Journalist David Farley wrote a piece for World Hum advising aspiring travel writers on how to achieve mediocrity in their chosen profession: Be tedious, pedantic and utterly, mind-numbingly thorough.
"Craft a narrative that involves a play-by-play," and lean heavily on your clichés. The English language gave them to you for a reason, and it would be rude to refuse them. Besides, if you don't end your piece gushing about the "wonderful people" or vowing you'll return, how will your readers know?
On which note, he assured writers, navel gazing is a virtue. Talk extensively about yourself. The more you can make your travel essays sound like a dowager aunt's vacation slideshow, the better.
Farley's piece is terrific and well worth a read for anyone interested in the form, even if doing so is a rather humbling experience for some. Written almost 10 years ago, it's particularly apt now in an era of near-relentless production. You see, many people aspire to professional travel writing, especially the sort who haven't yet realized that a credit rating, health insurance and retirement benefits are nice sorts of things to have. And while achieving a paid byline does, today, more closely resemble Running Man than professional competition, the internet offers a near-limitless platform for publication.
A few hundred words, a couple of dancing airplane gifs, a story about how "you too can walk away from the 9-5," and you're in business.
So writing proliferates, and for every utilitarian workshop of the Points Guy or the Man in Seat 61, there are a thousand SEO-engineered list bait sites. For every work of insight and beauty produced by Gary Arndt or Timothy Allen, someone somewhere has posted a bottle of Sriracha sauce on Instagram. If producing good travel writing is hard, the sheer weight of numbers may make it even harder.
Yet it is one of the most essential forms that journalists produce.
Good travel writing helps to bring people closer together. The work of people like Bill Bryson and Mark Adams helps us to understand that the world isn't filled with stock caricatures from central casting. And, unlike the work of our colleagues in the newsroom, travel writers can often tell the stories of people around the world outside of crisis and turmoil.
This is important not just when you're staying home, but also as part of any plans to travel abroad. Good travel writing can help you understand the place you're going a little better, and to simply have some more fun while you're there. Figuring out who to listen to, that's trickier. The internet can feel sometimes like a crowded bar. Just because someone's voice cuts across the room doesn't mean they necessarily have wit or insight.
Indeed, often quite the opposite. Yet the best writers will generally share a few traits.
They Tell a Story
Above all else, the best travel writers will have a story to tell. Blogger, author, columnist or otherwise, a good travel writer wants to say something about the place they visit.
Treat your travel writer like a blind date. How much do they talk about themselves? Do they make you laugh? Did you learn something interesting early on? Did they challenge you?
Really seriously, how much do they talk about themselves?
A good travel writer gets invested in their subject, and it will come across in the work they produce. This is especially true when it comes to bloggers and journalists, who have to produce more sheer words than an author. The more they write about themselves, the more you see the writer talk about their own feelings and fun, the less their work will likely have value to you.
Instead of subscribing to yet another blog about how much the author (who just happens to look good in a swimsuit) loves not having an office, find work like Turner Barr's Around the World in 80 Jobs or Roads and Kingdoms. Both tell unique stories apart from the author's ego, neither will teach you how to write your way around the world for a living and both will teach you far more about the destination ahead.
Find Someone Location-Specific
Choose someone who has written extensively about a place, preferably for a long time.
In choosing a travel writer you want someone who knows the lay of the land. This is, sadly, the struggle in taking inspiration from such venerable tomes as Lonely Planet, for more about the superlative Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? (The answer, after six years of doing this for a living, I believe is fairly obvious.) Writers from a major guidebook generally have days to form their opinion about a given city before they need to move on and tick the next box on their itinerary in advance of a publishing schedule.
Many journalists and bloggers can do little better.
If you're looking for advice, instead turn to someone who has spent real time in a destination. Find a blog that is dedicated to a region instead of simply decamping around the world, or a writer who has written long form articles about a destination. Look for rich, sensory details, the kind you can't get by simply doing a web search for "best bahn mi in Hoi An."
We all carry in our pockets computers that would baffle the original crew of the Starship Enterprise. Many of us wear them on our wrists. Information today is cheap. It's experience that you can't easily come by, so be sure to look for it in your writers.
And for what it's worth, the best bahn mi in Hoi An is sold by a man and his wife from a small cart at the intersection of La Hoi and Nguyen Hoang roads on the island of An Hoi. The air smells like coffee and fish sauce, and you'll probably get elbowed in the ribs by the night market crowds making your way to the stall.
Decide Print or Online
Get your advice from the internet. Get your education in print.
Books cannot keep up with local changes. While a paperback like Frommer's or Lonely Planet does offer a fully wireless experience, and so may be worth carrying, no sooner has it hit the shelves than plenty of its recommendations have gone out of business. A good dozen other missed marvels will have also opened, and still more will have simply eluded the eye of a single writer trying to cover an entire city.
They are too slow and too limited to offer particularly current advice. For that, go online. Find good blogs or even forums stocked with other travelers and see what they have to say.
Then, when you find a restaurant and head out for dinner, bring a book with you.
Books are, obviously, longer than any article or blog post aspires to be. Without resorting to crude idioms, that gives authors an insurmountable advantage when it comes to evoking the wonder of a place. No 1,200 word article can sweep you up quite as effectively as Kristin Newman will, if given a few hours of your time, nor can it summon The Lost City of Z's sense of adventure.
In this industry, the authors and the journalists often don't just differ by degrees. Often we have entirely different ways of seeing the world. Make sure to indulge in both.