When I studied abroad a few years ago, I decided I wanted to be a travel writer. I got my college advisor on board and signed up for an independent study in travel writing — so I could give myself deadlines and receive course credit. I knew nothing about travel writing at the time.
Travel writers have to describe a place the reader likely hasn’t been (without relying on visuals), choose the most relevant emotions and action (but not come off the wrong way), and evoke what it’s like to be in that place (using only words).
It’s a tricky practice — but there are certain strategies you can employ to make your travel writing stand out.
FOCUS YOUR STORY
Travel stories are just that — stories. They should be focused, not broad. Readers don’t want to scroll through an epic recounting of your weekend in Italy including what you ate for each meal and every time you stopped to look in a store or wandered through a museum. They want specific, thoughtful stories.
I tend toward the anecdotes I recounted to other people or the meaningful moments I can’t possibly forget. From a trip to Budapest, I wrote solely about an encounter I had at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Of my time in Marrakech, I chose to focus on an experience I had while wandering the souks and a reflective evening observing Djemma el Fna from one of the rooftop cafés.
Zeroing in on specific moments, scenes, or events gives your writing a heightened purpose, and allows you, the writer, an opportunity to delve deep into the particular.
INCLUDE TELLING DETAILS
Once you’ve decided what to write about, you’ll want to bring the story to life for the reader. But that doesn’t mean including every single detail.
The best way to know what to describe is to note what stands out in your own mind. When I think of the days I spent in Lisbon, I envision the colorful tiled buildings, the view of Alfama from Miradouro das Portas do Sol, and the yellow street cars chugging up the steep hills.
You’ll likely feel compelled to describe the setting in its entirety — don’t! Those who will be reading your travel story likely have an idea of what your destination looks like. Plus you don’t want to slow down pace of the story by getting caught up explaining exactly how a place is laid out.
Choose only the details that will help form a visual in your readers’ minds or reveal something important about the subject matter. To this day, my college advisor still recounts a single description of miniature gondoliers I included in a story about Venice whenever he talks about telling details — “perfect little glass men with colorful hats, balanced on fragile gondolas.”
WRITE THE WAY YOU SPEAK
First, don’t write something in your story you wouldn’t say out loud. If you wouldn’t use flowery language to describe how something looked to one of your friends, don’t be magniloquent for the sake of being magniloquent. (See what I did there?) Use your own vocabulary — no one wants to read pretentious writing, and readers won’t appreciate unnecessarily fancy language.
Second, if you’re going to describe action, do so simply. Explain what happened to a friend or colleague, and write it down just so. Just like in the movies, action scenes can be difficult to follow, so don’t distract the reader with convoluted sentences.
Last year, I wrote about a surfing lesson I took in Portugal. A lot of the story required description about what I was doing as I learned how to surf — and I kept the sentences simple to move the story along and avoid confusing anyone (myself included!). “I paddled and paddled and paddled and then shoved myself up and tried to stand. My feet hit the board and I wobbled too far to one side and fell into the water.” See? Easy.
Finally, write the story in your own voice. You experienced what you’re writing about, so convey that experience in a writing style that is reflective of you, the traveler.
DIG DEEP & BE HONEST
You want your travel writing to be memorable — the best way to do that is to dig deep and be honest.
Avoid what I refer to as “crutch phrases” — anything like, “It was amazing;” “I’ve never experienced anything like it;” “It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen;” etc. Crutch phrases may seem expressive, but readers rarely connect with them because they say, for lack of a better word, nothing. So try to put words to those blanket emotional expressions. Explain what was amazing, why a scene was beautiful, or how you felt while experiencing something.
When you do get to the root of your travel experience, write it truthfully.
The first time I visited Rome, upon seeing the Colosseum for the first time, I was disappointed. It was a reaction I hadn’t expected to have, and one that I wrestled with for weeks afterward. I wanted to understand why I’d been let down. When I questioned myself and analyzed the moment that stood out to me, I realized that I’d reacted in the way I had because my expectations had been impossibly out of reach. I’d been dreaming of being in Rome since the fifth grade had built the Colosseum up in my head to a height that the reality simply couldn’t live up to.
Include the hard, sometimes painful details. Share the struggle and the difficulties you experienced while traveling. Your readers and fellow travelers will be able to connect with the story, and your writing will be better because of it.