Back in 2001, Michael Yessis created the culture and travel website WorldHum.com with Jim Benning. Since then, more than two dozen stories they’ve featured on their site have been featured in the Best American Travel Writing anthologies. As a testament to its high-quality content, The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that “superb writing and stylish layout make visiting it like cracking open a high-quality travel magazine.” In addition to WorldHum, though, Michael has worked as an editor at Texas Journey and New Mexico Journey, and is currently spending most of his time in the Special Projects department at USA Today. Check out Michael’s website here!
What path led you to the position you have now? What’s your background?
I’ve been in love with words and travel since I was a kid. My father worked for TWA, so some of my earliest memories involve airports and airplanes and the little bars of soap I’d steal from airplane bathrooms. During that era, airlines also stocked planes with magazines and newspapers. My dad used to bring old issues home. I’d devour them. Eventually, I gravitated toward a career that combined both.
Through college, I used my family pass to hop on any TWA flight with space available. I had to wear a tie meet the dress code, but it was a small price to pay to go see a ball game in St. Louis or to spend a week in Europe without paying for the flight. In college, I studied English and journalism. While in school, I worked as a stringer for local newspapers, covering sports. After graduating UCLA, I worked at a couple fitness and adventure magazines, landed at dotcoms during the boom, freelanced a bit, went back to magazines as a travel editor, then moved back to online journalism as Destinations Editor at USAToday.com. Those were my day jobs.
In 2001, Jim Benning and I founded World Hum, an online travel magazine, as a labor of love. We focused on great travel storytelling and created one of the first travel blogs. Many of our stories have been honored with Lowell Thomas Awards by the Society of American Travel Writers. More than two dozen World Hum stories have been featured in various Best American Travel Writing anthologies.
In 2007, the Travel Channel bought World Hum. I continued my role in helping manage and develop the vision and direction of the site full-time through last year, when Jim and I were laid off. Check out this link for the details.
I continue to work on World Hum when I can, though my primary job is now in the Special Projects department at USA Today. Among other things, I’m working on city-specific travel publications.
What qualities do you look for and admire in someone you hire to write material for your publication?
Great stories, clean copy. I want a writer who can grab me from the beginning of a pitch or story, with a vivid image or a compelling scene or wordplay. I want a writer who can keep me hooked, who can bring me deep into a story. I want a writer who understands how to structure and tell a story, who knows what to put in the story and also what to leave out. I want clarity. I want a writer with an eye for detail, someone who can bring me into a scene or a place. I want to be entertained. I want a writer who, by the end of the story, has made me feel something or taught me something that I didn’t know.
What mistakes do freelancers make in how they approach you and what do the good ones do right?
A lot of freelancers make critical mistakes before they even start their story pitch. They misspell my name or the name of the site. If they can’t get basic facts right, why would I trust them to get a story right? It’s also easy for me to say “No, thank you” to writers who obviously haven’t taken the time to become familiar with the types of stories we publish.
Successful freelancers know their target publications. They’re familiar with the kinds of stories they publish, the various sections, the tone. They also are clear and concise in their writing, both in their pitches and stories. They demonstrate a professionalism and a level of writing that signals that I won’t have to go through too many edits. Successful freelancers also understand that edits are part of the process. They’re willing to work with editors to fine-tune stories.
Based on what you know in your position, what honest and unvarnished advice would you give to an aspiring freelancer who wanted to become a successful travel writer? (Besides, “Don’t do it.”)
First off, define success for yourself. Are you aiming for an Elizabeth Gilbert “Eat, Pray, Love” level of success? Are you looking to get by in a big and expensive world city? Are you aiming to make a comfortable living while living in an inexpensive city? Are you aiming to make just enough money to keep yourself on the road indefinitely and not put down any roots? All of these scenarios are possible. But becoming a travel writer who just earns a living wage for him/herself can be difficult. Plan on having a financial nest egg while you build your career, or on surviving on very little money. Think about basing yourself in a country where your money goes a long way.
If you’re serious about becoming a travel writer, you should have a passion not just for travel, but for reading and writing. Devour great travel books. Write every day. Make your stories as compelling as possible.
I’d also encourage aspiring travel writers to embrace digital tools – learn to take great photos and shoot and edit videos. Build an online presence. Explore social media. If you have an entrepreneurial streak, think about becoming your own publisher of a website where you can make money via advertising, affiliates, ebooks, apps and other channels.
When you and I were at a conference together a few years ago, somebody asked us if World Hum and Perceptive Travel were rivals. We both got funny looks on our faces because that seems like an old media question, when there was publication scarcity. How are things different now for good writers than it was in the print-only days?
I’m amazed at the opportunities writers now have. There are seemingly infinite online markets. Writers can create their own blogs or sites, and try to make money from them. That last part is critical. Willing writers are no longer dependent on established publications or media companies to earn money. People can make money from their writing and their writing expertise in all sorts of ways. See this “Money Map.”
Of course not every writer desires to be an entrepreneur, or wants to know a CPM from a CPC. Many want to focus as much as possible on writing, so they still follow a more traditional path. They pitch to and write for established publications, and they work to build a network of editors and publications who know and trust their work. That’s still viable for some writers, particularly those who’ve been established for a while and who have developed the editorial relationships as well as excellent writing skills.
Overall, it seems to me good writers have at least one thing going for them no matter what: They’re good writers. As the digital explosion shakes out, I’m hopeful that the ecosystem that values and rewards writers who can produce high-quality stories will continue to grow. I’ve been thrilled to see the rise of Longreads, Byliner and other entities that highlight great, thoughtful work.
Michael Yessis is the co-founder and co-editor of World Hum. He considers himself a digital media person, a writer, a reader, and a dad. He is currently working on a novel about sports, love and the power of Buffalo wings.
Interview conducted in December, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.