 the world of oil paintings, the second gallery. The audio tour was so helpful 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. But we can’t burden the reader with all the information in one go. Unfurl the truths of the place slowly. When you write about a trip, weave the dates and the data in your narrative.
Writing Exercise — Check your piece 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 hard to open up on a public platform. Nor do we feel comfortable knowing others can see into our personal lives.
But to become a travel 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 about my first solo travel in Thailand: “One morning in Chiang Mai, I was walking in the middle of a street. Clutching my bag, I was trying to read menus written in Thai. Just then, on a phone call back home, my mother said she would never forgive me and hung up. She wanted me to return home immediately but I wanted to travel more.“
I wasn’t comfortable sharing the entire conversation. But to progress the narrative and give context to my subsequent feelings and actions, I shared a less dramatic version of the phone call.
If we are not writing about a travel experience from a personal point of view, 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 hook them from the beginning. Christen Dalsgaard / Public domain
8. Don’t bore the reader. Make her laugh. Make her cry. But never bore her.
We read to get entertained. We read to forget ourselves for a while and get lost somewhere else. Reading is another form of meditation.
Recently in a storytelling workshop, I asked the six attendants why they read. Their reasons ringed close to 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, we wouldn’t read unless we were having fun. (these 21 books changed how I look at life.)
By enjoying a book, a story, or an article, I do not mean 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 a reader feel all those emotions she was hiding from — that is the entertainment. At the end of the read, the reader should feel as if she has just come out of another world (the one we will serve on a plate).
How would you make sure your travel writing isn’t boring?
Read your work aloud. Cut every redundant and dull word and line. 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.
Here’s another example of travel writing from an essay on being clueless in Chile when people spoke in Spanish:
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 in 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.
Unless my piece entertains me, I keep editing it. When you can’t enjoy your writing how would anyone else enjoy it?
The scene could be soft and slow. But you have to write it such that people don’t get bored. On the Desert by Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain
9. Read like a Writer
As I am writing more, I am reading more, too. I have talked about the importance of reading in my 27 tips on improving writing skills, too. (my best non-fiction books from 2020 and best fiction books from the same year.)
Not just reading, but reading as a writer is one of the most important practices for any writer.
When I started reading travel blogs, I was overwhelmed. They were so many. How could I ever finish? But I realized I could read only some of those blogs. The rest were either boring or too short or just talked about how the writer enjoyed the place and didn’t give enough information, and so on (no offense to anyone for I am just sharing my reading experience).
I picked up the dos and the don’ts of good travel writing from my own experience as a reader.
While reading, notice what made you laugh or which part of the travelogue made you put the article aside. Was there an awkward word? Was the information weaved into the story? Would you read more of this writer? Why?
Learn from other writers.
Here are books that have helped me progress as a writer (or at times have helped me write at all),
Now go get them.
for as Vincent said, what is more artistic, doing it or not going it?
Writing Exercise — Pick up any travel story. Maybe take one from my blog (could be this BR Hills piece) or any other blog you love. Print it out. Now keeping the tips for travel writing discussed here in mind, read the story. Underline the descriptive words. Circle the boring parts. Mark the sentences that tell instead of show. 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 ideas on how to write about travel help you write better. Word by word, my friend, word by word.
Are you writing about traveling, too? Do you now have a better idea on how to write a travel article? Let me know in the comments.
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