Write Drunk, Edit Sober: What I Learned in My Travel Writing Course

Earlier last month, I mentioned a five-week travel writing course that I had enrolled in through Vancouver Island University. A few commenters asked me to share key takeaways. Here’s what resonated.

1. Sharpen Your Hook

Think: Title, opening sentence and accompanying photos.

A great hook captures your readers’ attention, draws them into your story and compels them to stay. A strong opening hook often takes the following forms:

  • Catchy Title –Alliteration, numbers, controversy, humour or the unexpected.
  • Lede (derived from the word ‘lead’ in printers’ ink) — The opening sentence or paragraph should fully immerse the reader into your story. Your lede may include a question, provocative quote, startling fact or mysterious situation that needs to be solved.
  • Well-Chosen Photo  — A photo is worth 1000 words. It should connect viewers to your writing and make them want to know more.

 

2. Change Your Lens

The angle is the lens through which writers filter their stories. A stale narrative uses a tired point of view that has been employed by countless writers before. Finding a fresh, unique angle is the holy grail of travel writing.

 

3. Let It Flow

We received several useful tips in this category. Here are some great reminders.

    • Include all five (or six) senses in your writing.
    • Avoid repetition.
    • Remove fillers.
    • Replace weak words.
    • Resist stating the obvious.
    • Ensure that paragraphs focus on just one topic each.
    • Break up large chunks of text with subheadings and paragraph breaks.
    • Use data, statistics and quotations to back up statements (a sidebar can be perfect for this).
    • Eliminate the passive voice.
    • Change your tense. If you’ve written in past tense, try present. Note the impact.
    • Bring your story to a powerful close.

 

4. Win the War on Writes’ Block

Many writers experience ‘word paralysis’ every now and then. Here are some suggestions to help you fight back:

  • Get your thoughts down, no matter how random and unorderly. You can tidy them up later.
  • Permit yourself to stop writing after a short period of time (e.g. 15 minutes). Knowing that you can stop often keeps you going.
  • Remember why you are writing.
  • Write about what pleases you. You can return to more difficult writing tasks later.
  • Take a break and read the works of others that inspire you.
  • Keep a writing notebook beside your bed (and in your bag). This allows you to capture thoughts and ideas that otherwise may get lost.

 

5. Be a Joiner

Becoming a member of a travel writing organization can help connect you with editors, publishers and other writers. It can also keep you posted on upcoming conferences as well as other networking opportunities. Here are a few associations that were mentioned.

  • BC Association of Travel Writers (BCATW) www.bctravelwriters.com
  • Professional Writers’ Association of Canada (PWAC) www.pwac.ca
  • Society of American Travel Writers (Includes a Canadian Chapter) www.satw.ca
  • International Travel Writers’ & Photographers’ Alliance www.itwpa.ca

 

6. Compete

Writers whom I admire have often spoken of receiving the first ‘big boost’ to their writing via competitions. I never knew where to find these contests until now. Here are two to start with:

 

7. Submit

Ah, ‘submit,’ that’s always the scary part. Here are a few suggested guidelines to help make this task less daunting.

  • Know the publication to which you are applying.
  • Read (and reread) the ‘Guidelines for Contributors.’
  • Find the name of the editor. This is more personal and shows that you have done your homework.
  • Write a query letter. Keep it short (5 paragraphs) and compelling (what makes your writing unique). Some publications now adopt a form approach (again check the guidelines).
  • Have a brief, robust, third-person bio that encapsulates who you are (4-5 lines).
  • If your proposal is not accepted, wait a couple of months (at least) before repitching.
  • Understand what kind of contract you are entering. ‘All Rights to the Publisher’ is the most restrictive contract. Aim to get ‘First Rights’ when possible (e.g. the publisher can use your work for the first time in that country as a one-off).

 

8. Know What Editors Loathe 

  • Extra spaces that are not required in the text (e.g. two spaces after a full stop or an extra space before a new paragraph) need to be taken out by someone.

  • Not adhering to the stated Submission Guidelines often causes good writing to go unpublished. Title of article, byline, contact information and easy to read file names for texts/photos are standard requirements.

  • Poorly edited documents leave a negative impression (use spellchecker, Grammarly,  or a similar program). Reading your text aloud is another helpful proofreading strategy.

  • Incorrect facts can cause severe embarrassment (or worse) for publications.

  • Carefully verify all statements made in your article. Ensure that you have not included any outdated information, rumours or errors (including misspellings of names/places).

You Never Know Until You Try!!

For this section of the course, we were asked to write a mock query letter showing that we understood the pitching process. Instead of creating a mock letter, I decided to take the leap and actually submit an article to Travel Post Monthly (their Contributors’ Guidelines asked for a completed story as opposed to a query letter). I figured what better way was there to understand the submission process? I was fully prepared for rejection. Last week, I heard back from the editor. My article on Victoria’s Chinatown has been accepted for their November issue (insert surprise and delight here). You can view it online at http://www.travelpostmonthly.com/2019/11/indulge-your-senses-in-victorias-chinatown/

My sincere gratitude to Mandy Trickett, our course instructor.

*  Title quote by Ernest Hemmingway.
** Feature photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash.

139 Replies to “Write Drunk, Edit Sober: What I Learned in My Travel Writing Course”

  1. Well that certainly was a very worthwhile course you did Donna. There’s some great takeaways there. Thanks so much for sharing them with us! Congratulations on the success of your pitch too! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Min – We are very fortunate to have such a wide range of affordable, quality courses in our area. The new course selections for winter and spring just came out today. So far, I have shortlisted my options down to 8, and I am hoping to bring this list down to 4 (some courses are more like an afternoon workshop).

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  2. How absolutely wonderful Donna. Firstly a big big congrats on your Chinatown piece. And all such great tips and advice that you’ve shared here and which are golden nuggets as a freelancer. Terrific blog post.

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  3. Well done Donna on having your submission accepted! I’ll pop over to the link and have a read. Loved reading all the tips as I’m embarking on my own travel writing journey at the moment (and I’m pleased to say, having some success too) so I read it all very carefully. I was interested to read the tip about leaving it a few months after an unsuccessful pitch as I’ve read otherwise: that is, if a publisher responds to your pitch but says it’s not suitable or whatever, that that’s the perfect time to shoot back with an alternative idea. A bit of strike while the iron’s hot. I’ll check out the other links too as I’m always keen to connect with others interested in the same sorts of things. Thanks for your informative post.

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    1. Hi, Christine – Congratulations on embarking on your own travel writing journey. I always enjoy your writing and look forward to reading your travel pieces. The advice to reply with an alternative idea to an editor who has rejected your work, makes sense to me. It shows determination and flexibility. Who doesn’t like that?! Wishing you continued success with your travel writing. You are a natural writer… with a great sense of humour!

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      1. Thank you for your kind words – it makes me feel very happy to read them. I love the writing aspect of blogging and getting the words right and having an appreciative audience is actually part of the joy. Certainly publication also makes one feel validated too! I’ll watch your journey with interest!

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    1. HI, Tracey – Thanks so much for stopping by. I am very grateful that there is an abundance of affordable, quality courses for those who are 55+ and living in our area. The new Winter/Spring Course Catalogue came out this week. I’m already lining up my choices and trying to fit them all in!

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  4. Wow! Excellent advice here, Donna. So much to highlight, but the one I like the best is ‘Resist stating the obvious.’ I come across so many blog posts that start with telling me what day of the week it is. Why would I want to know it’s Tuesday? By the time I get to read a post that begins ‘It’s Monday, which means…’ it’s already Thursday where I am.
    Thanks so much for sharing with us what you learned on your course. And congratulations on having your article published.

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    1. Hi, Hugh – As usual, you advance to the head of the class! To keep my post short, I selected only some of the course highlights. “Don’t be a Calendar” was also a big piece of advice, i.e. do not waste precious word count on the unimportant (and the quickly outdated). Thank you for reading and for your kind words!

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      1. Haha! I love it. ‘Don’t be a calendar.’ Considering I’m fascinated by time, that’s a hard quote for me not to like. However, I’ll never tell anyone in my posts what day of the week or what month it is.

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