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11 Ways to Improve Your Travel Writing


This post is a little inside baseball about travel writing. It’s a follow-up to my semi-ongoing series on travel blogging that started with this post, continued with this one, and will now (probably) end with this post here. To me, the crux of all online endeavors is good writing. With so many blogs out there, if you can’t write engaging stories, you’ll never get anywhere! So today, I want to introduce one of my favorite travel writers, David Farley, who is going to share 11 writing tips for fellow bloggers and writers out there! Here’s David:

I always thought that once I started writing for glossy travel magazines, I could relax a bit because I’d “made it.” Nope! Then I thought that once I began penning pieces for the New York Times, I could say I was successful. Not. At. All. OK, maybe when I had a book out, published by a major publishing house, things would get a bit easier for me. I wish!

Writers, in some way, are a sorry lot. Rarely do they ever look at something and say “perfect!” Maybe for a moment — but give a writer a day and he or she will come back to that same article and find dozens of mistakes. Writing is a craft you never perfect.

We’re always striving to be better. Creatives tend to be perfectionists. Writing requires you to keep learning and improving.

But that’s good, because that drive makes writers improve their work. And only through practice and effort do we end up with the Hemingways, Brysons, Gilberts, and Kings of the world. (Matt says: I once heard that until the day he died, Frost never loved “The Road Not Taken.” He was constantly reworking it!)

If you’re a travel blogger, you probably started off not as a writer with a journalism background but as a traveler looking to share your experience. You probably didn’t have any formal training or someone to peer over your shoulder and give you advice.

So today I wanted to share 11 tips that will help you improve your travel writing or blogging. Because the world always needs good writers — and good writing helps get your story heard more! These tips, if followed, will better your writing and make a huge difference in the reach of your writing!11 Ways to Improve Your Travel Writing/Blogging

1. Read. This is number one. because whenever a budding writer asks me how they can improve, it’s my first piece of advice. Read good writing. Absorb it. Let it sink into your soul. Don’t think it’s possible? When I was first starting out, I was sick one weekend, so I spent three days lying in bed reading every page of that year’s Best American Travel Writing anthology. After I finished, I opened up my laptop and started writing for the first time in days. What came out surprised me: it was the highest-quality writing I’d done to date. And it was all because I was absorbed in good writing and it filtered through me back onto the page in my own writing.

(Matt says: Here’s a list of my favorite travel books.)

2. Do it for love. Maya Angelou wrote, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” Don’t get into travel writing for the money — after all, that would be totally unrealistic. And please don’t gravitate to the genre because you want free trips and hotel rooms. “Instead,” Ms. Angelou added, “do [it] so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” Or, in other words, strive to become such a good writer that the editors of all the publications you have been dreaming to write for can’t ignore you anymore.

3. Don’t be attached to linear writing. You need not compose a piece from beginning to middle to end. Sometimes that’s not the ideal structure of the story. Sure, maybe you’ve already figured that out. But if not, it’s OK to just get a few scenes and paragraphs of exposition down “on paper.” Then you can step back and take a look at the bigger picture and rearrange what you have, figuring out the best way to tell the story.

4. Tap into your own sense of motivation and drive. The students of mine at New York University who have been most successful were not always the most talented in the class. But they were the most driven. They’d read enough quality writing and thought about it — understanding what made it so wonderful — that there was just something about writing that they got. They weren’t born with that understanding, but ambition drove them to seek out better writing and then to think about it, to analyze what made it good (or not so good). Drive also inspires future successful writers to go out on a limb, to render themselves vulnerable, by reaching out to more accomplished writers to ask for advice, or by introducing themselves to editors at events or conferences. Don’t be shy! Standing in the corner quietly won’t get you as far as putting your hand out to introduce yourself will.

5. Try to figure out what gets your mind and writing flowing. Let me explain: I can sit down at my laptop and stare at a blank Word document for hours, not sure how to start a story or what to write about. Then I’ll respond to an email from a friend who wants to know about the trip I’m trying to write about. I’ll write a long email with cool and interesting anecdotes about my experience and include some analysis about the place and culture. And then I’ll realize: I can just cut and paste this right into the empty Word doc I’ve been staring at for the last three hours! Several of my published articles have blocks of texts that were originally written as parts of emails to friends. The “email trick” might not work for everyone, but there is inevitably some trick for the rest of you — be it talking to a friend or free-associating in your journal.

6. Understand all aspects of storytelling. There are two types of travel writing: commercial and personal essay (or memoir). In commercial travel writing, you should make the various parts of the story an intrinsic aspect of your knowledge: from ways to write a lede to the nut graph, scenes, exposition, and conclusions. For memoir and personal essays, know what narrative arc means like the back of your typing hands. It helps to get an intuitive understanding of these things by paying attention to writing — to reading like a writer — as you read nonfiction (and travel) articles.

7. Don’t stress if your first draft is shit. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And he wasn’t kidding. I find this true when I’m writing a personal essay or travel memoir. I write and I write and I write, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m putting down on paper. What’s the point of this? I ask myself. Why am I even doing this? But here is where patience comes in: eventually, the clouds part, the proverbial sunbeam from the heavens shines down on our computer monitors, and we see the point of it all: we finally figure out what it is we’re writing and how to best tell that story. It just happens like magic sometimes. And not all at once: sometimes it’s bit by bit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But as I mentioned, patience is key, because we never know when that divine magic is going to be activated. But sit around long enough and it will happen, I promise you. (Just be cautious when taking Hemingway’s other writing advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.”)

8. Write what you know. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell,” said writer Neil Gaiman, “because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”

9. When you’re finished with a draft, read it out loud. Preferably, print it out and read it out loud. This will allow you to better hear how the piece sounds, and unacceptable segues and clunky sentences or turns of phrases will jump out at you in a more obvious way.

10. Always get another set of eyes on your writing. While all writers make mistakes, it’s harder to spot them without an editor. Editors are very important, but they don’t necessarily have to be someone with formal training. While hiring a copyeditor is always great, if you can just get a friend to read your blog or story, that might be good enough.

It’s even better if you have someone who doesn’t know about travel. I have a friend who doesn’t travel much; she reads all my blog posts because she helps me make sure I include the important details I might have skipped. See, when you’re an expert on something, you often fill in the blanks in your mind. You go from A to C automatically; step B becomes subconscious. And when you write, you skip step B because it seems so obvious. Getting someone who doesn’t know the steps will help ensure you include explain everything in your post and don’t leave your readers going, “Huh?”

11. Finally, learn to self-edit. This is where many people go wrong. They write, they read it over, they post. And then feel embarrassed as they say, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I missed that typo.” You don’t need to be master editor, but if you follow a few principles, it will go a long way: First, write something and let it sit for a few days before editing. After your first round of edits, repeat the process. Get another set of eyes on it. Print out a checklist of grammar rules to go through as you edit. (Note: Matt created one here for you.) As you review your work, say to yourself, “Did I do this? Did I do that?” If you follow the cheat sheet, you’ll catch most of your mistakes and end up with a much better final product!

Writing is an art form. It takes a lot of practice. When you’re a blogger out on your own, it can be harder to improve your work, because you don’t have an experienced voice giving you tips and advice and pushing you to be better. If you don’t take it upon yourself to be better, you never will be. However, even if you aren’t blessed to work under an editor, these 11 tips can help you improve your writing today and become a much better blogger, writing stories people want to read!

David Farley has been writing about travel, food, and culture for over twenty years. His work has appeared in AFAR magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, and World Hum, among other publications. In 2006 and 2013, he won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for magazine articles he wrote. He has lived in Prague, Paris, and Rome and now New York City. He is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity and was a host for National Geographic. He teaches writing at Columbia University and New York University.

TravelWritingIf you’re looking to become a travel writer or just improve your writing, David and I created a detailed and robust travel writing course. Through video lectures and examples of edited and deconstructed stories, you’ll get the course David teaches at NYU and Columbia (without the price). If you’re interested, click here to learn more.

14 Major Travel Scams to Avoid


On my first big non-tour trip, I got scammed twice on the same day. My friend Scott and I had just arrived in Thailand. We were in Bangkok trying to find a boat cruise to take us up and down the Chao Phraya River. A taxi driver suggested this one company; we went there, and found out that an hour-long tour was only $30 USD. Not even thinking about whether that was a deal or not, we agreed. To us — still thinking about prices back home — that offer seemed like a fair price. It was only as the boat tour ended early that we realized we might have been ripped off (later on, we found out that we paid double the price).

Then, after lunch, we wandered over to the Grand Palace. When we got there, we didn’t see any crowds. We looked down the left side of the palace, then over to the right. “Where is everyone?” I asked. An enterprising tuk-tuk driver came over to us and told us the palace was closed for lunch. Scott and I looked at each other. Maybe that was right. After all, many museums sometimes do that, plus we didn’t see anyone around. It seemed feasible. He offered to take us to a few that were open.

“Sure,” we replied — and found ourselves visiting not only a few temples but also a suit shop, a gem shop, and a souvenir shop.

Afterwards, as he took us to the palace (which was unsurprisingly open). It was then we realized that it had never been closed — we had just been on the wrong side of the building.

A few weeks later in Chiang Mai, a taxi driver tried to charge me extra for a ride to the famous Wat Doi Suthep temple. Wise to their ways now, I bargained hard. When he dropped me at the actual bus to the temple, I realized that I got ripped off once again.

My life as a traveler was not off to a good start.

So, as we start the new year, I want to give you a list of travel scams to avoid. Avoiding scams requires a lot of common sense and a healthy dose of suspicion. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is! (Additionally, if you are carrying a guidebook, they usually list the most common scams in that country.) Here are some of the more universal ones to avoid:The taxi overcharge

This is one of the most common travel scams out there. Either the driver will tell you the meter is broken and try to charge you a huge rate or you’ll see the meter go higher and faster than Superman!

To avoid this scam, first you need to know how much a ride should cost. I always ask the hostel or hotel staff what a ride should be so I have a frame of reference. Next, if the cabbie tries to negotiate the rate with me, I offer him the correct rate. If he refuses, I find someone who will put the meter on. If the meter seems to be going up too quickly, I have them pull over and I get out. Many tourism boards let you report bad cab drivers, so be sure to always make a mental note of their ID number when you get in the cab.

And never get in an unlicensed cab — no matter how amazing the deal is!Your accommodation is “closed”

Another cab driver scam: your driver will try to tell you your hotel or hostel is overbooked or even closed. It’s not. I mean, you wouldn’t have booked it if it was, right? Just ignore them and insist on going there. If they keep trying, continue to insist. They will usually shut up about it.

And while this seems like a scam no one could possibly fall for, people do. I’ve been in many cabs where they insist my hostel has been closed for months.

A note on taxis: In this smartphone era, we have our power back. We’re no longer helpless, because we can look on a map and see the actual correct route. I like to look on Google Maps and see what the best route is. If it looks like they aren’t taking it, I’ll usually point to the map and insist they go that way. (I left a taxicab in Bangkok recently because he tried to pull a fast one on me by taking a longer route.) If I’m going to a country where I won’t have phone access, I preload the map onto my phone. Your phone’s GPS will work even if you don’t have a connection. Additionally, ride services like Uber place accountability on drivers, which greatly reduces the likelihood of you being cheated.The shell game

I see this one all the time — how people fall for it I’ll never know. It’s such an old and obvious scam. It’s in movies, for heaven’s sake! You’ll see people on the street playing a card game (sometimes known as three-card Monte) or hiding a ball in a cup and someone guessing where it is and winning money. Then you decide to play — and you win! Thinking this is great, you bet more money… and then you lose — and lose again and again.

Don’t get suckered into this con. Remember, the house always wins!“Come in for tea and help me write a letter!”

While in Morocco, someone tried this one on me. I was walking out of a convenience store when a guy struck up a conversation. Finding I was from NYC, he said he had a cousin who lived there (the first giveaway) and wanted to know if I could come to his shop to write a postcard for him (the second giveaway). The goal here was to get me in the shop, maybe give me some tea, and then pressure me into buying something. This uses the psychological principle of reciprocity: he gave me tea, he was nice to me, so soon I’ll feel socially obliged to buy something.

To avoid this, don’t follow people to a second location or believe they suddenly have a cousin who happens to live exactly where you do!Free bracelets/rosemary/anything they can put on you

In this scam, common in Europe, a friendly person will approach you for a quick chat, then place a bracelet around your wrist or hat on your head, or give you a little sprig of rosemary. Once you have it on your person, they will demand money. When you refuse, they will begin to cause a scene in the hopes you would rather give them some money than be embarrassed.

Don’t allow anyone to put anything on your body, and be extremely wary of accepting anything for free. If they put something on you, simply take it off, give it back to them, and be firm about it. Then walk away and move on with your day. They won’t chase you.The spill on your clothes

There you are, minding your own business, and someone spills something on you. Ruins your day, but accidents happen, right? They are profusely sorry and offer to clean it up, dabbing the stain, and apologizing. While you are all flustered, they are picking your pocket. By the time you realize what has happened, they are long gone.

This scam is also common in Europe. Beware of people encroaching on your person if it’s not a crowded area already. If this happens, push people away and clean it up yourself.Motorbike scam

You rent a bike, and then when you bring it back, the owner demands additional payment or expensive repairs because there is some damage you didn’t know about. I see this scam a lot in Southeast Asia and other developing regions of the world.

To avoid this, take photos of the bike first to document any previous damage. Go around it with the owner so they know what you are taking pictures of. Use your own lock, and keep the bike out of sight and off a main street when you park it. Sometimes an owner will send someone to mess with the bike or steal it so you have to pay!The flirtatious woman

You arrive in a new country and head to a bar, where a beautiful local comes up to you for a chat. You can’t believe your luck. You have some drinks and amazing conversation, and go to a new bar or club that she suggested. However, after a wild night and lots of drinks, the woman disappears and you’re forced to pay an overpriced bill with some really big guys bearing down on you to make sure you do. Or, worse, you get drugged and wake up completely robbed of everything on you.

The simple solution to this is to be wary of attractive women who promise to take you to the world’s best club, get you drinks, or are overly flirtatious, especially when you stand out like a sore thumb as a foreigner. Getting on a plane didn’t increase your attractiveness by a factor of 10.

Note: Why didn’t I mention a similar scam for women? Because, let’s be real, we men are dumb and usually thinking with our little brain. Women are too smart to fall for this.Your attraction is closed for lunch

As mentioned, this is what happened to me and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker! A friendly local approaches and informs you that the attraction you want to visit is closed for any number of reasons (religious ceremony, holiday, etc.). Then they’ll guide you to a different attraction or shop, where you’re pressured to purchase something or pay a lot for entry.

To avoid this, find the main entrance or ticket counter and see for yourself. Also keep in mind that most attractions don’t close for lunch — they close for the day. Even better, look up the open hours before you go, so you know what to expect — opening and closing times are almost always available online. Don’t be like me!The “found” ring

An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person looks at the ring closely, then shows you a mark “proving” that it’s pure gold. He or she offers to sell it to you for a better price. They make some money, and you get some gold you can resell. It’s win-win! You think it’s a good deal, buy it find out it’s fake when you try to sell it at home!

This is common in Europe. One of my tour members almost fell for it when we were in Paris, but I intervened in time and sent the person away. The best way to avoid this scam is to not buy the ring. If it sounds too good to be true, it definitely is.The fake petition

You’re at a popular sight and a woman or kid (often pretending to be deaf or a student) will try to get you to sign a petition. You don’t know what they are saying, and to end the awkwardness, you sign the petition, hoping they will go away. But then petitioner then demands a cash donation. At best, anyone who falls for this scam is out some money; at worst, they’re pickpocketed while fighting with the petitioner.

Another one of my tour members fell for this scam (even after I warned him specifically about it), but I saved him in time. To avoid this scam, just ignore people coming up to you to sign a petition, especially when they are in groups and try to surround you. Just keep on walking.The drug deal gone bad

This scam is common in many developing countries. You’re in a popular tourist area (usually a party place) and someone offers you drugs. You say yes, and before you know it, a (real) cop is on the scene! They offer to arrest you or you can pay the fine right there (i.e., a bribe). Caught red-handed, you’ll probably pay the bribe rather than go to jail.

Simply put: Don’t buy drugs in other countries!The wrong change

This happens a lot in countries where the bills look similar to each other. People tend to look at colors first, so when you get a pile of change that is the same color, you think you got the right change — but they really gave you the wrong bills, hoping you won’t notice until after you rush out.

To avoid getting taken, count your change carefully every time.The switcheroo

This happens all over the world and mostly with shirts, carpets, rugs, and antiques. You’re at a store and you see a designer item at a bargain price. Maybe they got it wholesale? After some haggling, the owner agrees to sell it you. But while you aren’t paying attention, he gives you a knockoff.

To avoid this scam, first remember that no designer anything is going to be that cheap. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it’s not true. Second, be sure to always watch what the seller is actually giving you to be sure it’s the exact item you wanted.

***

To avoid getting scammed, be wary when it comes to people offering you something in a touristy setting. Think of it this way: in your day-to-day life back home, would you go for it? If the answer is no, then chances are 99% that it’s a scam. On the road, a little common sense goes a long way.

What scams have you encountered or fell for that aren’t included here?

P.S. – Looking for another way to kick start your new year? Over at the forums, we are doing our quarterly Travel Action Challenge, where you win prizes (like a $100 USD Amazon.com gift card)!

P.P.S. – If you would like to help underprivileged students travel more, we’re currently fundraising for a group of students to go volunteer in Ecuador. Help us reach our goal, change someone’s life by exposing them to the world of travel, and get some travel swag in the process. It’s a trip win!

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