Andy Murdock has had a fascinating career: he is one part scientist, one part travel writer. With a PhD in Biology from UC Berkeley and as the U.S. Digital Editor for Lonely Planet, Andy is an excellent example of someone who found his way into writing in an unexpected way–by traveling to interesting places in search of interesting plants. In our interview today, we discuss how to write good non-narrative pieces, how to wow a Lonely Planet editor, and how to focus on the craft of writing. Check out his portfolio here!
How did you get started with Lonely Planet? What led to your position as U.S. Digital Editor?
Everyone at Lonely Planet has a different story, but every story involves travel. In my case I came to travel through science – or, more accurately, I got into science for the travel. I first encountered Lonely Planet during a semester abroad in French Polynesia at a biological field station run by UC Berkeley. This was also, coincidentally, when I decided that biology looked pretty great. This led to a Ph.D. (ask me about plant evolution!), travel to interesting places in search of rare plants, jobs in scientific publishing, and eventually Lonely Planet where nerdiness is, if anything, a prerequisite.
In your opinion, what are the prerequisites for a good travel article on Lonely Planet? What do you look for in freelancers who write for you?
Most of what we publish on LonelyPlanet.com is non-narrative, and it’s dead easy to write a dull non-narrative article that no one wants to read. It takes talent (and work) to infuse non-narrative with personality, lightness and a strong sense of voice, and do so within a very limited space. Some writers love the challenge and rise to it, others don’t. If you’ve read an article all the way to the bottom and thought “Damn, I want do that,” then we’ve done our job.
If someone near and dear to you asked you for advice on starting out in the travel writing industry, what would you tell them?
Travel, write, read, repeat. Figure out the “industry” part later. Very few people make a living solely in travel writing, and no one gets paid to travel for pleasure, so it’s important to be a working writer first and a travel writer second. The biggest piece of advice: pitch like you have nothing to lose. The writers that get published are the writers that try to get published, plain and simple. Editors aren’t scary, they just need what they need – figure out what that is and give it to them. They should also pay you: good writing is hard work, and a valuable service. The places that ask you to write for exposure rarely have any real exposure to give you.
What are you hoping to do with your writing in the next few years and how do you see your income stream changing?
With writing: keep doing it! I’ve been writing as a hobby as long as I can remember – it’s something I do whether it’s part of my livelihood or not. I count myself among the lucky few that have a steady job that involves writing (and fun writing at that), and commissioning stories from great writers (also fun). I’m a realist (aka pessimist) so I know that may not last forever, but my writing won’t stop even if income comes from somewhere else down the road.
What did you speak about at TBEX?
On the day before the conference started, I co-taught a workshop on travel writing with two greats: Pam Mandel and David Farley. It was a trial for TBEX, and it booked up much more quickly than anyone had guessed. There’s so much focus on monetization and marketing in the blog world, it’s refreshing to see people so passionate about producing quality content and improving their craft. Want to stand out? Create something amazing.
I also spoke on a panel about content strategy. There were well over a thousand travel bloggers at TBEX, all being told in various corners to be their own brands. It’s an increasingly crowded field, so it’s crucial to have a strategy if you want to build an audience, no matter your definition of success. Even if your goal is simply “I want my mom to read my blog” you should define that goal, build a strategy and set out to make that happen tactically. Your mom doesn’t just read any old blog, after all. She has standards.
I see a lot of bloggers getting caught up in tactics – I need to post x times per week, I need to cram keywords into my article to improve SEO – without first stepping back and asking fundamental questions. What am I trying to achieve? My audience, the one I have and the one I want to have: who are they and what do they want from me? Answer those first, and get to the tactics later. And those 1000+ other bloggers you’re competing against? Maybe you should consider working with a group of like-minded people with the similar goals to build scale faster than you could ever do by yourself.
Andy Murdock is the U.S. Digital Editor for Lonelyplanet.com. His articles have also been featured in a variety of places online, including CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, AOL/Huffington Post, and Fox News. In print, he has also contributed chapters and treatments for Lonely Planet books including 1000 Ultimate Sights and the second edition of the Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California from UC Press.
Interview conducted in June, 2013 by Kristin Mock.