I love something that Lucas Aykroyd says in our interview today: “Delivering good features that aren’t stock fare opens doors.” He would know: he’s written for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star. In our interview today, Lucas talks about life as a freelance writer, why you should be judicious in your use of social media, and why good writing (and not just interesting content) is still so important. Check out his portfolio site to learn more.
Lucas, you’ve written for more than 30 magazines, newspapers and guidebooks, including National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star. How’d you get your feet wet in the business?
My first travel piece was about sea kayaking off the north coast of Vancouver Island for a small arts and entertainment magazine in Victoria, Canada. In my early freelancing years, I focused more on beats like hockey, music, and fashion. I realized over time that I could parlay those clips into travel writing gigs. On a press trip to Los Angeles, I covered the Golden Globes red carpet fashions – and also humorously surveyed the movie fans watching outside the Beverly Hilton about their knowledge of the NHL (which was pretty scanty eight years before the Los Angeles Kings won their first Stanley Cup). I rarely thought “inside the box” about my travel writing, whether in terms of my story topics or my worldwide markets, and I still take that approach. Delivering good features that aren’t stock fare opens doors.
How does your guidebook writing differ from the longer feature pieces you do?
With guidebook writing, it’s more about making sure you tick off the right boxes for your clients. When I wrote the British Columbia content for Frommer’s Far & Wide: A Weekly Guide to Canada’s Best Travel Experiences, my mandate was to evoke the excitement and emotions that visitors have while storm-watching in Tofino, ziplining at Grouse Mountain, or sampling craft beers in Victoria. When Globe Pequot Press Travel hired me to write their Vancouver CityGuide, I had to select the city’s key attractions, come up with itineraries, write about the local lingo, currency, and so on – all in capsule descriptions. Guidebook writing is all-intensive, as you’re juggling so many details for weeks on end.
How has the turn toward digital media impacted your work? (Or has it?)
It’s created more markets for me and enabled my career to advance faster than it might have otherwise. I think it’s important to be judicious in your use of social media, or it can become a big drain on your time and not necessarily garner the results you’re seeking. As of mid-2014, I still believe there are lots of good paying print markets out there. You just have to find them and then consistently deliver the goods for your editors.
What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel (and/or sports) writer?
You need to be persistent and self-motivated. Be willing to do some writing for free at the start — but only do enough to get the clips you need to land paying assignments. If you act like a pro, you’ll get treated like a pro. Join professional writing associations. Have some specialties — in my case, I focus on adventure travel and sports — but also be willing to diversify your subject matter: it keeps life exciting and offers you more income streams.
How has your income mix changed in the past few years, and where do you see that mix going in the next five or ten years?
The main shift has been that while my level of hockey writing has remained steady, I’ve seen a big surge on the travel side. Over the next five or ten years, I plan to continue expanding my public speaking career. Among other gigs, I’ll be speaking to the Surrey International Writers Conference this fall. My subject is “Freedom, Fun and Adventure: Live the Dream as a Travel Writer.” In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to track polar bears near the Arctic Circle, go horseback riding past the giant stone statues on Easter Island, and take a whiskey-tasting tour of Scotland. I believe there’s a great opportunity and a great market to help aspiring writers pursue their own dreams and adventures.
In your opinion, what does it take to write award-winning travel pieces? What makes a piece stand out?
Just as with my public speaking, I’m a big believer in combining entertainment and education. If you write a travel feature with an unusual angle, a sense of humor, and lots of vivid details, you can attract readers who might not even initially be interested in the destination in question. I’ve had success writing about drinking fermented horse milk in Russia, following in the footsteps of the comic book character Tintin in Peru, and using roller coasters for therapeutic healing in California.
Lucas Aykroyd is an award-winning writer, national newspaper columnist, and public speaker. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and The Hockey News. Since 2013, he’s won five medals at the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) Awards, as well as a Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) award.