Travel writing: is it all glitz and glamour?

  • Photo credit: Michelle Collier

Dorothy Stannard is editor of the Marco Polo Guide to the UAE (published Oct 2012) and Lisbon (published Jan 2013). 


Can there be many jobs as enjoyable as writing a brand-new travel guide? Being paid to be on holiday must be one of the top dream jobs.

Twenty-two-year-olds with a passion for travel and an aversion to 9–5 office work might view it that way. But as anyone who has ever written a travel guide will tell you, it’s rarely about staying in drop-dead gorgeous beach resorts, journeying down Route 66 on a Harley Davidson or travelling through Russia in a first-class compartment of the trans-Siberian Railway. It’s much more about sheer hard work.

What three main qualifications do you need to be a travel guide writer?

 1. Knowledge of the Destination.

Gone are the days when writers with no prior knowledge of a destination were parachuted in for a six-month all expenses paid trip. These days, fierce competition between the travel guide publishers, and the mass of online information that is free, if not very accurate, mean that to have the edge writers must already know the destination inside out. Ideally, they should live there. Then they will have eaten in all the restaurants, sampled the nightlife and be familiar with the one-off shops. They will also be on the spot for rapid updating – the key to the long-term success of any guide. If the writer doesn’t live in situ, he or she must be able to demonstrate a thorough, up-to-date knowledge.

2. A Sense of What is Interesting

Fundamental you would think, but missing from a lot of travel guides, a sense of what is interesting is what sets the best guidebooks apart. Thorough on-the-ground research uncovers all kinds of absorbing details – from interesting historical nuggets to unusual experiences, hidden beaches, great little bars and independent hotels. In spite (or because) of the growth of global chains, readers yearn for what is individual and different.

3. Determination

This is a job you do for love rather than money. Contrary to its glamorous image, it requires a slightly nerdy personality who enjoys pinning down elusive information. However hot, cold or late it is, the writer is determined to visit one more hotel/temple/museum/quiet cove. The temptation to just give up and have a beer is never as appealing as the satisfaction of nailing a fact and passing it on to the reader.

What else do you need? To be fearless, flexible and organised, to have a robust constitution and a digital camera. You also need to enjoy travelling alone, as budgets rarely stretch to a companion.  It also helps if you can write.

Once you’ve got the gig, how do you go about writing a travel guide?

1. Immerse yourself in the destination before you’ve even left home.

Buy or borrow all the travel literature you can find on the destination, from the early travellers such as Ibn Battuta to the modern greats such as Leigh Fermor, Theroux, Chatwin and Bryson. Gen up on the destination’s food, history, politics and geography, and subscribe to the websites of its national and local newspapers, relevant Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Listen to its music, and check out its films. The more you absorb, the more the writing will flow.

2. Carve up the destination and draw up an outline

Buy a range of large-scale maps to the destinations, arm yourself with different coloured highlighter pens, and find a large flat surface, usually a floor, on which to spread out. Carving up the destination into logical areas that make sense to the reader, and identifying key sights and attractions, is the first step in drawing up a detailed outline. List all the places you wish to cover and allocate word lengths.

3. Listen to your editor

Almost all guidebooks form part of a series with its own format. Very often, this will dictate content and writing style. Follow this closely if you don’t want your work returned or rewritten. All editors are tired and overworked. The easier you make their job, the more likely they are to commission you again.

4. Have a good trip

Plan your research trip thoroughly, apportioning your time and budget carefully. Make contact with people who can help. Contact tourist boards in advance for museum, gallery and transport passes; write to airlines and car hire companies.

5. Get writing

Write on the road, as you go along (back up onto a USB each night and guard it with your life); refine the text when you get home. But take notes too. Deadlines are often surprisingly tight, and must not be missed. This may be because the guide has to be in the shops in time for high season. If you bring out a guide to the Greek Islands in November, you’ve missed the hydrofoil. 


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