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Friday, August 15, 2008

Developing your travel writing career: commissions and content gathering, part 1

An aspiring travel writer who is starting her freelance travel writing career has emailed me: "I've been reading a lot about financing and tips for freelancers on how to save money, but never on how it actually works at the beginning. I know that it's different for every freelancer and also for every travel writer as it depends on what you do, whether you write travel guides or articles for magazines and newspapers, but what I've never found is how you can finance your trips. The beginning will be self-financed, but then press trips? I think an editor will finance someone's trip only if they are really established writers. And here comes the first difficulty for new writers." Well, here are some tips for Angela and other readers who are embarking on travel writing careers, based on what's worked for us:
1. Keep your day job and become a part-time travel writer in the beginning - generate content on your holidays and weekends away. This way you're not spending money you wouldn't ordinarily spend, and the career shift is less risky. Write about the place where you live. Publishers are increasingly finding value in resident-writers for their local knowledge
and insider advice. Use this period to develop your research and writing skills and refine your craft.
2. Subscribe to professional websites and organizations such as
Media Bistro to learn how to pitch and how to promote yourself and your work. Once published, join, International Travel Writers Alliance or Media Kitty to find out about commissions and learn from other travel writers by engaging in the forums.
3. Get prepared and get organized - email magazines and newspapers via their websites to get writer's guidelines and editorial calendars. Find out how the pitching process works and who to pitch to. Create your own database of editors and industry contacts using the resources above, magazine mastheads, and your own networking skills;
join LinkedIn.
4. Learn the art of pitching - writing a good pitch can be as hard as writing a good travel story.
Media Bistro is fantastic for this information.
5. Start pitching editors - but only when you have confidence in your writing ability and strong story ideas. Respond to editor's requests, on sites such as, for content on destinations you've developed expertise in, such as your hometown.
6. Appreciate that getting the first commission is the hardest - be patient, politely persistent and persuasive without being a pain-in-the-butt. Learn self-promotion skills. Start a blog as a creative outlet, to develop your writing skills and as a showcase for your work.

7. Spread your pitching efforts wide - consider all publishers, publications and platforms. Contact editors of all kinds of magazines (don't limit yourself to travel magazines, which are highly competitive) and newspapers (try your local or regional paper first, as big city papers are as competitive as magazines). Consider digital forms, from online versions of magazines and newspapers to travel websites.
8. Contact guidebook publishers - start with guidebooks you relate to as you'll be expected to identify with the audience, make choices with readers in mind, and write in an appropriate style. Find out what their writer approval process is; each publisher operates differently.

9. Focus your efforts on getting a commission - a commission is an assignment where the editor agrees to publish your story based on your pitch (idea). The agreement can be informal (an email) or formal (a legal contract). It will involve money up front if it's a guidebook, but for a magazine or newspaper you'll be paid on acceptance or approval of the story or when the story's published.

10. Why guidebook writing commissions are good - a guidebook commission gets you there! Guidebooks involve a large fee and 40-50% of that fee up front. The fee will be fairly low if you don't have experience, but as your experience increases, the fees increase. While the fee may not seem like much when stretched across an eight to 12 week research and writing period, the fee is what gets you to the destination. While you're there you can be gathering content you can later use to write stories for magazines and newspapers.
And that's just half of it! I have another ten tips for you...


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Thank you!
Last night I recevied word that I will be the Travel Blogger for my city's newsapaper! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with all of us.


Wendy said...

What a great post for all those aspiring to be travel writers. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Do you still plan at some point to hold a travel writer's workshop?

AngelaCorrias said...

That's great, thanks Lara!
I'm sure the beginning wil be difficult, and that's why I still have another job, but instead of working permanently for a company, I work freelance for many so that I can work also from home and if I go abroad for a while. Your post is a very how-to for beginners and especially down-to-earth.
Looking forward your next ten tips!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Felicia - thank *you* and congratulations!!! Good on you - that's such great news!! What's the name of the paper so I can read you online? Best of luck!

Hi Wendy - yes, we're still planning the writing workshop at Maryam's place in Marrakesh next year - we're waiting until her beautiful property is up and running before we set a date. As soon as it's fixed and we finalized the program, I'll post details here on the blog.

Hi Angela - that's a great idea to freelance for lots of people so you have flexibility to travel when you want to. Thanks for your feedback. Let me know if you want more detail, more specifics, or want more nuanced advice. Best of luck!

Nomadic Matt said...

oooooo i think i know who e-mailed you! :)

this is great advice. I stumbled this so others could learn from it.

You're an invaluable resource.

Anonymous said...

Great tips Lara! At NileGuide (, we're always getting asked about what it takes to be hired as a local travel expert in each destination we cover. We love the idea of combining really cool software and an engaging website with relevant insights from real human beings on the ground --- sometimes there's no substitute for that!