An Interview with John Lee

johnleeIn addition to have written 20+ guidebooks for Lonely Planet, John Lee knows the freelancing business: since 1999, he has published in over 125 newspapers, guidebooks, and online publications. His credits range from The Boston Globe to The Los Angeles Times to US Airways in-flight magazine. Today, John talks to us about transitioning from English teacher to freelance writer, how he sees the industry changing, and what tips he has for newbies. Check out his portfolio site here!

John, you’ve been published in over 125 newspaper, guidebook, and online publications throughout your career. How did you get your start?

I had been teaching English in Japan and was looking for a big trip to finish off my year abroad. When I hopped on the Trans-Siberian Railway in Beijing – bound for Moscow – I had no idea what I was going to do next in my life. But a week of hypnotic scenery and quirky fellow-passengers meant I was soon feverishly writing in my travel journal. At the end of the journey, I wondered if I could edit this into a story. When it was later published in the travel section of a UK Sunday newspaper, I suddenly had a plan for what to do next. That train trip changed my life!

What is the key to a successful freelancing career?

Perseverance and tenacity are vital to building your business – and treating your career as a business is the first step. You also have to work really hard on developing relationships with editors by showing you are super-reliable, deliver clean copy and meet deadlines – editors are typically more overworked than ever these days and they like writers who can do a good job but are also low-maintenance. That requires two things: forever honing your skills as a writer and becoming a great self-editor of your work before you file it.

What advice would you give a hopeful freelance writer about making a living doing this kind of work?

Although there are far more places to get published these days – especially online – I think in many ways it’s harder than ever to make a decent living as a travel writer. I was very naïve when I started out but through trial and error I eventually built my business. We’re now in the “golden age of free content” which means many writers end up giving away their work for nothing, especially in the early days as they try to build a reputation. It’s very hard to move from writing for free to writing for a living but the sooner you start to make this transition the better. I would suggest starting by keeping your job and writing on the side; then transitioning to part-time work and paid writing assignments; then moving – if johnlee2possible – to full-time paid writing. But it isn’t easy and there are no short cuts. If you really want to make it work as a career, you have to fully commit and treat it like a business – or a military campaign.

What do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?

In some ways, the business has transformed dramatically since I started 15 years ago. We’re not just writers anymore: we also have to be good at photography and video production as well as adept at running online sites and engaging in social media. I enjoy the creative processes and business challenges of many of these new skill sets, from connecting directly with readers on Twitter (@johnleewriter) to presenting videos. But – crucially – not everything has changed: you still need to be able to write. I’m from the camp that believes good writing – especially in an age where there’s so much “written noise” out there – will eventually stand out from the crowd. As for lessons I should have learned earlier: I wish I’d jumped on social media about five years before I did!

How should a writer approach an editor? What are the “rights” and “wrongs?”

It’s tough these days. Editors have more on their plates than ever. You could e-mail pitches for a year before an editor actually reads one. Since it’s more competitive than it’s ever been, you have to work really hard on attracting editors with severely limited time: make your email subject line irresistible (since this may be the only part of your e-mail they have the time to read); keep the body of your e-mail short and to the point and make sure you link to your site so editors can see your previous work; follow-up (by e-mail) after two weeks, johnleevancouverthen maybe again after four weeks. Also, consider tracking down an editor on Twitter and trying to build a relationship with them by responding to their Tweets. Finally, consider joining a professional association where you might have the chance to harangue an editor face-to-face at a social gathering or conference.

How do you see your income mix changing in the next 5 to 10 years?

It will be much more varied. I imagine a gradual slide in print publications coupled with a rise in paid online or social media writing/engagement. There will also likely be more paid work on things like video and image slideshows. In addition, I imagine more bread and butter travel copyrighting work – I think we undervalue our skills as writers and I’m ready to address that: just because everyone has a keyboard, doesn’t mean everyone can write – far from it. Other opportunities will likely also arise, from teaching to tour guiding. I am also currently redesigning my website and mulling revenue-generating ideas: I’m planning to start small and experiment with a few ideas later this year.

What is working on a guidebook like? Give us a “taste” of a day in the life of writing a Lonely Planet guidebook.

It’s a workout – a bit like running a marathon everyday! When I’m on the road in research mode, I’m darting around checking everything from museums to hotels and there’s no time to rest. The second part of the job is quite different: back at home, staring at a computer screen, crafting copy to encapsulate places for travellers. This usually means 15-hour days, seven days a week for a couple of months. The last time I did it, I grew quite the ZZ Top beard and then temporarily lost myself to drink at the end of it all.


John Lee, a British-born travel writer living in Vancouver, Canada, has written on a diverse range of travel subjects, including beer, nightlife, food, museums, galleries, and train stops for newspapers and magazines around the world. In 2004, he became a Lonely Planet guidebook author and has written 20+ books for them. His work has appeared in over 125 newspaper, guidebook, and online publications.

Interview conducted in May, 2014 by Kristin Winet.

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