Jodi Grundig knows that a writing career is all about balance. As a mom, a travel blogger, a social media strategist, a PR consultant, and a business brand strategist for bloggers, Jodi is certainly one busy woman. In our interview today, she tells us what a typical day in life of a blogger is like, how she got her start and developed her niche, and what advice she has for new bloggers. Check out Jodi’s personal site to learn more about her. Enjoy!
Jodi, you are a family travel expert, social media and blogging consultant, and freelance writer. First, what’s a typical day for you like (if there is such a thing!)?
Things definitely vary-but I have a pretty regular structure to my day. I start out in the morning by checking email and social media accounts. After bringing my kids to school, I get started on my freelance assignments. Since I often have to interview sources during business hours, I make that priority during the day. While in between assignments or waiting for someone to get back to me, I plan out and write blog posts for my own two blogs.
After I pick up my children from school, we head out to their various activities. I bring along my laptop and work on easier tasks like editing photos, creating collages, and responding to emails. I do much of my work at night after everyone goes to bed and usually use that time to get caught up on social media, writing, and emails.
After I quit my full-time job, I wanted something to keep busy. I created my own blog as a part-time business and started freelancing shortly after that. To succeed, it’s been important to stay very organized and have excellent time management. Contacts and referrals are also essential.
What do you wish you’d known when you started writing that you know now?
If I had known how useful they would be, I would have attended conferences earlier in my freelance writing career. I’ve made so many contacts and learned so much from blogging conferences. TBEX, TMS, and TMS Family Travel have been my favorites this past year.
Let’s say a friend of yours wanted to become a travel writer. What advice do you have for this friend in terms of using digital and social media?
Many newbies think in terms of comps and freebies, but the majority of my content comes from tips I offer or family vacations that I’ve completely paid for. If someone wants to be a travel writer, I recommend starting with vacations they are already taking. Articles with tips and tricks to traveling are also a great way to establish an audience.
As a writer and blogger, I’m curious to know how you see your income mix changing over the next 5 years. What will we expect to see in terms of digital media content and the travel industry?
Most of my income comes from freelance writing and consulting. My blog does make some revenue, but it’s really more of a platform that I’ve used to establish myself as a freelance writer. I’d like to see more sponsorship for individual blogs and bloggers in the future, because I’d prefer to continue building my own platform. But, the freelance writing helps me “keep the lights on” for my own blog.
How did you establish your niche as a family travel expert?
I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and having kids didn’t stop us from traveling and going on vacation. I quickly became the “go-to” person in my community for anyone looking for advice on how and where to travel with kids. It became a natural progression to start blogging about it.
Jodi Grundig is a Boston-based family travel expert, social media and blog consultant, brand advocate, and freelance writer who combines her inside knowledge of social media with her traditional MBA and corporate background to help clients utilize new media in most optimal manner for their business. Jodi has traveled extensively with her children and has served three years on the popular Disney Parks Moms Panel. Jodi specializes in travel, finance, and family products. She teaches classes on blogging and social media, has spoken at several blogging and PR conferences, and has served as a social media consultant for several companies. Jodi has appeared on New England Cable News and Fox Boston, and her work has appeared in such publications as Credit Sesame, Fox Business News, TLC’s Parentables, MiniTime, and the Huffington Post.
Interview conducted in March, 2014 by Kristin Mock.
Buzzy Gordon knows how to travel–throughout his 35-year career, he has visited more than 80 countries and written for the likes of USA Today, National Geographic, and The Washington Post, as well as blogs like Totally Jewish Travel and Hotel Scoop. Today, Buzzy shares some of his insights on making it in the freelance writing profession and what he has learned along the way.
Buzzy, you’ve been in the travel industry for 35 years. How did you get your start as a freelance writer?
I took off to “see the world” for a year after graduate school — and it ended up turning into five years, with stints of working then setting off again. At first, I wanted mainly to share some of my interesting encounters with some pretty remote Jewish communities, and I had virtually a guaranteed audience, as Jewish media outlets did not often get news or portraits from far-flung places.
Keep in mind that this was the 1970s — practically the stone age not only for global communications, but for writing technology in general. I typed my work on a small manual typewriter, using carbon paper (some of you may have to ask your grandparents what that even is!), had to go to the post office to mail it (with a self-addressed stamped envelope, if I wanted to get rejected pieces back), and wait for weeks for a reply. It would take at least a month, and usually longer, for an article to be published after being submitted. The fax machine was not even invented when I started out! Writers living in the 21st century have no idea how much easier they have it nowadays.
By the way, I still recommend taking off for a year or two at a time, with periods of staying put and working in between travels. There are lot of opportunities for teaching English out there, and organizations like WWOOF (www.wwoof.net). Immersing yourself in a language and culture is a great way to establish a niche, and you’ll learn more in the “university of the world” than you ever did in school (but finish school first!).
What have been the keys to your success, in your opinion?
I think the key to success in most fields of endeavor, not just travel writing, is being professional. In journalism — and travel writers should be plying their craft as journalists — this means primarily getting your facts straight, covering the five W’s, meeting deadlines, and in general being reliable, as well as knowledgeable about your subject matter.
That said, there are a few rules that perhaps pertain more particularly to travel writing. One that I have learned is that is best not to turn down assignments, even if they might not seem appealing. I have forced myself to accept some pretty dreary jobs that I would prefer to have passed on, because I know that editors like to call on people they know will say yes. Once again, it has to do with that reliability factor.
And don’t forget your peers: make friends — and do favors for — fellow writers you meet. They’ll remember you and recommend you for assignments that are down your alley; and, of course, it’s good karma. :)
What do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
Frankly, most of the things I wish I’d known earlier have to do more with the zen of traveling, so to speak, than with the specifics of travel writing per se. Learning how to “go with the flow” in the face of misadventures or bad luck, and trying to turn adversity into opportunity, is good advice for anybody who spends a lot of time on the road. This pays extra dividends for the travel writer.
Similarly, meditating is a life skill that is especially helpful to the traveler and travel writer alike. It organizes thoughts and brings flashes of inspiration, in addition to recharging batteries and being a great balancing mechanism. I encourage everyone to practice it at least once daily. Fortunately, it can be done just about anywhere, on buses, planes, airports, etc.
Finally, a life lesson from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, which I certainly wish I had heard when I was much younger: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” It rarely pays to cut corners in some sort of misguided attempt to save time or effort. For example, learn everything you can about getting to your destination, and then some. It goes without saying that this extends to having back-ups for everything that might need power or get lost or stolen.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next 5 years? 10 years?
You’re presuming I’ll have income to mix! :)
Seriously, though, I’m afraid I am at the twilight of my career, as opposed to the dawn of it. I’m not complaining: at least I am doing something I should be able to continue to do for as long as I am physically able, as opposed to retiring. But I do not know how anyone can predict how the market will shift over the next 1-2 years, let alone 5 or 10. It was not that long ago when it was unheard of for an editor to have the nerve to tell a professional writer: “I can’t pay you, but you’ll get exposure.” And some of the pay scales I’ve been quoted recently verge on working for free.
To try to give you some sort of answer to your question, I suppose I personally will be trying to get more guest speaker gigs. Other than that, I’ll just have to plug away at doing what has worked to a greater or lesser extent all along: networking, and writing pitches as compelling as I can make them.
By the way, here is where I have to tip my hat to Mr. Travel Writing 2.0 himself, Tim Leffel. He is an editor and publisher who has always understood that a writer deserves to be paid, even if the amount may appear to seem symbolic at times. That is one reason I would continue to write for him; I know he would be fair and pay what he can afford.
You’re the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day-by-Day Guide (among plenty of other publications). What’s it like being a guidebook author and what advice do you have for aspiring guidebook writers?
Once again, even the guidebook landscape is shifting as we speak, moving from print to online, and from websites to apps. It is still a demanding discipline, requiring rigorous attention to detail; it is the least glamorous genre in the travel writing business, which to begin with was never as glamorous as most people think it is. There is a great deal of satisfaction in steering people right, but I wonder how much demand there will be when everyone seems to heading to TripAdvisor first. I can tell you with certainty — and a tinge of sadness — that we are witnessing the end of an era, as Frommer’s will no longer be publishing more than a handful of updated guides. Regrettably, mine will not be among those few.
You specialize in Jewish communities, gastronomy, culture, luxury travel, and health and wellness. Of these niches, which would you say has been the most important for you? And what is the hardest part about establishing a niche as a freelance writer?
Jewish heritage travel, which gave me my start, will always be important for me. I also believe it — as well as faith-oriented travel in general — is experiencing an upswing, although I can now detect a distinctly ugly side to it: some European countries with the most horrific records of anti-Semitic atrocities are trying to resurrect aspects of Jewish heritage in an unseemly effort to profit from Jewish tourism.
Luxury travel has proven that it is always going to prosper; ironically, even when economic times are bad and leisure travel slumps, the rich always seem to have money to spend. Gastronomy and health and wellness are popular with baby boomers, so I think those are trends that are worth pursuing.
In my opinion, the hardest part about establishing oneself in a niche — or even in general — is the amount of time, energy and savvy one has to invest these days in what I call “marketing after the fact.” It used to be that you submitted your work, and your outlet took care of publicizing it. Now, authors are expected to be partners — or even initiators — in an ever-increasing frenzy of social media follow-up. It’s becoming more of a grind, without necessarily more dollars being generated for the effort. The race may not always go to the most talented writer, but possibly to the one who is willing to jump through more hoops.
You can either look for a niche that you think still needs to be filled, or relax and let your niche find you; it just might, if you stay out there and keep your eyes and ears open. Finally, it’s OK to have more than one niche: it’s unlikely you’ll ever be the sole authoritative source on any one niche, so don’t be afraid to try your hand in a few areas that interest you.
Over the course of a 35-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide, a contributing editor at Jax Fax Magazine, and a regular contributor to LuxuryLatinAmerica.com and TotallyJewishTravel.com.
Interview conducted in Feb. 2014 by Kristin Mock.
I’m a freelance writer and blogger, but I’m also an editor. The kind of editor that pays people for quality travel stories they write, for a publication that wins awards year after year. So I see things from both sides of the desk more than most. That includes seeing common writing mistakes that are not in the idea, but in the execution.
I just spent the morning editing some music reviews, a couple travel narratives, and a hotel review for a different pub. Here are some problems I ran across that I almost always run across. Before you send something off to an editor who cares enough about quality to pay for it, check your article against this list for matches. Then get rid of them.
Magazine readers like short sentences. Web readers like them even more. I just edited something where three sentences were more than 40 words, one coming in at 62. (It was a whole 5-line paragraph on its own.) In some cases long sentences are fine, necessary even. If you’re writing a book, go to it when that makes sense. Book readers have a different type of attention span. The occasional one in a narrative travel article that’s a “long read” is fine. In most cases, however, find a place to stick in a period. Or two.
Gut check hint: If you have trouble reading it out loud without taking a breath, it’s twice as long as it should be.
I edited something this morning where in around 1,100 words, there were 33 parenthetical phrases. Half were actually in parentheses, the other half set off by dashes (see #5 below). This is hard to read and sounds both schizo and wishy-washy. Expressions like this are fine in moderation, but using them too much just makes you sound spastic. Focus your thoughts and make a point without all the side notes.
Gut check hint: If you’re doing this more than once every two or three paragraphs (and can’t resist sticking in a side note to half your points), then you’re doing it too much.
Fiction writers and script writers talk a lot about tempo in their writing, but travel writers almost never do. Except the great ones. You need to vary the length of your sentences, speed up sometimes, slow down sometimes. Alternate between exposition and dialogue, scene-setting by you and scenes that play out without commentary. The best way to get good at this? Read good books regularly. Then emulate what makes them good.
Gut check hint: Read your article out loud and imagine someone sitting there listening to it. Does it sound flat, monotonous, or gray? Or is there enough variation to keep the listener from tuning out?
I have my wife read almost everything I write for magazines or Perceptive Travel because she was an English major in college and is good at catching the mechanical mistakes I miss. And I miss a lot. We all do. There’s a well-documented problem that writers have trouble seeing their own mistakes. Spell check and grammar check have rectified some of this, but Word won’t catch it when you use the same word four times in one paragraph. When you do catch the duplications, find synonyms or rewrite those sentences to avoid the redundancy.
Gut check hint: If you don’t have a human checker to call on, read what you wrote out loud. Also/and use an online text-to-speech program that will read the document through your computer speakers. It’ll sound like a robot, but a robot’s better than nothing for catching word duplication.
Some writers seem to love dashes as much as they love their pet or their smartphone. I once edited a 2,000 word story that has 42 of them in the original draft. I don’t know what the golden ratio is, but it’s a small fraction of that. Unless there’s extensive dialogue in your article where you’re really quoting speech patterns word for word, an overuse of dashes is clumsy and annoying. This relates somewhat to problem #2 above, but many other times it’s just bad writing.
Gut check hint: Print out your article and circle the dashes, or highlight them on your computer screen. If you’re seeing more than four dashes on a page, you probably need to dial it back. Find a way to say what you need to say with more clarity.
This one is especially rampant in narrative writing drafts I receive, about half of which need to be restructured. For the web especially, if you don’t grab people in the first two paragraphs and then lead them by the hand through your story, they’re gone. There’s something else shiny and fun to click on and your “time on page” has been five seconds. In magazines and newspapers too though, the lead matters more than anything. Start with the drama, then get to the back story. Do that in reverse and you’re dead.
Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle teaches writing classes that focus a lot on structure and he gave a talk a couple years ago at TBEX on good writing. I liked his analogy so I’m paraphrasing it here. “Think of how a James Bond movie works. First you’ve got some kind of exciting chase, a fight, explosions. You’re hooked. You can’t wait to see what happens next! Then you find about about the problem, what the evil villain is up to. Then James goes and saves the day, having some fun interludes and action sequences along the way. There’s a climax, then a nice wrap-up that ties it all up before the credits roll..”
It’s a tale as old as time, and it works. It doesn’t just work—we expect it. Nearly every great movie you can think of starts with something exciting, intriguing, or wondrous. Something pulls you in. If it doesn’t, the film is probably going to fail. The same goes for your narrative article. Give us a reason to keep reading or we’re gone.
Gut check hint: Have a brutally honest friend read the first two paragraphs of your story and then ask that person, “How badly do you want to read the rest of this?” Their body language will probably tell you the answer before they even open their mouth.
David Lee launched Travel Blog Success in 2010, a membership-based community where he helps educate travelers on how to start and promote their own blogs. David also runs Gobackpacking.com, a popular travel blog for backpackers and independent travelers. His success in the travel industry is both admirable and exciting, as he has learned how to use digital media and social media marketing to reach a large and diverse audience. Today, he shares some of those secrets with us. Enjoy!
Your GoBackpacking.com is one of the most successful ones out there in what has become a ridiculously crowded field of long-term budget travel blogs. How have you built up such a sizable audience and kept ahead of most of the pack?
Longevity and consistency are the two biggest factors. I got my toes wet with travel writing for an online audience as far back as 1998, when I transcribed a handwritten journal from my first backpacking trip onto a Geocities website (in HTML, no less). People were reading the whole thing, and asking me questions, so I decided to buy a domain in early 1999 and continue adding content.
But in 2001, I stopped working on the site due to the lack of easy-to-use software, and my own lack of new travel experiences. I dusted it off in late 2006, and once I discovered WordPress, began learning everything I could about blogging in advance of a trip around the world. During 14 months of continuous travel, my goal was to provide a new blog post every day. There weren’t many travel blogs on their own domain in 2007-2008, let alone ones providing fresh content on a daily basis from over a dozen different countries. When my trip came to an end in 2009, I made the decision to open the blog up to contributors, which allowed me to publish content related to many more countries than I’d experienced, as well as to present female perspectives on budget travel. It was a strategic decision to broaden Go Backpacking’s appeal by making it about more than my own experiences and beliefs.
In 2011, I transitioned to paid contributors, both of whom have been writing for my blogs for several years.
What was your history before you started traveling and blogging and how did you take it from a hobby to a real business?
During my 20s, I worked in customer service management for two start-ups, a dot com and a healthcare company. I was lucky that both companies allowed for 3-4 weeks of vacation per year, but it still didn’t seem like enough when I was meeting backpackers on multi-month, or year long trips around the world.
I felt inspired by the idea of taking one long trip around the world, and worked for five years to make it happen. I began the Go Backpacking blog 11 months before my departure date, and spent most of my free time after work each day (and on the weekends), reading everything I could about blogging. Back then, there was far less information available on the topic, nor was social media the force it is today.
The investment in time before my trip paid off as I was able to focus on generating content as I traveled, instead of learning WordPress or how to make money.
As the years passed, I was making more and more money through various forms of advertising and affiliate marketing, as well as accepting donations from readers. The trend was heading in the right direction, and I knew that if I could buy myself enough time, I’d be able to earn enough money to support myself living in Medellin, Colombia.
In 2010, to supplement the money earned from advertisers, I launched Travel Blog Success, a membership-based community where I would help educate travelers on how to start and promote their own blogs. By mid-2010, I was earning my goal of $3,000 per month, and moved to Medellin.
From 2011-2012, I did a lot of traveling, and didn’t continue to diversify my income streams. As a result, my annual income as a blogger decreased for the first time in 2013. It was a wake up call that I needed to begin investing time and energy into developing new products, instead of depending on advertisers.
When you moved to Medellin you started sharing your knowledge about the city on Medellin Living. Did you expect it to also become a success or was that a happy surprise?
I began the Medellin Living blog within a week of arriving in the city, because nothing like it existed in 2009. There were a handful of poorly designed sites with ads plastered on them, but based on my experience with Go Backpacking, I knew I could do better. My gut instincts also told me Medellin was far too beautiful to remain a secret much longer.
I knew that if I began the blog and established it and myself as an authority on travel to Medellin, it might take a year or two for it to pay dividends, but that the potential was there to earn money. Until then, I considered it my passion project.
In 2013, I self-published my Medellin Travel Guide, and started to become more proactive about building promoting a handful of Medellin-specific affiliate products.
I know you have a travel guide e-book for the city that you’re in the course of updating. From that experience, what advice would you offer to someone else looking to self-publish and launch a destination e-book for their city?
Once you decide to write your own e-book, don’t stop or give up until it’s published. Try not to let perfectionism slow you down. Leave your second guessing for after you’ve written the first draft, otherwise it’ll slow your progress down to a crawl.
I also recommend investing in a professional editor to clean up punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes at a minimum, if not offer feedback on content and organization. The other two expenses are paying for a nicely designed cover, and someone to format the e-book.
I spent $1,350 to create the Medellin Travel Guide, which might sound like a lot, but I made it all back within the first five months it was on sale. If I had a more aggressive marketing campaign, it would’ve been even faster.
My first freelance writing assignment was the result of Medellin Living. An Editor for AskMen.com contacted me in 2009. They were doing a special on best cities to live in around the world, and I was tapped to write about Medellin. Though they didn’t ultimately use Medellin in their list, they did publish the article, and that lead to me writing two additional articles for their site. Over the years, a few other paid projects have come my way, but I do very little freelance writing. When writing for others, whether a paid assignment or the occasional guest post, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It can feel torturous at times, so if I’m going to struggle, I prefer the story be published on one of my blogs instead.
What advice would you give to travel blogger #8,463 just starting out right now?
Make sure you’re passionate about your niche. I’m entering my eighth year of blogging about travel, and I’d never have lasted this long if it weren’t a topic that could inspire me, on an almost daily basis, to write.
Everything else, including money, is secondary. On the other hand, if you do begin a blog on a topic you’re passionate about, it can lead to a whole new career and life.
David Lee is the Editor and founder of two popular travel blogs, Go Backpacking and Medellin Living. He also co-founded Travel Blog Success, a community to help travelers build better blogs. When he’s not writing, he enjoys salsa dancing and trying new restaurants. David is based in Medellin, Colombia.
Last night I participated in a webinar that’s part of Travel Blog Success,which I’ll get to at the end. There were quite a few questions about breaking into freelancing, from bloggers who have only ever written for their own site. If you’ve never written a paid article for someone else, it’s an intimidating mountain to face and it’s easy to get frustrated. Since I’ve been freelancing for 20 years now and am also an editor who hires writers and pays them, here are my tips on breaking in and getting repeat business.
A remembered writer will always get work before a stranger. So take advantage of any chance to meet and talk with editors face to face, even if the person is editor of a publication or section that has nothing to do with what you write about. She might change jobs next month or might be asked for a recommendation from a colleague. Or you might come up with an idea that fits later. So if you’re at a conference and there are 40 tables of people with a handful of pens to give away and press trips to talk about, you may be tempted to spend all your time at those tables. But are there more important people you could be talking to who can give you paid work instead of free travel? At some point you need to make the transition from free stuff to bankable dollars. You probably won’t get there by having speed-dating sessions with tourism reps.
You can also build good relationships by getting referrals from colleagues or other editors. Or by doing a good job and getting hired again. But nothing beats face to face meetings, formal or informal. If you’re in New York or London, you’ll get loads of opportunities to do this regularly. It almost makes up for your inflated living expenses. But if you live somewhere far cheaper, take a bit of the savings and invest it in going to conferences. They can pay huge dividends.
The mistake that most rookie writers make is to come up with an article idea and blast it out to 20 or 30 editors, hoping one will say yes. This rarely works and it’s the main reason editors ignore so many queries without replying. It’s very clear that the person sending the e-mail hasn’t tailored the query to that publication and probably totally missed the mark. That will immediately be deleted and your second query may not even be opened.
Ideas are your currency as a freelancer and you need to come up with ones that fit the publication. It’s not about what you want to write: it’s about what they already publish. Send them an idea that’s perfect for a specific section and it might actually get read by a decision maker. Which leads us to…
You should study and dissect any publication you are going to query before you sit down and write an e-mail. Ideally they have their writers guidelines posted and they make it easy for you. If not you may have to get them from a paid source like MediaBistro’s Avant Guild or the Wooden Horse database. Or keep an eye out through postings on Writer’s Weekly or FreelanceWriting.com.
For every great query I get at Perceptive Travel there are 20 that are a total waste of time. And that site already filters out a lot of people by saying “book authors only.” I can only imagine what the deluge is like at big magazines that pay $1 a word or more.
If an editor does say yes to your idea and you’ve got a deadline and pay rate in writing, drop everything and make that article the best it can possibly be. Treat this job like what it really is: an audition. If you follow all instructions to the letter, return all the forms you’re asked for quickly, and hand in that perfectly matched article on time (or better yet, early), you’ve now got a very good chance of getting more work. Don’t get huffy about edits. Don’t moan that your gorgeous prose “doesn’t sound like you” after it’s been chopped up. Don’t complain when you’re asked to provide fact-checking sources or go look up a bunch of phone numbers. Smile, say okay, and get it done pronto.
One 100K+ print publication I write for assigns a whole year’s worth of articles in advance. They send out an editorial schedule to all their regular writers. We each tell them which articles we’d like to do in the coming year from that list. The editor decides and has them all assigned before Christmas. An outsider has no chance. The same thing happens with many of the “hot list” and “it list” sections of major magazines. The people who get paid to go stay in those fancy hotels night after night have delivered in the past, so they’re hired to deliver again. Good writing matters, but show you’re dependable and have a good work ethic: editors care far more about that than anything.
Get good advice
The last thing is, seek out good writing advice on a regular basis. If you don’t have Travel Writing 2.0, start there, then sign up for the free newsletter by hitting that button above and putting in your vitals. I said I’d link to the Travel Blog Success site, so go check that out if your stymied as to how to make real money from your efforts and need a crash course. It’s run by David Lee of GoBackpacking (who will be interviewed here next week) and Michael Tieso of Art of Adventuring (who we’ll get to later).
Any hard-won advice you have to share on freelance writing success? Put it in the comments below.