Travel writing is exciting — who doesn’t want to explore exotic locales or scour a familiar place with a new eye? But getting your byline into popular travel magazines and on travel blogs isn’t easy, in part because there’s so much competition.
Here’s what will help you break into the travel sector: writing a great feature. To accomplish that, let’s talk about how to best pull the reader into your travel story, so the next editor you pitch is eager to publish your work.
How to write a great feature
A feature is typically a long-form piece that runs anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 words and covers a destination in depth. An article might profile a well-known cultural event with a new twist, or it may be a personal essay about an experience in a foreign country. Some magazines that publish feature articles are National Geographic Traveler or Conde Nast Traveler.
Feature writing is an examination of “otherness” — the where, when, who, why and what of a destination. While you can achieve this examination in several ways, good feature writing should compel the reader to consider traveling, or at least entice them to fantasize about it.
Why don’t we review an example. In 2012, I landed in the city of Seville, the seat of Andalusian culture, to experience what that region is mainly famous for: flamenco dancing. Sitting down at a tavern to experience this aspect of southern Spain sounds ridiculously easy to describe.
The flamenco dancer wore a red dress. I couldn’t keep up with her feet moving so quickly. The guitar player often played fast and then slow, which made the dancing exciting.
She was a beautiful woman and I could see intensity on her face whenever her feet hit the floor in fast movements. The guitar player dictated how she moved and what she did through the pace of the music. It made my heart beat rapidly along with her. Patrons shouted “ole”, at times, clapping their hands as she performed. I joined in as well.
La Carboneria is a famous bar in Seville that looks like a garage during the day. Once night hits, it becomes kind of a cave, a darkened space with a piano. Flamenco is offered free, starting at 11:00 p.m. A glass of sangria only costs two euros. This bar is legendary, known for recreating gypsy culture.
Falling asleep yet? Me, too. As you noticed, the writing is almost clinical. It tells a story, but not one that is engaging, let alone interesting. Let’s try this piece again.
Her feet moved so rapidly my eyes couldn’t maintain contact.
Then her skirts moved, flying in a circle and finally resting when the Spanish guitar player segued into a mellower chord.
The woman’s proud nose and fluttering eyelashes were a comely frame for the fiery red of her dress, form-fitting and flaring to the bottom with ruffles trailing to the scuffed floor. Her feet were encased in shoes with delicate straps and short, thick one-inch heels. How petite they were, so incongruous to her ecstatic, impassioned movements.
Her arms formed a diamond shape above her head, the silhouette strong and muscular, for she was waiting for the guitar to wail again. When it came, she moved with purpose. Her feet hitting against the floor, scuffing it more. Her face a mask of concentration as she enacted the music through the wood connecting to her heels. A slam from her feet punctuated each note, we clapped. Slam again, we yelled “ole”. This is the core of flamenco; the dance of the free, the thief, and the heavy-hearted.
The baile of the gypsies is well known in Seville and many pour into the famous La Carboneria, a cavernous bar with a beautiful, worn piano, that swells to capacity while sangria flows at two euros a glass.
Example #2 accomplishes two goals. First, it draws in the reader towards the action. What if someone reading this has never seen a live performance of flamenco dancing before, and they are wondering what it’s like?
Second, the content sets a strong image of place. Make it easy for your readers to metaphorically step into that sense of “otherness” I mentioned earlier. If you make it difficult or worse, boring, a reader’s attention span will trail off and they will move onto something else more engaging.
Make your travel writing pop
How do you stop being a dull travel writer and make your features sizzle with action and vigor?
A feature writer for a travel magazine or say, for your own blog, is in the business of selling one thing and one thing only: fantasy. The fantasy of travel involves — drawing the reader in and keeping them by painting a sense of place.
Once you land in that exotic country, you become the observer. It’s your duty to record details that could be included in your story. No detail is frivolous when incorporated well and in sync with the rest of the piece.
Make sure you have a central focus for your piece. Perhaps it’s an event that has an impact on tourism or the local population. Maybe it’s exploring a mythical cultural ritual. Could be the geopolitical implications of a destination. It’s clear that the flamenco piece is attempting to disseminate gypsy culture through this popular dance.
Now that you’ve traveled to the destination and you’ve recorded the details, remember to incorporate vivid verbs as you write. The right combination of words will fill in the visuals and make that travel experience three dimensional. This doesn’t mean using excessive adverbs or adjectives; well-placed verbs will make your text succinct, yet strong.
Travel magazines serve many functions — sometimes the text is informational, offering tips or the latest travel trends, or sometimes an article seduces the reader with a faraway place, different than her home.
If you want to be the latter type of writer, remember that vivid writing opens up the imagination, allowing the reader to picture a destination and what it could symbolize for them.
Do you write travel articles? How do you bring your travel writing to life?