Ernest Hemingway - could be better.
July 22, 2010 9:00 AM   Subscribe

I want to become a better travel writer. I need some inspiration, and I'll admit to being a little clueless.

Greetings to the MeFi world,
After two years blogging and writing from a foreign country (see username for a clue), I'm looking for advice on becoming a better travel writer. I've made it a point to visit a new place / event / festival / SOMETHING every week, so I'm not hurting for places to visit. Too often it feels like I'm just passing on the details without really telling a story.

You guys are smart. You're probably better read than I am. Who are some travel writers you enjoy reading? If you can identify what it is about those writers you enjoy, that would be great. Sorry if that's too general / vague, but I'm trying to leave the door open for your great ideas :)
posted by chrisinseoul to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say the best travel writing I've read contains:

1. Vivid descriptions.
2. A taste of culture.
3. A human story.

To expand:

1. Descriptions should be evocative but not overly verbose - let the mind fill in the blanks, you're going for a painting not a photograph.

2. Don't drop a foreign phrase every sentence, which is just annoying, but give a sense of what's different. What makes this place different than where you're from?

3. The story can be your own, or somebody you've met, but giving a human side to it makes it real. Otherwise, you're just a camera.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:28 AM on July 22, 2010

Probably not what you're looking for, but your question make me realise that it's been far too long since I read Douglas Adams "Last Chance to See" - and that I should do it again very soon.
posted by elroyel1327 at 9:47 AM on July 22, 2010

I think your comment that you're "just passing on the details" is telling. Don't just pass on everything to your reader indiscriminately. What are the really colorful details? What are little angles that act as a prism into the larger story? What history or background info is helpful to include, and what is just giving more info without adding color? Are you talking about places, people, or both - perhaps using one to highlight something fascinating about the other? Find an angle and run with it. Pare out the elements that don't contribute to your particular take. Put those elements in a different piece, if they're important to you.

Try experimenting and varying things up a bit. Write in a formal or informal voice; take an insider or outsider perspective; be humorous, poignant, pithy, flippant. Try your hand at memoir, feature-style writing, top ten lists, and more wide-ranging essays. Convince your reader to go somewhere. Convince your reader NOT to go somewhere. You get the idea.

You're experiencing new things all the time, which is great. Are you drawing connections between those things, tying them together and coming up with ideas about how they connect, how they illuminate a region or a culture? Are you contrasting them with other places you've been? Linking them to memories or stories you've heard?

There are some great books out there that you might find helpful. L. Peat O'Neill's Travel Writing is pretty good. I'd suggest reading the Best American Travel Writing series, because you get such a broad range.

I took a travel writing class online through Gotham Writers' Workshop, and I found it pretty helpful. The online format offers a lot of flexibility, so we had people participating from North America and India and Africa and Europe. The class explored the different types of travel writing, and it was great to get feedback from both the instructor and my classmates. Even feedback that you don't agree with helps you think about your choices and what's important to you in writing.
posted by bassjump at 9:50 AM on July 22, 2010

Put people in the foreground. Make your story about the human beings you meet. Quote them accurately so we get the flavor of their speech and of the locale. Show them moving and doing things typical of the locale--that's how we'll visualize the place. Describe both people and place not exhaustively, but using a few selected details. Make your language concrete and specific. Don't tell the reader what to think about the place. Show them, and give them reasons to think what you think they should think.

I think people want to read about other people, to get to know people they haven't met, and it's the writer's privilege to introduce them. If it's in an exotic, foreign place, so much the better.

And don't puff things up, or try to make things "nice." If it smells bad, tell us what it smells like.

But be generous about people you don't know well.

I could go on.

What you're trying to do is hard to do well, and I wish you luck.
Maybe refer us to some of your work when you're happy with it?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:55 AM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: Yes, your writing seems a bit flat (sorry). I am not sure why. One thing that seems to jump out at me is that every sentence is a different piece of information. I felt like I was getting too much information too fast without being able to savor it.

"One highlight is Jaeseungdang Hall itself - originally the place where the admiral drew up battle plans, produced and distributed weapons, and so on. A number of his personal diary entries were also written here, although none could be found to read. These days, you'll find a number of large paintings of the battles, complete with English explanations."

The above is a good example. A lot of fact after fact, but not any amazing facts, and not much color.

What moved you to consider it a highlight? Was it disappointing that there were no personal diary entries? Did they contain thoughts and ideas on battle plans? Is "and so on", and "complete with English explanations" necessary?

What I feel is missing is the fascination/passion about the hall.

Also, I think having a personal viewpoint would be nice. Allowing it to be a bit more about your personal relationship with the experience will humanize it.

One more example:

"Once arriving, however, you'll have ample time to enjoy the scenery and history."

"scenery and history" are generic. What scenery and history? Try adding that in and see what happens. (what amazing views, what historical significance?)

"Once arriving, however, you'll have ample time to enjoy the lush tropical rainforest and imagine the ironclad 'turtle' ships sailing in to battle." Not a great example, but hope it gets the point across.
posted by Vaike at 9:56 AM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: I shouldn't make this recommendation to you, because I want all the travel writing tips FOR MYSELF, kthxbai. But for you, chrisinseoul, just this once, I will out with it.

You need Matador.

Specifically the "Travelers' Notebook" section of the site. Their main focus, both in the articles about writing and in the travel articles they run on the rest of the site, is about narrative and storytelling. I also recommend the blog of one of their editors, David Miller. The questions you're asking are his raison d'etre.
posted by Sara C. at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if you end up getting involved with Matador, my username in their "community" section is Sara C. as well. I also have a few articles posted to the site, under my full name (which I will tell you if you memail me) with hopefully more to come. The Matador folks have been absolutely invaluable to my growth as a writer, and I'm hoping to start their online travel writing course soon.
posted by Sara C. at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2010

I've always enjoyed the writing of Bernard Roueche. He was a longtime writer for The New Yorker who wrote about travel and medical mysteries. I loved all the details he'd put in his stories - things like what they served for dinner in the dining car of an overnight train, or the conversation he had with someone he met while strolling through a small Kansas town. Those small details, along with the economy of his writing, made me feel like I was alongside him on his travels. All of his writing is from 30+ years ago but to me it's still very interesting and relevant.
posted by Kangaroo at 10:55 AM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry, this is really long, but hope it helps.

I've only dipped into your blog, so the bits I've seen might not be representative, but they look to be largely chronological accounts of things you've done:

I did this
Then I did this
Then I noticed this
If you do this yourself, you will then encounter x
And at the end of the day y will happen.

Which is always going to have a little of the school "What I did in my holidays" essay feel about it. Perhaps you could experiment with focussing more on a small number of specific details, then relating them back to a bigger issue, or structure the piece about a particular theme rather than an event.

I write news articles, but dip into feature-writing on a regular basis, and it's taken me a while to learn a good structure for them. These days I go with something like:

1. Start with the single most interesting thing in the story. Get your reader right in the thick of the action with a striking, succinct description of an image or event (in my case, I pick the one bit of the interview where the interviewee really made me draw my breath - I guess you would want to choose the most impressive/emotional part of your day).
2. Step back and put it in context - explain some of the background, why you are writing about this? (This is what a lot of people tend to put at the beginning, which can make for a really dull start.) You can bring in the theme here, if you have one.
3. A fairly chronological account of the story, but break away every few hundred words to change tone - go back to your context, relate the story to that.
4. End with a "kicker" - a killer line which neatly ties it all together and hangs in the reader's mind. Not always easy to find but is like tying a neat little bow on top of the tight little parcel you've just created.

So, for example (and apologies if this is a bit rough, am doing it off the top off my head on the last place I visited)

1. Description of a woman waiting in the queue outside a Havana food store. How long has she been there? What is she wearing? What is she hoping to buy? How big is her family? How much will she have to pay? How much does she earn? etc. etc. Show us this chore through her eyes, her words.

2. But she's not alone... explain that queuing for groceries like this is a daily event for thousands people in the city. But is it because Havana's socialist economy doesn't function, or is it because of the US blockade?

3. Start an account of your day wandering around the shops of Havana, but using some very specific examples, pick out a series of shops and talk to people. Every now and then break away and show how your examples illustrate the issues in section 2.

4. Kicker - maybe your woman in part 1 gave you a great line about her shopping life that you've held back; maybe it's just a strongly-held, neatly-worded reflection of your own.

Writing by formula doesn't have to make the article dull. Like the structure for a screenplay, it's just a good, comprehensible frame to hang the interesting stuff on.
posted by penguin pie at 6:48 AM on July 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi again,
Thanks for the helpful ideas. I'll mark this one resolved for the sake of housekeeping - I have some reading to do, as well as some new approaches to consider. Thanks!
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2010

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