If you’ve ever been to Eastern Europe, Italy, or Spain and touted a Lonely Planet guidebook in your luggage, you were probably traveling–in a small way–with Leif Pettersen. Having just finished updating the latest edition of Europe on a Shoestring, Leif Petterson has worked on over two dozen guidebooks as well as written for many travel news outlets. Check out his Killing Batteries blog to read about his latest escapades and musings!
How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?
My first, genuine travel writing work was for a business traveler magazine that, while desperate for a piece on Lisbon, discovered my online Lisbon travelogue and, with some modifications, offered to buy it. The experience went so well, they sent me to Istanbul a month later. I ended up contributing about 30 articles to that magazine over the course of eight years. Also, breaking into the Lonely Planet author pool was a huge boost. I think the keys to my success were a combination of long term travel/living abroad and nuclear meltdown caliber prolificacy. If I had tried the same thing while still at home, working full time and writing at nights and on weekends, I don’t believe I would have ever reached a sustainable travel writing income.
Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?
This is a very difficult to answer in the current economic climate. I have little doubt that my work/income will make a notable shift to digital (I entered the smartphone travel app milieu last year with my Florence Explorer app), but the sad fact is that travel writing jobs paying a living wage are becoming more scarce, at least in the short term. Many people, myself included, will have to consider a (hopefully temporary) partial or total alternative income stream outside the industry. When and how will the recovery happen? No idea and I won’t pretend to make an educated guess.
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’d concentrate more on quality of articles/ideas and less on sheer miles/countries covered. I’d try to find a genre or specialty, become an expert at it and eventually use the strength of my writing to coast into other realms. I’d exhaustively research the very delicate art of pitching a story. I’d read more. I’d network like mad rather than hiding out in cheapest parts of Eastern and Central Europe. Fortunately, all this things are 10 times more easily accomplished online now than when I was starting out.
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”?)
Pretty much everything I just described above. And maybe wait two years before quitting your job. The market sucks right now, even for established writers. Newbies have the cards stacked against them. Also, stash some money away before making the leap. Paychecks will be slow, small and infrequent in the beginning and sweating over money while engaged in the rather exhausting task of making a name for oneself is the kind of stress that will snuff out a writing career before it really gets started.
Your KillingBatteries blog has always been one of my favorites for its entertainment value and pure novelty. Nowhere else can I see references to puppy kicking, Romanian dentists, kitty fashion shows, spermcount-measuring gym machines, and drunken hitchhikers–all on one page. How has your ability to be funny (instead of just thinking you’re funny like too many others) helped gain you other writing opportunities?
Leaning on my humor has helped my freelancing profile stand out like guy riding solo on a fart-powered Ferris wheel. I omitted this above, but when breaking into writing that involves any degree of creativity, few things can help you more than having a distinctive, memorable voice. When pitching stories, even as an established writer, you have to imagine that you are figuratively in competition with an amusement park full of other writers. Editors sometimes literally take less than 60 seconds to consider the value of your story. As they roam the amusement park, are they going to notice the writer selling the cotton candy or the writer doing 60 rotations per minute on a fart-powered Ferris wheel? Some people excel at lilting, evocative writing. Others at profound insight and philosophical connections. My strength seems to be observational and absurd/silly commentary.
You obviously have to restrain yourself quite a bit when writing conventional articles on a place like Italy or doing guidebook work. How do you deal with that constant compromising?
Reigning in the more outlandish, goofball thoughts that drift through the right side of my brain used to be hugely disappointing when I had to write straight, but simply a fact of life for a freelancer forced to wear so many style and tone hats. That said, with social media, many of these unusable nuggets get repurposed onto Twitter and Facebook, so it’s not a total loss. What’s heartbreaking is when I think I’ve nailed the proper tone AND delivered an exquisite zinger and the editor cuts it due to (what I believe to be) a wit deficiency or, occasionally, because they just don’t understand it. I don’t keep my head shaved for style, Tim. I keep it shaved so I can’t rend (any more) self-inflicted bald spots.
In 2003, Leif Pettersen was ‘Kramered’ by an unbalanced friend into abandoning an idiot-proof career with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and embarking on an odyssey of travel writing. Leif has traveled to 48 countries, lived in Spain, Romania and Italy and his work appears in over two dozen books, online publications and magazines, including BBC Travel, Global Traveler magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and Lonely Planet guidebooks covering Tuscany, Romania and Moldova. He writes an almost-award-winning, ‘slightly caustic’ blog at KillingBatteries.com, where he dishes on travel writing.