It's quite subjective to say what's good or great travel writing, even harder to say why someone is a good travel writer and someone else is not. Sometimes it's one of those "I know it when I see it" things. But that doesn't mean you can't dissect what works.
At least a third of the stories that show up in the annual Best American Travel Writing anthology usually bore me to death, but the series editor thought they were great, so they got the halo. Study them and you'll notice some patterns. I tend to like the ones in Best Travel Writing put out by Travelers' Tales (and the women-only version) better, but hey, that's just my opinion and taste. Yours may differ. I've won a lot of awards and I'm proud of them, but some of the ones that got a bronze or honorable mention are better stories than some that won gold in my opinion.
The important point is, there's a big gulf between all of those and the articles that were tossed out by the judges after two paragraphs. The bad ones didn't even belong in the stack.
As I write this, it's submission time for the NATJA annual awards. I'm a long-time member there and have won quite a few prizes, so I'll be entering stories from Perceptive Travel and elsewhere again. I've also won Gold awards from the Solas Awards and SATW, so I'm not a one-trick pony. None of these wins has really changed my life or made me a ton more money, but they do provide some validation that I've built up some skills after doing this for so long.
At any of these showpiece places, read enough of the good stuff and you do start seeing some repeatable patterns and traits.
I don't write much about the craft of travel writing on here or in my Travel Writing 2.0 book because there are plenty of other people out there doing that regularly and in a lot of ways they have more authority. These are people who write for big magazines we've all heard of or even edit them. I did just turn in some assignments for Outside, but for me those $1-a-word articles are a rarity. I mostly only freelance now when something falls in my lap. My own sites pay better overall and I'm an expert in another aspect: how to make real money at this pursuit.
It's a good exercise to write for an attentive, professional editor now and then though to get a reminder that every word matters. Especially when there's a word count limit. We tend to ramble on more and not edit as carefully if we have free reign. Google kind of rewards that now, actually, so the craft loses out to search optimization and length for the sake of length.
All this is leading up to say that while "good writing" can have a subjective definition, there are still elements that separate the lousy from the great and anyone with some experience can tell the difference. Many of the skills can be learned and improved upon, just as you can improve your golf game or your foreign language pronunciation with work.
Some aspects are rather inherent in your personality though, so they require a bit of honest self-reflection.
How do you rate on these factors below? If you score badly on them, your writing will probably reflect that. If you're hitting a high level on all of them, you're probably a good candidate to be a good travel writer or blogger. Maybe even a great one.
Good Travel Writers are Observant
Do you know how many different kinds of birds are singing outside your window? Do you notice what music is playing when you enter a restaurant or hotel? Blindfolded, can you taste the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, between Pilsner and Pale Ale, between Ethiopian coffee and Sumatran coffee, between Thai food and Vietnamese food? Can you tell the differences just from the aromas?
Can you describe a Chihuahua to a blind person? Do you notice the characteristics of the other diners in the café where you're having coffee? Can you describe the scene in the town square where you are sitting in such a way on paper that I see the details in my mind?
Most of these observation skills are developed, not innate, but it's hard to be a great writer without them. There are some modern elements that get in the way of being observant that you have to reign in. A person staring at a smartphone screen is not observant about what's happening nearby. Neither is one who is photographing themselves more than they are photographing what is around them. Earbuds or headphones will block one sense completely and hinder many of the others.
One key thing I've noticed when on press trips and watching peers whose work I admire: observant writers tend to take lots of notes. Not just what a guide is saying or what can be seen, but also notes about the smells, the sounds, and the feel of objects they encounter. At the end of it, their writing is usually richer and more detailed than that of people who don't record much. Relying solely on your memory for travel articles is an amateur move unless you're only reporting on the facts, on aspects that anyone can research online or with a phone call. Photos can help a lot, now that we have an unlimited supply of them, but they only show what your eyes could see.
A Good Travel Writer Is Curious
This may be the most important quality of all in a travel writer, but it's one that seldom gets discussed because it's innate. If you are a dogmatic person who only gets news from one source, doesn't have a passport, is not interested in other cultures, and isn't continually trying to learn new things, you are going to be a lousy travel writer. Sure, that's my opinion, but it's based on more than 25 years of experience meeting hundreds of other travel writers, reading their pitches and their work as an editor. All the good ones are open-minded and very curious about the world, about other peoples' opinions, about other cultures and religions. As Maureen Littlejohn says, "The best travel writers have a unique voice, credibility, honesty, and a natural curiosity."
As a travel writer or travel blogger, you are constantly diving into subjects you previously knew nothing about. If you can't investigate these stories and places with an open heart and mind, it's nearly impossible to do a good job and it will show. Being a stubborn pundit with rigid beliefs works fine if you're a political columnist, but it's toxic for a travel reporter.
Be a child when you travel, curious about everything. This is where family travel writers actually have an advantage. Hand the camera or phone to your kid for a day and let them take all the photos. What got their attention? Why?
You also have to go beyond your assumptions, your stereotypes, or even drop everything you now know about a place in order to be open to new angles. As Kim Foley MacKinnon says, "No story is too small. Every single person and place has something fascinating to tell if you just look hard enough."
A Great Writer Is Passionate
Every good travel writer I know is passionate about travel, just as every food writer I know is passionate about cooking. You don't see someone who seldom watches sports become a sports writer. I'd rather get poked in the eye with a knitting needle than to write about crafts, so of course I'll never cover that subject.
If you think it would be fun to be a travel writer because you had a great time on your last vacation—which was three years ago—this is probably not the right subject for you. If you haven't gotten away every chance you had, travel is not your passion. Become a mommy blogger, a movie reviewer, or a gardening writer instead.
Before going down any of the various paths available to writers, it's important to reflect on whether travel itself is truly a subject that gets you excited. Not the highlights of a great vacation, but the entire experience: the bus journey, the strange food, different languages, and finding your way in a foreign land.
A Good Travel Writer Is Flexible and Adaptable (Especially a Freelancer)
If you've ever been a traveling nomad for months or years on end, especially on a low budget, you've got flexibility and adaptability down already. Travel is, by nature, unpredictable. Things go wrong on a regular basis. There are a lot of moving parts on any journey: airlines, ground transportation, a parade of hotels, attractions, restaurants, people to interview, and places where you can log on to the internet reliably—for a start. You roll with the punches when things fall through and learn to adapt. As Darwin said, "In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed."
This need for flexibility also applies to the actual writing too. Different publications require a different style and voice. An editor may make changes to your article that you don't agree with, but she is the boss so you learn to live with it and deliver. That angle you had so carefully researched before leaving may turn out to be a crappy angle once you've arrived and you need to change course. Roll with it.
While I often preach about the need to specialize, even in that aspect some flexibility is required. Circumstances change in every niche, every destination, every style of travel. Most of the time, you can't write the same articles you would have two or three decades ago. You need to adapt.
A Skilled Writer Is Confident
If you don't believe in yourself and your abilities, there are hundreds of people out there ready to supply negative feedback. There are also hundreds of more confident writers ready to leapfrog over you at any given time.
Google, editors, Yoast, and even your blog readers will reward you if you "dumb things down" and write at a primary school level. It requires a bit of courage to take chances, write intelligently, and create something that is a little experimental or unorthodox, so it's easy to let the negativity get to you.
This doesn't mean your story is great when every editor has told you it's awful, but if you've got a reason to believe you're a good writer—from classes, writing groups, awards, publication credits, blog traffic—then exude that confidence and use it to energize your efforts. There is no shortage of people who will write nasty blog comments, ignore your e-mail pitches, tell you you're crazy to try to make a living as a writer, or ask when you're going to get a real job. If you don't have the confidence to deflect all that like Wonder Woman with bulletproof bracelets, you'll be bounced out of this pursuit dejected.
Have the confidence to follow your instincts, to go down the untrod path, to write prose that's so good it kind of scares you. If you look at what you put on the page and it's got raw power, fills a stranger with joy, or makes you want to cry, don't let anyone tell you it's too "out there." Edit it until it sings. Then don't stop until you get it published somewhere, anywhere. If you've earned that confidence, embrace it.
A Travel Journalist Is Comfortable Going it Alone, but Amiable on Demand
This is an odd combination that you don't see in many fields, but a necessary one for any kind of journalist. A travel writer, especially a guidebook or feature writer, is often traveling alone, eating meals alone, staying in hotel rooms alone, riding planes and buses alone. There's nobody to bounce ideas off of in the room.
On the other hand, the writer must be regularly starting up conversations with complete strangers: digging for information, getting quotes, asking for other contacts, finding out how things work, and getting others' opinions. The only travel writers who don't need these dual qualities are ones whose entire writing output comes out of group press trips. Unfortunately, it's rare that one of those people turns in consistently great work that is refreshing, surprising, and wins awards. Most of the group trips planned by PR people are just too surface-level for that, no matter how skilled you are.
Sure, it's possible to write about travel without actually interviewing anyone. There are some naval-gazing bloggers who have done it for years, building up a following because of their beauty, their bod, their YouTube personality, or their advanced SEO skills. They're an exception and not a rule, however. Those travel writers who act like real journalists are going to consistently put out better prose.
Good Writers Are Good Readers
I wrote a whole post on the need to read good writing on a regular basis if you want to be a good writer yourself. Great writers are also readers. Reading good travel writing is a start, but only the start. Read feature stories on other subjects to learn from them. Read works of literature both old and new. See what novelists do to draw you in and see how that can be emulated in your own work.
Many of the aspects of a great novel or creative non-fiction book can make their way into a great travel feature story. If you read enough quality writing you see how the masterful writers handle structure, characters, dialogue, and scene-setting. You see how they engage the senses and how they make a point through descriptions and action rather than spelling everything out like a chatty narrator.
You can also benefit from watching the greatest films of all time and binging on quality television shows with a sharply honed script, but that's in addition to reading, not instead of it. Match the medium: read what's great so you can learn to write what's great.
Tim is the author of Travel Writing 2.0 as well as several other successful books. His work has been recognized by SATW, NATJA, and the Solas Awards. He has contributed to more than 50 publications as a freelancer and is the editor of five websites and blogs, including the "Best online travel magazine" and the popular Cheapest Destinations Blog, established in 2003.