Another country: A travel writer’s guide to the new world

In summer holiday month, travel writer and author Martin Symington tells us how he has adapted his work to a changed media landscape

Scratch an old-hand travel writer who has in turn scratched a living in this little corner of journalism and you’ll find agreement that we have waved goodbye to a Golden Age. And following in the finest traditions of Golden Ages, we completely failed to see that we were living through one until it was gone.

So let me share with you a snapshot of life as a freelance scribe of our genre during this Golden Age – say, from about the late 80s till the new century was old enough for secondary school. Every now and again I would meet, maybe over lunch, the travel editor of a national broadsheet. I would walk away with six or eight commissions for articles – 1,500 or 2,000 words, typically – to be researched and delivered over the coming months. During further such meetings, I would double up (or even triple up) by finding different story angles in the same geographic areas, for non-competing publications.

More commonly, we are retaining travel journalism as our main professional identities while simultaneously dipping our fingers into a spread of other pies.

Next stage was to approach the travel industry – tourist boards, travel companies and airlines – which were happy to make most of the arrangements free of charge. These ‘press facilities’ were accepted free of charge, on the understanding that journalistic independence was the prerogative of the commissioned writer and there was therefore no obligation to write favourable copy. (I was also on the receiving end of a constant stream of invitations to join group press trips but these were never my bag because I have always been of the view that to travel alone and find one’s own stories is the more professional approach.)

This partnership between press and industry was not ideal from the point of view of journalistic ethics but it was workable. Newspapers and magazines paid only for copy, supplemented by modest expenses budgets. Thus did we travel the world in the cause of entertaining, informing and advising our readers. Additionally, there were desk-based round-ups, reviews and research, paid at the same word-count rate (think £400 – £600 per 1,000 words).

Work was generally paid on acceptance rather than publication, so a handful of pieces filed per month added up to the aforementioned scratched living. It was peanuts in comparison with the salaries of friends in grown-up professional occupations, hence the derision which would have greeted any suggestion that ours was a gilded era. On the other hand, it was hard to argue with the charge that travelling the world and writing about it was a pretty jammy job.

Now let us fast-forward into the modern digitally driven age. Making a living out of writing about travel has become a bleak prospect. The professional life of any freelancer is dependent on the overall state of the media and the particular sector of industry that one writes about; the reality is that few travel pages – printed, online or both – are there to be filled these days. Of those that do exist, many either don’t pay or simply want tedious lists.

So much for the state of the industry, about which we can do nothing. Now for a spot of harrumphing. The bloggers, who were supposed to replace us, frequently fail to prove themselves. Selfies in privileged resorts or business-class seats, alongside ‘editorial’ which is, in truth, no more than advertising, all too often pose as the new travel journalism. I also see well-known names appearing in publications which do not pay at all; simply the exposure that commands the freebie is regarded as remuneration enough.

How have we old-school travel hacks adapted? Some have changed profession completely; I know a few who have become school teachers or gone into PR and one who retrained as a lawyer and was called to the bar (yes, in the judicial sense). More commonly, we are retaining travel journalism as our main professional identity while simultaneously dipping our fingers into a spread of other pies. In this respect I am typical, so here follows a snapshot of my life in the post-Golden Age.

Style needs to be staccato, punchy and instantly engaging to retain those short and shallow attention spans.

I still do a certain amount of old-style print travel writing for special travel magazines such as Wanderlust. Commissioned features are – typically – 2,000 words and written for readers who share my appetite for adventure, exploration and getting under the skin of a previously unfamiliar place. Working for this sort of publication remains hugely fulfilling and is the main reason why I still write about travel. In an article of this length a story can unfold by degrees while facts, dialogue and atmosphere are drip-fed to the reader.

Comparable levels of engagement with readers cannot be expected in the travel sections of today’s national newspapers. In these we have always had to compete with other sections for readers’ attention. This is truer than ever in the digital age because online editions allow readers to disappear in a hyperlinked click. Consequently, travel articles are much shorter – typically 800 words of body copy, even in newspapers that used to be broadsheets. Style needs to be staccato, punchy and instantly engaging to retain those short and shallow attention spans. The remuneration expected for all this is about 50% (in actual terms not real terms) of what it was 20 years ago.

In term of other pies, I have diversified into two main areas. Firstly, I lead tours for a travel company that organises cultural holidays to parts of the world in which I have expertise. I accompany the groups, deliver lectures and am on hand to answer questions. While this draws on my decades of travel experience, I keep it quite separate from my journalism.

Secondly, I have taught the art and craft or travel writing in adult education classes. More recently, I have been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow for two years. This involved spending two days a week in a university throughout the academic year, helping students with their written English.

Both the on-tour lecturing and the pedagogy have given me the chance to do something markedly different in my working life. But ‘travel writer’ will always be my professional identity, wherever the next age takes us.

Martin’s tips for writing travel commissions

  • Do you have expertise or ‘inside track’ on a destination? A country/city you have lived in, perhaps? Or some particular affinity to a geographic area?
  • Can you offer a special interest? For example: food and wine; travel with children; adventure travel; gay travel; singles’ travel.
  • Think ‘new’. Editors are always on the lookout for a new angle on a familiar destination. Try selling a piece on walking in the Pyrenees, and you’ll probably get a ‘so what?’ answer. Suggest a story on walking a newly designated hiking trail following an old Pyrenean smuggling route and you are more likely be greeted with a ‘now you’re talking!’
  • Remember that most travel article commissions include both practical information for people who might follow in your footsteps and engaging copy for those interested in reading about a journey vicariously.
  • Be as familiar as you can with the publication you are approaching and its style. Know who the commissioning editors are. Read what they have published recently.
  • Be clear whether you are offering a piece based on existing experience or whether you plan to make a trip in order to research the commissioned work.

Martin Symington has been writing about travel for three decades. He has been a regular contributor to newspapers such as The Times, Daily Telegraph and Independent and to specialist magazines includingWanderlust. He has also written a handful of travel books including Sacred Britain: A Guide to Places that Stir the Soul (Bradt 2011).

© Martin Symington

Travel writing: Getting it Right

The Society of Authors is currently running ‘Getting it Right’, an exclusive series of events featuring authors and other experts, designed to help you increase the accuracy of the technical details in your work.

On Tuesday 27 September (6.30 to 8.30pm), Charlotte Higgins, Christina Lamb and James McConnachie (chair) will be discussing researching and writing about travel. Questions will be taken from the floor and a drinks reception will follow the discussion.

ALCS Members are entitled to a discounted rate on tickets: just include your ALCS reference when booking. For more information see the Society of Authors website.