For armchair travellers, nothing is more enticing than sinking into a comfy couch to read about places they’ve never been to. The travel writer’s job is to immerse them in that world. Here are 20 tips on how to make your copy sing and keep your readers engaged
1. Make a basic outline before you start writing to see how various aspects of your story can relate and flow in an engaging way.
2. Develop an interesting narrative. Dialogue with someone other than your spouse. Talk to the locals. How else will you learn about the place?
3. On the subject of spouses and family members, unless they’re pertinent to the tale, we don’t want to hear about them. Really, we don’t.
4. Find a fresh angle to the story. Most places have been written about before so find something original that will grab a reader’s attention.
5. Details, darlings, details. Travelling as a writer is not the same as writing as a tourist. Take notes, ask questions, get quotes and jot down the little details of your trip. How much did it cost? What’s the name of the district it’s in? Always be specific.
6. Develop and analyse a list of 25 of your favourite travel writers. What makes them so readable?
7. Avoid clichés like the plague … Eish! Lose the “best kept secrets”, “city of contrasts” and “unspoilt gems”. Why do lodges always “nestle” at the foothills or “perch” vulture-like atop a mountain with “breathtaking views” over a “rustic” village? Stop, already. Try some originality.
8. Lose the unremitting good cheer. Among all the stories I had read about Egypt before I went, nobody had prepared me for the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs and starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps. Be more realistic. Otherwise get into Pee Aar.
9. Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat. Only good reading can make you a better writer. Dip regularly into your list of 25 favourite travel writers. You will never develop a voice and style without reading.
10. Add historical or political context to assist the point you’re making in your piece. As Thomas Swick wrote in Roads not Taken “It is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.”
11. Don’t compare one country to another, as in Camps Bay in Cape Town is the new Corfu. It’s very irritating. Not to mention complete bollocks.
12. Seek to entertain and educate your reader in a light, breezy way.
13. Write, write, write: You have to write even when – especially when – you don’t feel like it.
14. Paint with words: Take the reader on an armchair journey. Include sensory details. What did the place look like? Feel like? Smell like? Taste like? Remind you of?
15. Develop a specialty: If you want to stand out, it pays to be an expert on something that you’re passionate about.
16. If you can’t afford to travel, write about new activities in your local area. Become a travel expert on your own city. Does it have any unusual landmarks, remarkable museums or attractions? How about festivals?
17. Don’t give up. Successful writers stuck it out, writing and learning as they went along.
18. Show. Don’t tell: Lose the adverbs and flowery descriptions. Choose the perfect verb instead.
19. End with a punch or at least ensure the ending captures the point of the story. Don’t you dare say you can’t wait to return to wherever you went. Arghhhhhhhhhh! It’s been done to death.
20. When your piece is finished, read it out loud. Seriously. You’ll surprise yourself. It’s also a great way to find your “voice”.