One of the very first things I had to accept about the kind of travel writing I do is that it’s a service.
While I was inspired by the likes of Lawrence Durrell, Paul Theroux and Jan Morris, I was writing for a Condé Nast magazine.
Articles had to be short and to the point, but very clever and captivating, and they had to give the reader some kind of information.
Easier said than done, especially having come off of earning a degree in Greek Classics at college where I had been surrounded by long-winded professors that found reading dense tomes tremendously entertaining. The more perplexing, the better.
Early on at Bride’s magazine, I was given the responsibility of writing a page called “Trip Tips,” which was a round-up of honeymoon travel ideas. Each vignette had to be very short—under 200 words—and had to have a grab-me title.
I remember agonizing over these Trip Tips. I had to cram in so much information, but at the same time make it fun to read. There could be no fat.
Little did I know then that putting together that page in Bride’s was the equivalent of practicing scales when you are learning to play the piano. Keep doing it over and over again, and all of a sudden, it comes easily and flawlessly and before you know it, you are making music.
The bulk of the travel writing I have done over the years has been an expanded Trip Tips section. My whole site is about providing information, concisely but entertainingly. Every day, I have to come up with clever titles and compress my thoughts and observations into tight paragraphs.
Quite often, I find myself tickled at what I do. I am forever challenging myself to come up with better leads, better words, better ideas, titles. And the more I come up with, the more I seem to have access to.
It is this very process that I find creatively rewarding.
Every now and then, I pick up my copy of Durrell’s Spirit of Place and randomly flip to any page and start reading. I am still inspired by these letters and essays on travel, because they accomplish what I want to accomplish. Durrell writes about his observances with honesty and great clarity, but at the same time, keeps me engaged.
I believe that that’s what all good travel writing should do, even if it’s a service piece in a magazine or on a website.
Where do you stand on service pieces vs. essays? Share your opinion!
Wonderful piece, Susan! I agree with you about travel literature – I adore well-written travel essays and find them to be inspirational in terms of both writing and traveling, but I really think that there are way too many people out there who are teaching (and preaching) that travel essays are the only true style of travel writing, and with that I strongly disagree.
Service pieces will always have a place in travel writing because that is what the traveling public wants – and service pieces are still what pays the bills and gets travel writers published!
Great article and info. One workshop I talked about writing your short but “grabbing” travel piece. Not everyone can just sit right down and do that. For some, it is truly a labor. They are the ones who write essays well!
Thanks for reminding us about this part of travel writing.
I definitely think that a balance is needed – particularly in the online environment travelers are looking for information just as often (or likely more) as inspirational essays…certainly search traffic coming to travel sites is usually targeted at some sort of information!