This January, editors of Nat Geo Traveller India came on screen for a travel writing workshop. It was a warm winter afternoon of January 16, 2021, when I settled my butt on the bed. A cushion on the back, a blanket to cover the legs, and I was ready for the webinar.
Pulled out my laptop from under the blanket, opened a blank page in the notepad and un-capped the pen. Logged into the provided link, and there I was on-air.
After a quick orientation, the workshop began with a message from Lakshmi (Editor-in-Chief). Then our instructors: Kareena (Associate Editor) and Sohini (Assistant Editor) took over.
And this article summarises what I learnt in the next four (actually five) hours –
What is good travel writing?
So, what does travel writing include?
It has information, it has feelings, and it is an immersive story. Travel writing is like journalism. The articles should be transportive. And they should inspire the readers to travel to that place.
And how can you do that?
Well, instead of using generic adjectives like amazing, beautiful or stunning, use descriptive ones. Tell the readers what you’re seeing, talk about the sounds, mention the smells in your travel articles.
For example, this –
“Imagine a summer afternoon. You took a sandy trail through a cornfield. You dragged your suitcase along. And you’re now at a creaking wooden gate.
You still have a hundred meters to that pale-white bungalow in front. You can see fumes coming off the chimney and you can smell fresh cookies baking. But you aren’t sure if this is your accommodation for the next two weeks.”
OK, now that’s probably not the best intro to any story, but I’m still practising.
What the instructors shared was to describe your experiences, so the readers become a part of it. And don’t worry if you can’t find appropriate adjectives; create yours… forest-scented waterfalls, yellow-bellied autos or whatever. Put your voice in the descriptions.
Also, your writing begins much before you reach the place.
What preparations to do beforehand?
Whether or not you’re a meticulous planner, read as much as you can to get a sense of the place you’re travelling to. To be a travel writer, you need to research narrowly.
But rely only on the official sources. Government websites and renowned online publications will have most of the information you need, vetted. You can also check magazines and fiction books where that town, city or secret chamber is mentioned.
You’ll find what to expect in the different spots you’ll be visiting. And you’ll also get familiar with the local customs. Then browse through travel forums and social media to speak to other travellers online.
Now, go for the trip.
What to do once the journey has begun?
Once you’re out there exploring; observe and record your experiences. You can either write in a notebook or type on your phone. Do whatever suits you.
Capture how a place made you feel; note your feelings or audio-record them.
Click lots of photos. Whether you come across a dusky red mansion amid a market or a bright yellow ticket house in the museum, get a picture. And yes, also take photos of information boards in museums, monuments and other places for later reference.
Have photos of shops and marketplaces near the spots you’re going to write about. Strike conversations with locals and click their photos (with their permission). Travel writing and photography go together.
Also, find ways to initiate conversations with people and stay open to new experiences. You’ll get new perspectives on places. And you might also find many unknown places to explore when you’re interacting with locals, guides and other travellers.
Our instructors shared a few such random experiences during the workshop.
So, whatever experience you go through, make sure you note them. Your documentations will, later, help you recall the vibes a place gave.
What to keep in mind while making notes?
OK, you can cover your visit through many lenses.
For example, you might visit Kanyakumari, to write about its landscape, culture or history. Or you might be there to cover food or adventure trends. Also, the possibility is that you’re going only to write about an event.
Whatever it is, be specific when you’re travelling, researching and making notes. This way, you could link everything to the main topic.
So, interview people keeping in mind what you have to write. And cross-check the data with multiple people. If possible, journal your daily experience in the night or the next morning. Because memories would still be fresh.
Also, collect contacts of locals if they want to be interviewed later. These contacts will help you in fact-checking too. Remember, Wikipedia is not a reliable source.
What to do once the journey is complete?
Now that you’re home (or office), empty your bag.
It’s time to transcribe your audio-notes and recorded conversations. Once it’s done, go through your notes, read them and highlight the important points needed for your article.
Now, bring together your audio transcriptions, rough notes, daily journals and whatever else you have. Organise your research. Then, check your photos to find the missing pieces. Those photos will aid you in describing the spots you visited.
How to start the writing process?
During all this researching, travelling and organising, you probably have some idea how to shape your travel article. Now that everything’s right in front of you, bind them all in a story.
OK! Easier said than done. But you gotta do it.
So, take time to think about the story you want to create. Be clear about the content, structure and style.
You must keep a balance of information and personal experiences in your article. So, mention the good things, of course, and the not-so-good things as well. Your travel piece should be a practical guide for readers.
You need to answer everything regarding who, what, where, when and how. And apart from the opening paragraph, also put emphasis on how you’re ending your story.
Once you’re done, let it rest for a while. Then, proofread and do the remaining fact checks, if any. You have those local contact details, right?
You’re good now!
Now, a little something extra…
How to publish your travel writing piece?
During the session, our instructors also answered questions related to pitching the articles to publications.
Well, the quick answer is your pitch should be short and it should explain why the publication should pick your article. After all, the editors probably receive 50 (maybe 100) emails every day. Also, they might already have articles about the place you’ve written about. So, briefly tell what’s unique in your travel piece.
Wrapping it up
Those were the travel writing tips I got for you. I can’t remember what else I learnt.
But ya, travel writing isn’t tough. It gets better with regular practice. The devil is in the details. Research, journal and interact with people you meet; and you’ll have plenty to write about.
But instead of packing in every detail, keep your story to a specific theme. Put constraints on yourself. And instead of using flowery words, write how a place made you feel. Check how Nat Geo Traveller India does it.
And that was all for today! Wishing you can document your next adventure better. Comment below to tell me how you liked this article or if you want to know something more.
Subscribe to the Lazy Newsletter to read my articles at the earliest.
And if you feel this post helped you today, you can send me a coffee… It’s up to you; you can choose not to.
P.S. We also got an assignment to write a short travel story and a pitch to the editor. While my pitch wasn’t good, the story turned out satisfactory. Here –
“Stuck among the snow on a pot-holed road, all I could hear was the icy breeze. For the next few hundred meters was a row of SUVs waiting for the road to clear. Behind us was the same scene.
It was our second day of the trip. And we were towards Khardung La, claimed as the highest motorable pass. We were in Leh, among the Himalayas for the week. Our first day went off to a hearty rest after we touched the land the previous afternoon.
The cold desert; it’s so aptly named.
All you could see was barren, dry land, dotted with greens. From distant somewhere, probably from that monastery at the top, you could hear the bell ringing.
We had our warm dinner in the adjacent restaurant. And today we were all pumped for the journey.
But the enthusiasm died after being surrounded by snow, all around, for 2 hours.”