How do you actually write a travel feature? | Who's commissioning? | Mentoring scheme
It's December and we've got big news. And some sound advice.
Exciting news: we’re launching the fourth round of our mentoring programme, with 10 FREE places open for new and aspiring travel writers. We have 10 truly brilliant mentors — with bylines in everything from National Geographic Traveller to The Guardian, The Telegraph and more — who will be offering their expert knowledge to 10 mentees throughout January and February 2024.
This scheme is for new or aspiring travel writers. That means you might be a journalist in another field looking to get bylines in travel publications; maybe you’re a student looking to get into the travel media when you graduate; or perhaps you’re completely new to the writing game entirely and would like guidance on where to get started.
There are no real entry requirements, but you must be new(ish) to the industry and must be aiming to pursue a career as a professional travel writer. We’re passionate about helping diversify the travel press, so writers from diverse backgrounds, including those underrepresented in the travel media, are absolutely encouraged to apply.
If you're one of the 10 mentees selected, you’ll be matched with a mentor who you’ll meet (via Zoom, over the phone or even in person if you choose) four times over a period of two months, starting from January 2024.
Applications for mentees will close at midnight GMT on Friday 15th of December.
Thank you for subscribing to Talking Travel Writing as we use your money to both invest in excellent content and support schemes like this.
We’d also like to encourage you to spread some Christmas cheer and purchase JournoResources’ third edition of The Yearbook. This 100-page magazine covers all things freelancing, including articles about the opportunities brought by AI, directories of salaries and rates from across the media, plus personal development exercises to help with goal setting for the coming year. All the money goes to a good cause, too: it’ll support their 2024/2025 fellowship programme. Buy the magazine here for just £11.50 including postage.
You’ve done the research and landed the commission, but you’ve still not done the hardest part: writing the feature. Something we hear from you, our subscribers, on a regular basis is that the actual writing of the travel feature can be excruciating. We see tweets from colleagues at least once a week saying something along the lines of:
Yep, I’ve got a major deadline today but instead of writing the piece I’ve spent four hours doomscrolling on social media. Cool, bro.
The procrastination can hit hard when you’ve got a Big One to write. Especially if it’s a piece you really care about. So what’s the best process? Is there a secret to getting started and finding the flow? After the cracking webinar we ran with Meera Dattani last week (we’ll be sharing a link to buy the recording soon!), we’re going to spend this month delving into the nitty gritty of feature writing, and we’re kicking off by sharing our own personal processes.
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Lottie’s process: “I’m lazy, and proud”
I really want to tell you that I painstakingly plot out every paragraph of my features, but the reality is that I just don’t. I am lazy, and proud. That might sound a bit stupid, but let me explain…
Travel writing is my business. While I care about the words I write being accurate, enjoyable, easy to read, and entertaining, I also care about how much money I make. Which is why I give myself a target timeframe in which to write each piece that’s commissioned. I need to make a reasonable day rate, after all. If I get a commission worth £500, I’ll aim to spend no more than two days working on the copy. If I can get it done in a day, I’ll be delighted.
This is why, when it comes to the writing, I don’t really have much of a process at all. My mind whirrs with ideas and I play around with creative introductions in my head while I’m on the trip itself — and sometimes I’ll note them down if they really grab me — but when I get to my desk, I don’t arrive with a plan or carefully ordered notes. I kind of just let it flow. If I have my introduction, the rest tends to follow quite naturally. I really wish I could explain how or why, but it just happens to me. I will usually crack out a first draft in half a day, then fine-tune, rewrite and tweak from there, adding in things I might have missed first time around, and going back through notes to check I’ve got it all right.
Of course, there are sometimes those stories that are a little harder to piece together. They don’t always write themselves so easily. Any piece that needs plenty of quotes from experts on the ground or statistics, for example, is always going to be a little trickier — I have to make other people’s words fit into a story with my own. But even then, a simple bullet-pointed list of the loose structure will usually do the trick. I might pick out some choice quotes and stick them in a separate document so I can see how they might fit together, but there’s really no real strategy.
I had long felt like I was doing it “wrong” because I didn’t pore over my words for hours on end. That pesky imposter syndrome I wrote about last month would creep in when I heard of others’ convoluted and detailed processes for feature writing — I was clearly not good enough if I didn’t have to spend five days working on one feature. But now I realise that in writing, as in life, we are all different. Some people need to plan, some people need hours to craft a paragraph. Some people don’t. And I’m just fortunate enough to be in that latter category. I’m not really lazy, I’m just efficient, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s great, because it means I can earn a decent living from being a writer, which is half the battle.
Steph’s process: “My first draft can be the crappiest piece of writing imaginable”
I’m a big planner. But I’m also aware that my time needs to work hard if I’m to turn a decent profit on my writing. I don’t think those two things need to be mutually exclusive.
I’ve written several involved features of late, where sensitive topics require expert interviews and the subsequent weaving together of crucial context, facts and quotations. Reported travel features can feel daunting to write and the only way I’ve found to synthesise large quantities of information is through a detailed plan.
I’ll start with interview transcripts and pull out key quotations into a Google doc, identifying themes that might be useful as I go. I then add notes taken during the trip, whether colourful prose capturing a specific moment or commentary that illustrates my angle. Together, these will form my plan, which is built from the juiciest quotations and comments and ordered according to the structure that will have naturally taken shape during this process. Inevitably, much of what I’ve tried to squeeze into my plan won’t make it into the final piece, but this allows me to cherry-pick what best serves the thrust of the story.
This might seem like a long-winded process compared with Lottie’s, but for me, after an hour or two of detailed planning, the piece often writes itself; I’ll have such a clear idea of where I’m taking it. At this stage, I try and avoid the internet at all costs. Falling down the Twitter rabbit hole of Chef Reactions videos and Elon Musk-baiting is addictive but not chargeable. Instead, I’ll bold sentences that need fact-checking during the editing process so I can come back to them later.
And, if writer’s block rears its obnoxious head, I’ll pretend no one’s ever going to read my work and get down on the page what I’ve affectionately dubbed a “brain dump”. After all, agonising over every single word doesn’t meet deadlines and my first draft can be the crappiest piece of writing imaginable — I’ll have time to polish it later. It’s a psychological trick I’ve found to silence my belligerent inner critic, and rarely have I returned to a piece to discover it was as career-endingly terrible as I’d originally thought.
Sure, it would be easy to spend days labouring over the above. However, the more I write, the stricter I am with my time. I’ll allow for an hour or two of planning, an afternoon of writing and then a couple of hours for the edit. I always do this a few days later when my brain feels sufficiently removed from the writing process to ruthlessly trim the fat. Editing is just as important as writing and, if you hone your craft, a simple way to make editors’ jobs easier and them more likely to commission you again.
Way back when this newsletter began we ran this ad-hoc section on which publications were actively commissioning features. It’s been a while, so here’s a list of the travel media that have put call-outs for pitches or commissioned us or our freelance colleagues lately.
The Telegraph — No guidelines to read, but here’s some pitching tips from features editor, Penny Walker. Rates £0.35 per word.
Jetsetter Magazine — Managing Editor Nick Walton has put out a couple of call-outs on TravMedia lately (sign up for access). Their winter 2023 issue can be read here and email addresses are in the masthead. A little birdy tells us they pay HK$2.50 per word, which is around £0.26.
National Geographic Traveller — there aren’t any pitching guidelines for these guys but you’re always best reading the mag and pitching for a specific section, like the City Life pages. Here’s advice from editor Pat Riddell. Rates around £0.30 per word.
The Guardian — A few people we know have been commissioned by the team there recently, so get your pitches in. No guidelines available; rates circa £0.36 per word.
The Times — There are ample pages to fill in The Times so don’t hesitate to pitch if you’ve something relevant. New commissioning editor Claudia Rowan is probably your best contact. Rates circa £0.40 per word.
Send more pitches:
Tweet of the week
It’s best-of 2024 time and this tweet made us cackle.
Who to follow
New Commissioning Editor on the Times Travel desk, Claudia Rowan:
Want to follow some of the best in the business? Head here to see who won the inaugural TravYule Baubles awards (we may or may not be on the winners list!).
Enjoyed this take on how the annual best-of lists get it wrong by Lucy Thackray. Cathy Adams at The Times has covered one of the topics closest to our hearts here: the devastating disappearance of the hotel breakfast buffet.
Finally, up your LinkedIn game with this piece from Tim Herrera:
This is the first newsletter in our series on how to write a great travel feature. Upcoming newsletters for paid subscribers only will cover:
How to plan your piece
How to find the “why now” angle
Skills all travel writers need