From the Editor’s Mouth: Sean O’Neill of Budget Travel

According to Sean O’Neill, his work (which he’d like to add is frequently done in the third-person), entails writing about “new tools that make travel cheaper and easier.” As a contributing editor for the award-winning BudgetTravel.com website, his mission couldn’t be more well-stated. From BudgetTravel.com, to BBC.com, to London’s Blackbook.com, Sean writes about the best ways to travel now. Come check out his online portfolio here!

What path led you to the position you have now? What’s your background?

I was a reporter for a personal finance magazine for many years. But I increasingly became interested in travel publications. I took a Mediabistro course in how to pitch travel publications by James Sturz, who was an excellent teacher. Publications began accepting my travel pitches. I eventually lucked out and landed a job with the website for Budget Travel magazine. I’ve since moved to London, where I’m freelancing.

What qualities do you look for and admire in someone you hire to write material for your publication?

As an editor, I tended to typecast freelancers, meaning that I thought about writers in a similar way to how a casting director thinks about actors when filling parts in a movie. I may think of one freelancer as being a “stylist” who writes gracefully and absorbingly and another one as a “reporter” who gets all the facts straight and plugs all of the potential logical holes in a story. If I’m assigning a story that needs a lot of flowery writing, I’ll assign it to the “stylist.” If it’s a data-driven story on, say, the world’s safest airlines, I’ll assign it to the “reporter.” So what happens when a “just-the-facts-ma’am”-type reporter pitches a story that requires a lot of lyrical writing? Well, I’m going to be reluctant to assign it to him or her, even if he or she has good credentials and their story idea seems promising. Freelancers can either embrace being stereotyped by editors or they can fight against it. But first they have to find out how editors think about them.

What mistakes do freelancers make in how they approach you and what do the good ones do right?

Many freelance writers pitch travel pieces only to supplement their bread-and-butter gigs covering other topics, such as sports or fashion. These “drive-by” travel freelancers don’t realize that they need to “report out” their pieces as thoroughly for the typical travel story as they would for a story on their usual “beat.” There’s one writer I know who has done award-winning journalism about civil wars. I love his work. I could never practice journalism at the level he does. But I turned down one of his travel pitches, which was to write a meditative piece on the beauty of South Asia’s beaches. His pitch showed that he hadn’t done his homework, and I took that as a sign he wasn’t considering the needs of my publication.

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.”)

You can’t have a “John Wayne” attitude. Too many freelancers hate “networking” and hate sharing their ideas. But they need to network and share their ideas so they can learn from other writers and editors. Taking a course taught by a writer for an established travel publication can be very helpful, whether it’s an online course by Mediabistro or one offered in-person at a school like NYU. Reading Tim Leffel’s Travel Writing 2.0 is an excellent idea, too! You need to “warm up” your “cold calls” to editors by making acquaintances with them beforehand by attending major travel conferences. Tim’s free e-mail newsletter will alert you to resources for finding out about these conferences.

Is there anything else you would like to add about what has changed and where things are headed?

Video is coming. Right now, few major travel publications are soliciting video from freelancers. But that’s because they haven’t invested in the latest content management systems (software that powers their websites) that allows them to publish video in a visually appealing way for a large number of website visitors. But the technology is improving quickly, and startups are going to jump into this game. Any freelancer who’s under, say, age 25 ought to have a “video-first” mindset if he or she wants to have the fun assignments in the coming years. The Travel Channel has run some video courses as has New York magazine, and I’ve heard rave reviews. The short videos that Monocle produces are an excellent model to follow, I think.

You’ve gone from being a staff editor in an office to being a transplanted editor/writer in London. What have you learned lately that you didn’t know or get from the other side of the desk?

This may not be the world’s most helpful observation for aspiring freelancers, but the thing I’m most struck by now that I’m on “this side of the desk” is how freelancers tend to have a different personality than editors. People who become freelancer writers tend to hate corporate jobs and despise “office politics.” They also tend to be much more willing to take calculated risks than the average person. Meanwhile people who become editors seem to *enjoy* playing office politics and tend to be risk-averse. To my mind, the personalities of the two groups are bound to clash with each other. Freelancers are prone to saying off-color things and pitching off-beat story ideas. Editors tend to be circumspect in what they say about other colleagues and usually prefer safe, conventional story ideas. As a freelancer, it helps to masquerade and be more upbeat and conventional and circumspect than you might ordinarily be with other people when interacting with editors simply to seem “normal” to them. (Your mileage may vary.)

Probably the biggest frustration freelance writers deal with is just plain not getting a response from editors, even when the pitch is perfect and the writer has great credentials. For me you’ve been an exception (thank you) but I can’t say the same for some of the people you’ve worked with in the past at Budget Travel. Besides “Don’t send bad queries,” but what’s the solution?

I’m sorry you had a poor experience with some editors responding to some of your queries. I’m surprised, because I find my former colleagues do a better-than-average job at being responsive to pitches, especially when compared with how editors at rival publications of comparable size treat freelancers.

If I may generalize about editors at all publications, I would say that editors are sometimes rude because they can get away with it. Most editors I know at other publications think most of the pitches they receive are garbage. Worse, many editors think that they’re not going to be praised by their bosses for thanking freelancers for their pitches or for trying to help recast pitches to make them more workable. The managers at many publications believe that freelancers are a dime-a-dozen and that it’s a non-profitable use of their employees’ time to be courteous to “hacks.” For what it’s worth, I tend to side with the judgment of editors in thinking that that most pitches miss the mark. Any given story may be worth telling in theory, but chances are the writer hasn’t sent to the right publication at the right time to the right editor using the right kind of salesmanship. Freelancers need to play a “percentage game” where they send out a lot of pitches and assume a certain number will be ignored without explanation or courteous response, even at publications where they’ve successfully pitched before. They should also marry someone rich.

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Sean O’Neill is currently a London based freelancer. He is a contributing editor for BudgetTravel.com, a travel tech columnist for BBC.com/travel, and London listings editor for BlackBookmag.com, as well as a ghostwriter and other odd gigs. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/sean_oneill or check out his portfolio at GetawayVehicle.com.

Interview conducted in July, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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