Last weekend, Lonely Planet visiting author Greg Bloom was joined by Writers Block Philippines’ Nina Terol-Zialcita, Nikka Sarthou and Ana P. Santos to give nice, long, comprehensive seminar about travel writing.
Each speaker tackled a specific topic in travel writing—getting published, guidebook writing, feature articles, ethics. They also entertained questions from the audience of almost a hundred people, gathered at our Fort branch atrium space. While the seminar gave a great picture of the travel writing industry, how to do it as a job, and how to get started, here are five important take-aways from the workshop that are essential to anyone who would like to get into it!
1. Tell a story
“Each place has a story and your job is to find out what that story is,” Nina Terol-Zialcita mentioned. A travel article is more than a narration of what you did from the start to the end of your trip. Learn to focus on a certain part of the experience: the cuisine, the sights, the people, a realization and the events that led you to it, or anything else that struck you.
Don’t forget your sense of wonder and curiosity and let it take you off the tour track. In his Mornings @ ANC interview earlier that week, Lonely Planet’s Greg Bloom mentioned, “There is always something enjoyable about the things that are most foreign to you,” so get out of your comfort zone and include places you wouldn’t normally visit in your itinerary!
Start to think like an explorer looking for the history and spirit behind a place. “Show not tell—describe what you see, think of all the senses and try to wrap up the description in the prose,” continued Greg. Details about the new place are also important to include. What did you see? What did you feel? How did it smell? How did it taste? What did you hear? Describe the color that makes up the scenes.
“What if we are touring with a group?” a member of the audience asked. “Can we still have experiences worth talking about?” Nina Terol-Zialcita responded, “The tour is packaged but your mind shouldn’t be.” Take some time apart from the tour group as well to see what you can discover. “You are not a tourist. You are a traveller. And like many explorers before us, you are here on a journey of discovery,” said Ana P. Santos.
2. “Always try to get people into your articles.” — Greg Bloom
“That’s where the stories are,” Greg said.
“Imagine your destination as a person you want to get to know,” shared Ana P. Santos of Writers Block. How would you describe the person to others? Get talking to the people from that place and find out about the spirit behind it. Include dialogue in your article as well, as it shows the interaction and specific experiences that helped you build your story.
3. “Don’t underestimate the seductive power of a decent vocabulary.” — Ana P. Santos
The basics should never be taken for granted: well-written prose, grammar, a good introduction and a tight conclusion. What is heat vs. what is humidity? Know the nuances and words in order to provide a clear picture to your readers.
4. Know the market.
Research about the travel writing scene. What publications are you pitching to? What is the specific tone of that publication and how can your story fit into it? What are the trends in travel, and what would people want to read about? Where is the demand in travel writing? Is it in feature articles? Guidebook writing? This can also be a source of income when done well and done properly. The topics you write about should also be marketable to a publication and its audience.
“The first thing you can do when starting out is become an expert on something,” says Greg Bloom. You can opt to choose a field of expertise (family trips, adventure travel, taste trips, etc.) so publications will come to know you as the chosen writer for that topic. He also added, “Take a chance, make an editor notice by choosing topics that will turn his head,” when mentioning the helicopter ski-jumping articles that landed him his first jobs.
5. Your primary responsibility is to the reader.
A part of the seminar was also dedicated to the ethics that govern one’s travel writing piece. While we want our readers to understand why we fell in love with a place, we also don’t want to be accused of ‘gushing’ over a city. Try to keep a certain sense of objectivity as well. While the article is written in the first person, the essence of it should still be about the place, and not about you.
“Don’t talk too much about yourself. You are not the story!” Said Greg. When having a negative experience with a place, “be careful of overhyping or criticizing. Talk to people who have been there a while to clarify things.”
When talking about sponsored trips, the Writers Block group believed in disclosure of the paid features. For guidebook writing, Greg Bloom added that in no way are expenses shouldered by the places he visited or stayed in, as that may imply bias. “Primary responsibility is to the reader, not to the person paying for your trip.” He shared, as his governing principle in writing about the place he has visited.
“You also have to protect the integrity of the publication you’re writing for.” Nina Terol-Zialcita added.
• There have been no Filipino contributors to Lonely Planet Philippines yet. So why not try to apply?
• One trip can yield different experiences. “You can go to one place and pitch three different stories about it to three different publications,” said Greg.
• Remember, you don’t have to include absolutely everything that happened in the trip in your article. “You can write about a specific experience, what stood out for you in the trip.” Said Nikka.
Thank you to everyone who attended the talk, especially those who were at the back and standing the whole time! Thank you for welcoming Greg and we hope you learned a lot from our speakers. Thank you to our speakers as well, Greg Bloom, Nikka Sarthou, Nina Terol-Zialcita and Ana P. Santos for this hefty guide to travel writing.