Terry Ward has essentially been a travel writer since she started taking notes on a trip to Europe with her parents when she was 10 years old. In 2000, she left her full-time job to pursue a life as a freelance writer, and has since been published in places like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and Forbes Magazine. Check out our interview below, in which she talks about making a living as a freelancer and how to deal with those early rejection letters.
How did you get into travel writing in the first place and what was your first big break?
My first (and only) office job was right out of college, as a copywriter in an advertising agency. So from the start, I was earning my living from writing. But I always found my thoughts too wordy for the brevity of slogans and taglines. Longer form writing always interested me far more. After two years at the agency, my boyfriend and I decided to leave the corporate world and travel and live in Australia and New Zealand for a year, and I started writing long blog-like emails (this was before blogging was a thing) and realized I really liked sharing my travel experiences with, well, pretty much my entire email list.
After that year abroad, we returned to Florida and I decided to look for a way to merge my love of travel and writing. I saw a call out in the Orlando Sentinel, my local paper at the time, for readers’ stories for a weekly feature in the travel section called “Being There.” I submitted a 150-word blurb about an experience I had traveling in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and a few months later the travel editor called me to say she wanted to run it and did I have a photo to go along with the piece that I could scan or mail to her (this was the very early days of digital cameras – jeez, I sound old!). I asked her if it would be okay if I just brought the photo into her office instead of mailing it, and she agreed. My plan was to meet her face to face to talk more about my travels and hopefully get her to agree to read a longer travel story of mine on spec. And she did! So it was this one editor, Lisa Roberts, who I credit with launching my travel writing career back in 2001. After she accepted my story (it was about Atlantic Beach in Florida, a place I know well and where I used to live) and published it, I asked Lisa for other travel editor contacts to pitch. And that’s how the ball got rolling…
You lived in Orlando for a while, the biggest tourism destination in the USA. Did being there help you get a lot of work from editors and companies?
Ah yes, Orlando. Being located there was definitely a good thing in terms of getting travel assignments, although most of the Orlando work I got was of the guidebook-style variety, and mostly for online. Unfortunately, most of the Orlando coverage that editors are looking for centers around the theme parks and convention center area. And living in Orlando, these were areas I rarely visited for pleasure. I did manage to convince a few editors to run stories about the cultural, foodie and outdoor highlights in downtown Orlando and beyond, which felt like a victory of sorts. There really is a more interesting side to the city than the theme parks, in my opinion. That said, I was glad to specialize in a particular city for a while, and Orlando was as good of a place as any – perhaps better – thanks to the sheer numbers of tourists it attracts. And being based in Orlando also made me a Florida expert of sorts, which brought me many assignments elsewhere in the state.
What do you think of as your specialty and how have you cultivated that?
In my earlier years as a travel writer, I really focused on cultural travel writing…sharing my personal experiences discovering new ways of life around the world. And for that, World Hum was really the best outlet that I could have asked for. The fact is, however, there’s a larger market for servicey travel pieces. When I pitched exotic destinations to editors, they’d say things like “But our readers will never go there.” So as the years went on, I found myself writing more servicey pieces and really missing the cultural writing. Like anyone working for themselves, I had to pay the bills.
Several years ago, an editor for one of the major scuba diving magazines approached me and said something like “We’re looking for writers who dive, not vice versa…do you dive?” It had been years since I had put my PADI open water certification to the test, but I decided to get back into diving – admittedly mostly because it was a way to get some more writing work. I hadn’t really taken to diving when I first tried it, so coming back to it was interesting. I ended up really falling in love with the sport, and I now I write a lot of regular coverage for scuba diving magazines. Last year, I heard through a Swedish friend on Facebook that a Danish publisher was looking to start an international dive magazine. So I was put in touch with him, and now I’m the associate editor for an English language dive magazine published around the world, Dive the World. For a freelancer, any sort of steady gig is a good thing. And carving out this diving niche has been a good thing for me, too, although I do still long to write more about cultural travel.
You’ve freelanced for a lot of big print publications and obviously newspapers and magazines are having a tougher time the past few years. Have you had a tougher time getting queries accepted or had articles pushed back further before publication?
The main thing that’s been happening the past few years is that my editors have been getting laid off and either entering the freelance fray with the rest of us (it’s very bizarre to have an editor you were once pitching email you asking for tips on pitching editors) or popping up at different publications. When it’s been the latter, it’s proven to be a good thing – maybe I lose one outlet when an editor leaves a certain publication, but then suddenly I found myself writing about a new topic (cruises, for example, or family travel) because that editor has ended up somewhere else. When it comes to getting pitches accepted, sending emails off into the editorial abyss is a fact of life for any freelancer. There are many to which I never even get a response. But when you do get a positive response – and as a result make a connection to a new outlet – it’s always a good day.
When I first started freelancing, the rejections really bothered me. But not anymore. It’s all part of it. And what an editor chooses to run is, of course, very personal – one editor might love your idea while another won’t even give it the time of day. Working out exactly who to pitch for each particular story idea that pops into your head is part of the never-ending puzzle of being a freelancer. Having articles pushed back further before publication has not been an issue for me, although there have been a few instances in the past few years where I’ve noticed it’s taken a lot longer than usual to get paid for work completed.
How has living in a foreign country impacted your life and your writing?
I’ve spent extended periods of time in many different countries over the years, including Germany, New Zealand, France and Indonesia (Bali). And the time spent living in foreign places, I’d say, has only served to make me a better writer and a more well rounded person. I’m fascinated by learning languages, and the moments of clarity when you’re in a foreign situation and realize that you’re finally understanding what’s being said around you – or understanding it better than you did just last week – are awesome. When you can talk and listen in a foreign language, it’s like having some sort of cultural key. And I think some of my favorite stories I’ve written come from moments where I was truly being immersed in a foreign situation thanks to understanding the nuances of the foreign language being spoken around me, and being able to participate in the greater cultural context. Also, by spending so much time traveling and living in foreign countries, they become less and less foreign to me. It doesn’t mean that I feel less foreign in the situations. I just mean that I feel more comfortable with foreign-ness, and with being a foreigner myself. And feeling comfortable, connected and curious at large in the world has been a very rewarding thing.
Terry Ward has worked as a freelance travel writer since 2000, when she quit her job in an advertising agency to travel the world. Her work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, World Hum, the Los Angeles Times, AOL Travel, Endless Vacation, Travel+Leisure and Sport Diver and Scuba Diving magazines. See more at her website here.
Photo compliments of Chris Jackson at www.swellimages.com.
Interview conducted in October, 2012 by Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.