A Conversation with Charyn Pfeuffer

From food, wine, and travel editor to copywriter, marketing consultant and daily blogger, Charyn Pfeuffer’s 13-year career in publishing, media, and volunteering has taken her from writing to editing to ghostwriting to co-authoring. She has contributed to over a dozen books and 80 diverse lifestyle and travel publications such as National Geographic Traveler and Islands. Check out her blog here, in which she’s been chronicling her year-long volunteer adventure, at The Global Citizen Project!

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I stumbled into my writing career. I went to art school for painting and graphic design and ended up back in the restaurant industry post-college. With absolutely no experience (or English classes beyond freshman year of college), I landed a position managing the Personals and Promotions department at a metropolitan alternative weekly newspaper. From there, I started penning a dating advice column, which segued into lifestyle writing. When I made the jump to freelancing full-time in 1998, I had an idea that I wanted to focus on two of my favorite things — food and travel — and so I steered pitches in that direction, and ultimately niched myself as a food, travel and lifestyle writer. I rarely cover any topics that don’t fall into that holy editorial trinity.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

I went into this career with complete naiveté and absolutely no experience. I think a lot of my success has been a result of not having J school rules drilled into my head or knowing what to expect. Sure, I had a lot of lucky breaks early on, but I also made mistake after mistake in my quest to succeed. I made sure to learn from every screw up, but never thought for a second that I couldn’t make this career/lifestyle work. It’s been one helluva journey, but I am proud that I’ve supported myself financially solely from my writing for over a decade. I don’t think I’d change a thing. Achieving success is an ongoing process and I think writers need to be open to all of the possibilities and willing to take chances. Oh, and never sell yourself short — whether it’s your time or how much you’re willing to work for.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Do you want the form letter I send out? People crawl out of the woodwork with this request (especially since the recession) several times a week. I used to take the time to give advice/mentor, but I’ve had one too many people start sending me every single thing they write for my opinion and I already deal with 150+ emails a day. There’s no way to sum up what I’ve learned in 13 years in a short and sweet email or 1/2 hour conversation. I tell people freelancing/travel writing isn’t for everyone. It’s a business, just like every other career, and is not always glamorous (although it does have its moments). It requires tremendous amounts of motivation, organization, flexibility and open-mindedness. You have to be willing to get sick in a third world country, bed bugs in a luxury hotel, deal with all the wacky personalities on a press trip, write from the road, etc.

In 2010 you walked away from a successful freelancing career to go volunteering with money you raised via Kickstarter.  (I think my drop in the bucket was 20 bucks.) Tell us where the money went and what you accomplished.

Thank you for being one of the 200+ backers who helped make The Global Citizen Project a reality. When TGCP was said and done, I volunteered more than 900 hours in 12 different countries over 12 months with 12 different causes. The $20k I raised via Kickstarter did not stretch as far as I’d hoped, but it did make a big dent in my expenses for the year. I was able to make a personal difference in 12 places and for countless people, but more importantly, I was able to use my platform as a journo to bring attention and awareness to the organizations and causes I served. More than 50 media outlets covered TGCP and the project attracted many new volunteers and donations (and continues to do so). I just signed on as a board member for one of the NGOs I worked with in Panama and look forward to making an ongoing impact with their humanitarian efforts. On a personal level, TGCP was more challenging than I ever imagined, but humbled me and gave me so many new perspectives on the world and the people we share it with.

A lot of the big-name, invincible magazines you wrote for in the past aren’t looking as big or invincible anymore. Who do you plan to keep writing for in a year, two years? How do you see your income mix changing long-term?

Isn’t that the truth? You know when a $1/word client says, “We’d still love to have you write for us, but we can now only pay you 10 cents a word,” that things aren’t looking so rosy.  I refuse to accept lower per word rates in light of the recession (or gasp! write for free in exchange for “exposure” or “link juice”), so I’ve scaled back on the publications I’m working with right now. Yahoo, Bonnier Corporation, and Wyndham Worldwide are my steady outlets at the moment. I still work with my corporate clients, writing content and marketing materials, but have diversified into more social media and marketing work in the food, travel and lifestyle sector. I’ve found a great deal of demand for quality writing in this realm. It doesn’t offer a byline, but it does pay a decent hourly rate. I’m also in the throes of working on a travel memoir – the fourth draft of my proposal goes back to lit agent land next month – and trying to launch an interactive travel website for Washington State, since our tourism budget was cut in July, making WA State the only state in the US with no tourism board. Also, I’ve signed on as the Volunteer Travel Editor for when Mission.tv launches. I’ve done work for online outlets like yours writing about luxury travel in Chile and Peru. I have a lot going on – the standard pitch, write, and repeat cycle is no longer sustainable for most writers who financially support themselves and diversity is what has kept me viable in the changing media/publishing landscape. I’m still writing about the same three topics, just in different mediums/formats.

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With more than 13 years editorial experience, Charyn is a well-respected veteran in the publishing industry, and her successful career has involved her in all aspects of crafting the perfect editorial. She’s authored, co-authored and ghostwritten more than a dozen books and contributed to such publications as TravelChannel.com, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Luxury Latin America, Sunset, San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Traveler, Islands, DailyCandy.com and Seattle Times.

Interview conducted in August, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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