Thomas Swick started out as a newspaper feature writer after living abroad and eventually became travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He’s now a freelancer. I met him at TBEX in Ft. Lauderdale and then he and I were both speaking at the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference recently. I interviewed him on the spot and pulled some terrific info from his presentation.
Like many of us, one of your first international jobs was teaching English as a second language, in your case Poland before and during the Solidarity movement. How did you work that experience into being a writer?
I studied English in college and initially moved to Europe to live in France and be a travel writer. I met a Polish woman (now my wife) just as I was headed back, however. After a stint in the U.S. writing feature stories for the Trenton Times for a year and a half I went to Warsaw. I taught English on two occasions there and wrote some freelance travel articles. For two years though I just kept a journal of my experiences when things got heated and it helped me write my first book.
When we eventually relocated to the United States I worked as a feature writer for a publication of the American College of Physicians and kept writing about Poland. Later I got a job as an editorial writer for the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. Then just before the ’90s started, the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale hired me as the travel editor. I was there a long time.
You say that the three key steps on a trip that will produce travel articles of substance are preparation, the legwork/observation/participation on site, and the writing after. What do you typically do to prepare?
I read everything I can on a destination, though not anything current except guidebooks. I don’t want to be influenced by what someone else has done or inadvertently copy a line that burrowed into my subconscious. I want to have a good sense of the place though, like its history and what makes it unique or noteworthy. I usually read novels that take place there and try to learn at least a little of the language.
Also, I tell everyone where I’m going. That can turn up all kinds of advice and more importantly, contacts. I love to get contacts for where I’m going and it doesn’t matter what their job is. Often they’ve got nothing to do with tourism, and that’s great. But they’re a window into the real world there and a place to get honest opinions. Also, when I say where I’m going and everyone asks, “Why are you going there?” that’s a good sign. It means not much has been written probably and people don’t know much about it.
You have some interesting routines you go through in a place and they’re a mile away from how most spazzed-out bloggers constantly glued to their phone spend their time on the ground. Explain what you do after arriving.
The first thing I do is walk. I usually don’t have a certain place I’m trying to get to. It’s a way to get first impressions, to get a feel for the place by wandering aimlessly and seeing what you find. Eventually I’ll end up on a park bench or in a cafe and will just sit for a while, watching the people. Most travelers overlook the advantages of just sitting. You can learn so much by watching how people greet each other, how they communicate, how they’re dressed, what they’re eating. Don’t wreck that by immediately shooting a bunch of photos. I don’t even take any photos the first couple days usually. That just gets in the way of the real observation. I come back and do that later when the light is best.
The third part is participation. That’s where the contacts can really help. Ideally you are aiming to have an experience that’s different than what the typical tourist sees and does. When I don’t have any contacts I try to meet people and talk to different types.
You’ve avoided that affliction of writing travel stories that are all about you, the self-obsessed, navel-gazing pieces that have become even more frequent over the years. Is that because of your journalism background?
That probably has something to do with it. As a feature writer for a newspaper my job was to go out and talk to interesting people and get their stories. Most people have great stories if you stop thinking about yourself and let them talk. I got good at listening and probing. I also got good at finding an angle, the theme of a story I was going to work with. That gives you so much more focus than just writing down your own reactions.
You published a lot of writers over the years when you were at the newspaper. What do many freelancers do wrong when they approach an editor about a story?
I never liked when a cover letter began with the first paragraph of the story. You turn the page and think, “Didn’t I just read this?” I wanted to know, in as few words as possible, what the story was and who was writing it. For the latter, a list of publications or a simple author bio worked much better than boasts of writerly prowess.
Some people had only one story in them, especially those who were not professional writers but had had an exceptional experience someplace. These I often did a lot of editing on, but I liked publishing unusual stories, different voices. As for submissions, I tried to answer every one I received, even if it was with just a one-sentence reply. Now that I’m a freelancer on the other side, I wish all editors would do that.
In your presentation you had a quote, “When someone says to me, ‘I just love to sit down and write,’ I probably don’t want to read what they’ve written.” Why?
Writing well is hard work! When you read a great passage in a literary article or a book, that didn’t just come out of thin air. Most of the problems with bad or just mediocre travel writing are mistakes of laziness, of not working at the craft hard enough. Great writers don’t use cliches or flowery praise as a crutch. They show instead of tell, they zero in on an angle instead of trying to cover everything that happened during their trip.
A really great travel story should have the flow of a novel, the substance of a history lesson, the beauty of poetry, and the digressions of an essay. All that requires effort and practice and continual improvement.
What’s next for you?
I have a new book coming out in early May. It’s The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. This book examines what I consider the seven fundamental pleasures of travel: anticipation, movement, break from routine, novelty, discovery, emotional connection, and heightened appreciation of home.
Thomas Swick’s work has been published in The American Scholar, The Oxford American, The Wilson Quarterly, The Missouri Review, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, and Roads & Kingdoms. He has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2014. His previous books are Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. Catch him on Twitter here: @roostertie.