Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan Muslim and famed world nomad, wrote of travelling, “It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
It’s a sentiment to which most backpackers attest. Recall those initial weeks after a big adventure, when foreign currency still jangles in your pockets and your flip-flop tan is at its zenith: you’re regaling every exasperated friend and bemused cabbie with the time you were bit by a monkey in Ubud or nearly kidnapped while hitchhiking in Mexico.
What struck me during my first backpacking trip was just how much was happening—to me or around me—and how there seemed to be a story in every moment.
Which there is… although, as your exasperated friend will eventually tell you, they’re not all worth sharing.
Here, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned on how to tell your best travel stories, whether you’re blogging for fun or trying to break into the professional market.
Know Your Audience
The escapades you share with your friends (e.g. experiencing a ping-pong show in Bangkok’s Patpong region) aren’t the same ones you share with your parents (e.g. learning how to weave on a traditional loom in the Guatemalan highlands); likewise, when writing, it’s crucial to know your audience. Is this an article you’ll be submitting to media outlets? In that case, research what they publish, what they’ve covered, and how to pitch the editors. (Outpost outlines their requirements thoroughly, which not all publications do.)
It’s important to think about format. Is this a personal narrative about your experiences, perceptions and transformations? Or is the focus on a place and its people, customs and history—in which case you’d make little to no mention of yourself? Are you highlighting a situation, addressing an issue or establishing a call to action for your readers? How appropriate is it for you to insert yourself or your opinions into the story?
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your writing is—if it’s not congruent with what the magazine or website publishes, then they won’t accept it.
Of course, if you’re writing for your own blog, then you can post whatever you want. That said, it’s worth observing how your posts complement and harmonize with one another, or (if your ultimate goal is to monetize) which pieces resonate with readers based on views, comments and shares.
Ask Yourself: So What?
Just because something strikes you as curious doesn’t mean anybody else will be interested; “you had to be there” doesn’t cut it in travel writing. You should be able to identify your thesis and encapsulate it in a sentence.
Try beginning with a broad statement summarizing your story, then ask yourself “so what?” until you hit an answer that, standalone, is bold and intriguing. This doesn’t mean you have to condense the entire article into one sentence; rather, your thesis asserts that, amid the punchy witticisms, elegant metaphors and other fun stuff, you do in fact have a point.
Even if your article is based on tableau-style description or personal narration, there should be a central idea or theme that ties everything together.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is probably the most notorious piece of writing advice ever given (right up there with “Don’t be a writer, you’ll end up broke and possibly an alcoholic.”).
“Show, don’t tell” refers to the difference between “She was skinny” and “She could’ve tread water in a garden hose.” This is especially crucial in travel writing as you’re mostly painting an image for a reader who may have no frame of reference.
Instead of using generalizations (“The traffic was chaotic”), describe exactly what you’re seeing (“Tuk-tuks skidded and zoomed like Mario Kart characters between dazed-looking bovine dotted with holy ash and pencil-coloured taxis that shuddered and stalled”), selecting specific details and nuances that represent the whole.
Check Your Bias
We all have opinions, and when we’re frustrated or confused by a system in another culture, they tend to be sweeping and fierce. Remember that, regardless of how much preliminary research you do, you’ll never fully understand the historical and social context of a place unless you’ve lived there for a good amount of time.
The answer to your irate bark, “Why don’t they just…?” is a long and convoluted one, so it’s best to withhold your suggestions for how another society should run things. That doesn’t mean you can’t describe what you find horrific; it just means minding your language so as not to confuse your distain for a practice or situation with that for a people.
Travel writing is like any skill: honing it requires passion and practice. Read as much travel literature as you can to determine what sparks you (if you’re looking for recommendations, check out “The Backpacker’s Booklist” in the May/June 2016 issue of Outpost), or, if you’re interested in writing a travel memoir, then see my article “Five Tough Lessons I Learned While Writing a Travel Book.”
In the meantime, happy writing!