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November 12, 2001
So You Want To Be A Freelance Travel Writer
by Tad Hulse

Chances are you have been meaning to try your hand at freelance travel writing since returning from your last European vacation. You mean to do it, but something always gets in the way. More often than not, that something is fear. If this is true, the best suggestion I can give you is learn to write short. In whatever style, form or fashion, just be succinct. Whether planning to write for your local newspaper travel sections or those thick glossy magazines with pages of dazzling photos, editors and publishers cherish travel writers who submit tightly written manuscripts. No matter how well you think you write, you will sell more if you write less, especially within the freelance travel market.

An approach many freelance travel writers use to break into the respected one-dollar-a-word market (yes, there are such markets) is through the front-of-the-book sections. In those sections, which
are made up of a variety of short and clever write-ups like product reviews, travel anecdotes and so forth, a 'story' is really a sharp-worded blurb or a brief interview, but the writer does get credit and usually, a large check for little effort. Magazine editors try out freelancers on these minor-league pieces because they are a low-cost loss if the writer tanks the assignment. Or worst case scenario, the editor can write it himself or herself. Best case scenario for a freelancer is the editor likes how you handled the piece and keeps an open ear to your ideas for full-length stories. The next assignment could be a lengthier, more pivotal piece, with perhaps, travel expenses included. It is a long shot but one worth taking.

Those little write-ups can become quite lucrative for a beginner. Once you familiarize yourself with the
structure of a 250-500 word piece, you can knock them off swiftly at proportionately better pay than the longer ones, which require much more time and research. Once you find out who the editor that
appoints for the front-of-the-book department is, pitch the idea as you would any other. If you are good, editors might be willing to call on you to deliver 600 words in a fortnight.

If you write tightly, you will also be able sell to newspaper travel editors. Travel sections are always
pinched for space. Long rambling accounts a tour in Peru or Norway rarely appear in Sunday Travel sections anymore. Most likely you will see four to five short pieces on specific cities, hotels or restaurants (typically ranging from 700 to 1000 words in length). There will always be a North American market for destination stories about New York, Miami, California or the Caribbean, but being able to follow trends and clinch your story idea to lifestyle changes is one, if not the most important marketing skills a freelance travel writer could possess. Generally, novice travel writers begin with submitting to small print presses and newspapers and in due time escalate to writing for regional magazines and ultimately, for what I like to call "the big dollar glossies."

I will try and help you to skip as many beginner blunders as possible. Here are a few things what not
to do when writing travel articles; open with your trip to the airport. Articles that begin this way are
almost always en route for the trashcan. Another mishap, travel narratives that describe every meal,
every taxi, every museum, every boutique. Sure, it's exciting to you, but you must remember this isn't the first time the reader has picked up this magazine. Travel writing is not only about architecture and
landscapes, but most importantly, about people and places. You definitely need to hone in on something you did that readers can picture easily.

Nowadays, travel stories with a service focus are hip. They are quite easy to investigate because the use quotes from experts basically 'tell' the story for you. Photographs can be a selling point as well. You can send digital Jpeg's via email, or black & white or color pictures by snail mail, but make sure to select images that have a strong contrast and distinct close-ups. Disregard sunsets (no matter how beautiful they are), fuzzy beach scenes (make sure everything's in focus) or hardly visible deer on faraway hillsides (make sure you have a descent zoom). In addition, think regional. Your expertise about a city, county or region is an overwhelming asset. Offer stories about your hometown to newspapers and regional magazines that view these places as attractive destinations. Editors will be interested in your local know-how, so mention that in your query. There is no need to pitch the obvious, give an insider's point-of-view, something only those who live there would know.

You must always aim for realistic markets in the beginning. It is highly unlikely that you will initiate this newfound career freelancing for Travel & Leisure or Condé Nast. Find out what bits fit you at first and work your way beyond it, using those newspaper snippets to convince editors that you can manage assignments on contract. In the long run, it'll earn you a more lucrative part-time income and advance your career more rapidly. Remember, almost all special-interest magazines are starving for stories with a travel slant that addresses the publication's stated purpose (i.e. eating, drinking, theatre, trains, swimming pools, whatever).

A key to making any money in this market is submitting your work on many fronts. Travel writers who only have one story circulating are not likely to get anywhere fast. You must choose some of your travel stories for self-syndication, that is, send the story to multiple newspaper markets in non-competing circulative areas, advising the editors of what you are doing.

The one thing about freelance travel writing is that you must hunt for fresh and new ideas in the same old places. You must dig deeper for travel hooks. You must talk to people. Read rural newspapers for ideas you can blow into travel stories with a broader appeal. But most of all, you must travel.

Good luck to you.

Tad Hulse is an American freelance writer who has spent the last two years traveling the world.
Currently he is based in Oslo, the capital of Norway.

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