I first met travel writer and blogger Steph Dyson on a Peru press trip—remember press trips? Our groups went our separate ways for most of it though, she going hiking in Huarez (the pic above), while I went to the Amazonas region, Kuelap, and Gocta Falls. We reconnected again at the New York Times Travel Show’s International Media Marketplace event in New York City and I hit her up with some questions on travel writing, South America, and living in Chile.
You were in education at the start and took a meandering path to where you are now as a travel writer living in Santiago. How did that path open up for you?
I taught English in secondary schools in the north of England but had always nursed ambitions of becoming a writer. Realizing that I needed to take some time out away from teaching, I sacked my job in, packed a rucksack, and left the UK for Bolivia and then elsewhere in the world, in what I thought would be a two-year stint of travel.
One year later and I’d made it as far as…Peru. Around that time I saw a competition run by Rough Guides and GapYear.com for aspiring travel writers and, on a whim, submitted a 500-word piece about dawn on Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. It won and suddenly I had an “in” at two websites.
The rest—multiple guidebooks including one written entirely by me and countless pieces published online and in print—is the result of an awful lot of hard work, persistence, and near-constant travel.
Tell us about one of your early successes as a freelancer, maybe one that made you say, “I can do this!”
Shortly after winning the Rough Guides competition, I entered another one, this time run by Transitions Abroad. I hadn’t thought much about my chances of winning, but when I came second, behind a published author, I realized that maybe this wasn’t just a pipedream after all. I’d decided very quickly into traveling that returning to teaching was an option to be avoided at all costs, so suddenly finding myself surrounded by writers of such caliber was a real boost to my self-belief.
How has living in a foreign country and specializing in a region helped your writing career?
I’ve now spent close to six years in South America and my regional focus has been a huge help to my career. I speak Spanish fluently, which certainly helps with interviews and research on the ground; communicating directly with a subject rather than through an interpreter provides a much richer interview in my experience.
I also find that editors often approach me with assignments and guidebook projects because they know my specialism. Being successful in this industry is so much about the relationships you build with editors and publications and them knowing the types of destinations you cover really does help you to get a foot in the door.
This has also helped with the growth of my own website, WorldlyAdventurer.com. On the site we specialize in South American travel and the audience has grown to over 110,000 monthly readers, helped in no small part by the fact that they view me as an expert on countries I’ve covered for guidebook companies.
What does your income split look like? What’s paying the bills on a regular basis and what’s still building?
Nowadays, my travel blog earns me around 70% of my income, through advertising, affiliate partnerships, and travel itinerary planning—the latter of which has gone down with my readership drop while travel is halted.
Guidebook writing is around 20% of my income, with most of that work coming to me now, rather than me having to pitch for it. Online and print journalism, as well as copywriting for brands, makes up the final 10% of my income.
Many people dream of being a guidebook writer, not realizing how much work it is and how little of it is really about the writing. What has your experience been like with that assignment?
Moon Chile, a guidebook about Chile that will be published in July of this year, was the first guidebook I ever worked on an I went into the process very green. It didn’t help that it was a first edition, which saw me visiting practically the entirety of Chile over a year-long period, while I juggled other guidebook assignments, journalism work, and my own website.
I think that being a guidebook author is about having an organized mind and laptop; you really do need to know where every last scrap of information that you sourced on your research trip is stored.
People don’t realize that so much planning goes into visiting destinations and organizing the logistics and financial aspect of your trip, that the actual writing if the book often comes second. I know a lot of guidebook authors who are good at writing as they’re on the road, but when I’m working on a book, I find it easier to digest the research when I’m back at my desk and can concentrate.
While it sounds like the ideal job, guidebook writing can be tough. I remember reading before I started how I should never calculate my hourly rate when I was doing guidebooks. That sage piece of advice has haunted me as I’ve spent days upon days writing chapters for meager pay.
But saying that, the opportunity to travel practically an entire country is one so few people ever have and my time spent exploring the remotest corners of South America is something I’m thankful to have experienced.
What advice would you give to someone starting out right now in this competitive field who wants to actually make a living as a travel writer?
With guidebook writing, I think having your own online presence in the form of a blog and social media is something that many companies are searching for these days. As I’ve found with Moon Chile, this also helps ensure that you have a ready-made audience when your book is finally published.
I think you also need to have a serious think about the financial possibilities available in travel writing these days. The coronavirus pandemic has laid waste to many publications and the landscape for travel looks pretty grim. However, if you have interesting stories about your local area, now’s the time to be pitching them or setting up your own website. Travel will pick up sometime in the future and the successful will be those who’ve adapted to ride out whatever comes next.
The place in South America that is fabulous but hardly anyone seems to visit is…
Guyana. I went there at the end of last year on assignment for Travel Weekly. I went without any expectations—practically no one has ever heard of the country, after all. When I got there, I watched giant river otters hunting for fish, helped measure a black caiman for research purposes, admired one of the world’s greatest waterfalls, Kaieteur, and even stood awestruck a meter or so from a giant anteater as it ambled through the grass.
Everything about Guyana was wild and unexpected and it’s a place I can see myself returning to, again and again.
Steph Dyson is a bilingual freelance travel writer, guidebook author, and blogger originally from the UK, who now splits her time between her home country and South America. Since 2014, she’s spent her time traveling across South America, authoring guidebooks for Moon, Rough Guides and DK Eyewitness along the way. A former English secondary school teacher, she now writes for outlets including Time Out, Eater, and Adventure Travel Magazine, as well as the travel blog, WorldlyAdventurer.com, which focusses on sustainable adventure travel in – you’ve guessed it – South America. Her first solo guidebook for Moon Guides, Moon Chile, is published in July 2020.