Pam Mandel has done a beautiful job blending her day job of technical writing with her passion for writing and blogging about travel. She blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, has freelanced for some of the most important publications in the industry, and co-founded Passports with Purpose, a group that raises money for worthy causes that resonate with travelers. In our interview today, Pam tells us about how she balances her two careers, why she hated writing guidebooks, and what travel brands she loves the most. Enjoy!
Tell us how you ended up in travel writing and what you also do to earn a living.
I was sending stupidly long emails to all my friends while living as an expat in Austria. And one day, my friend Jules said, “Have you heard about blogging? You should be blogging.” He was right.
Everything I do as a travel writer came from my starting a little expat blog about my life in a very small town in Austria. I had a 3 megapixel digital camera that I used to shoot photos. 3 megapixels! My phone has 12! So there I was, blogging, and looking at the very early travel web and contacting people who were total strangers to ask if I could write for them. World Hum published one of my very first stories — years later, I still write for them. I got a lot of lucky breaks — I connected with a travel writer for Lonely Planet and Thomas Cook through a community expat blog and she referred me for my first guidebook gig — things kind of grew from there.
The early adopter community was small, so I got hooked it to places it mattered really fast. I’ve since written for Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveler and Afar and the San Francisco Chronicle and a bunch of places, but all of that came out of connections I made online as a blogger when the whole world of online and travel was so new.
I do a lot of things to earn a living, but almost all of them are writing. I write technical specifications for websites, I write copy for websites, I ghost write rather dull corporate content for… websites. All this website work means I’ve learned about what makes websites go, and more recently, I’ve also done architecture for websites — UX — meaning I help design the scaffolding that all the pretty stuff on websites hangs on.
I say in the Travel Writing 2.0 book that the happiest travel writers are often the ones that don’t have to depend on it to pay the bills. Do you think having another primary source of income has enabled you to be more discerning about what you choose to write about?
Absolutely. If all I did was chase travel writing gigs, I could not afford to be picky about what I do. In travel writing I try to focus only on gigs that I enjoy. I love writing about travel, I really love it, and I think it would bum me out if I had to churn out SEO or content farm work about travel to pay my bills. I’m so lucky to have been in Seattle in the 90s — I was hired for a contract project at Microsoft writing captions for a product called Encarta — that led to a series of increasingly technical gigs. Those tech gigs can pay pretty well and that keeps me from doing travel work that would crush my soul.
What kind of freelance travel pieces have you had the most fun writing and which ones were the hardest to get done and sent?
I hated doing guidebook work. I get asked about it a lot, people think it’s glam. I did Hawaii, even, and I hated it. I ran around the islands like a crazy person with barely any time to enjoy where I was, and then, I spent months involved in what felt like glorified data entry. I’m glad I did it, it built up my cred, but I never want to do it again. What a chore. I have nothing but respect for guidebook writers, they work really hard.
As for what I’ve loved — well, when an editor likes an idea I have and lets me just run with it, wow, that’s a dream gig. I recently got to spend a day visiting the Grand Canyon and talking to people about their experiences there — it was so very much fun, and I loved writing about it too. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I love where I live and getting to wax poetic about the Pacific Northwest is nice. I get to write these sort of love letters to my home, which is kind of fitting for a travel writer, don’t you think? I also really like working with editors that get me. I wrote articles for Lonely Planet’s website for a little while and when I’d get the edits back, it felt like the editor really understood my voice. That was a delight.
I enjoyed the gear reviews I did for Practical Travel Gear and Gadling too. Thing is, I field tested everything and I learned a lot about what makes great gear while doing it. Reviewing gear allowed me to be really objective — something that travel often lacks. If something breaks on first use or, alternatively, becomes an essential item, you know exactly what to say.
A lot of your fans probably love your blog because you’re so opinionated and don’t shy away from a good rant. Do you think this has been a key to your success in building an audience and that many bloggers play it too safe?
Come for the rants, stay for the travels stories. That could be it. Strong voice is critical for any successful writer, I think. There are a million and one stories about Paris now, so without a strong voice, who’s going to read what you have to say about Paris?
Understand, my blog built me a reputation as an opinionated and reliable writer, but I wouldn’t say I’m all that as a blogger. My traffic is small. But it’s fiercely devoted — I still get comments from readers who found me nearly 15 years ago. I love that.
I feel like a good rant helps me stay sane, but also, wearing your heart on your sleeve can bond you with your audience in ways that “Everything is awesome” can’t. I wrote about what it was like to lose my Dad to Alzheimer’s and I was overwhelmed by the kindness i got. It’s not just about ranting, it’s about writing honestly about your place in the world. Sometimes, that’s ranting, but not always.
Bloggers totally play it too safe. If you want to be invited on press trip after press trip or get paid day rates by PR, it pays to be safe.
You have to have a lot of nerve to bite the hand that feeds you. But it depends on what your goal is. If you want to have a career as an independent writer, you’re gotta put your incisors to work. If you want to trade work as a marketing hack for luscious vacations on someone else’s dime, carry on.
But no one says, “I would like to read a travel story about someone who’s having an awesome time on a meticulously managed experience, especially if they are writing to please the host.”
I’ve heard/read you go off on pop-up subscription boxes, sleazy blogger sponsorships, sponsored tweets, and commercial infographics, to name a few. What’s annoying you most lately?
Hoo boy. How much space can I have?
Andrew Sullivan posted on The Dish recently where he blasted Yahoo for caving to advertiser pressure on content. I posted it to my Facebook page and quite the storm followed.
I think folks misunderstand where I come down on paid content, so I always try to bring it back to a food analogy. As a consumer, I like to know what I’m getting — if it’s full of chemicals, it’s GMO, it’s got eleventy billion grams of sugar and sodium — BEFORE I eat it, not after. I read labels and I think, huh, that’s bad for me. Sometimes I go ahead had have Doritios because sometimes, I want junk. But it’s an informed choice.
I want that option as a reader — an informed choice — and I seldom get it. Usually, it’s after the food — I mean content — is consumed that I find out the writeup telling me it is safe to go to Thailand Jordan Turkey was funded by… Thailand Jordan Turkey. Not cool.
I’m not saying those places are unsafe or even that the reporting is bad, but come on, you have got to lead with the sponsor if you want me to trust you even a little bit. Telling me afterwards just makes me mad and totally kills my trust. That’s a pretty egregious example, but it holds for less charged things, too.
If you tell me “Everything is Awesome in Awesomeland!” and then “Paid for by Awesome Inc.”– well, your cred is shot, I am breaking up with you. We are through. Tell me right up from you’re on Awesome Inc’s dime and I will say, “At least you’re being transparent… I’ll give you two more minutes to convince me.” You could win me over — it’s happened.
You covered travel clothing, shoes, and gadgets for a while for me over at Practical Travel Gear. What are you packing lately that you’ve been really happy with? OR, what’s a brand you love so much you would agree to a “brand ambassador” arrangement? (Fully disclosed, of course…)
The Gregory Alpaca roller bag. Hands down my favorite roller bag. I’m still nutty for the bags by Tom Bihn, but sometimes, I want wheels.
Even though I’ve never quite made aesthetic peace with those weird bumper toes on Keen shoes, they’re really comfortable and also, are holding up beautifully.
Last but way not least? The Panasonic Lumix. I rarely shoot an SLR anymore. I love this thing.
I’d sign an ambassador contract with any of those brands — they make stuff that I’ve hauled around the planet and continue to pack over and over and over again. They make my wish list — and recommended gifts for travelers — Every Single Year. Also, I thought packing cubes were dumb first time I tried them out. Now I use them all the time. They’re great. Go figure.
Pam Mandel has been a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, Afar, World Hum, Gadling, BlogHer, and Divine Caroline, been featured on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog and Perceptive Travel, and written for a handful of food, travel, and in-flight magazines.
Interview conducted in July, 2014 by Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Winet.