I’m often asked by novice travel writers if there’s a single predictive skill we can consistently harness to get our travel stories published?
They ask this because if there is ONE single skill they can become proficient at, all they would need to do is study it, practice it, and then their travel writing career would take off (hopefully, into the heady world of press trips to exotic places, and $1/word articles in glossy travel magazines like National Geographic Traveler, Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, etc!).
Sadly, there is no single predictive element. There are simply too many components in the publication chain formula for the freelance writer. These variables range from dreaming up a saleable story through to seeing it finally published in print—with many other essential factors between.
Many aspiring journalists believe, for example, that a killer query letter, or having an interesting destination or angle are all that’s required to sell a travel story. The reality is that multiple elements must be done well for us to see our work published.
The good news is, that if we perform each of these preparatory steps well, statistically the chances of seeing our story published improve dramatically.
Here are a few of the elements or links necessary to consistently get your travel stories published
- Your story angle must be interesting and exciting to your targeted magazine’s readers
- Your story idea must be a good fit for your targeted magazines
- Your research into a travel story idea—before you pitch it—must be thorough
- You must compile large distribution lists of magazines to query with your stories
- Your query letter must be clearly and well written
- Your query letter must use good grammar and be free of typos and misspellings
- Your destination article must be well written
- Your article must use good grammar and be free of typos and misspellings
Each of these factors are vital links in your travel writing publication chain. You must maximize them all when preparing your query and writing and submitting your articles. Neglect any of these elements and your chances of getting published will plummet, and you’ll be disappointed.
But there’s even more than this to getting your travel stories published.
Equally as important: the more stories you pitch, the better your chances of getting published. This may seem obvious, but I’m always surprised at how few aspiring travel writers fail to continuously put their work “out there”. Beginners have a tendency to send out a query letter and then sit back and wait to see what happens. What they should be doing is continuously preparing query letters and firing them out like a Gatling gun.
My take home messages here are that you must do your prep work before pitching your stories, and you need to keep churning out a high volume of queries if you want to break into travel writing.
When I first started freelance travel writing I would send out 3-5 queries each week, and sometimes more. And, I sent these queries out to every magazine that I thought would be a good target for my story.
I found that over time (quite rapidly, in fact), more of my stories were getting published. It was like watching a snowball getting larger as it rolled downhill. As my bylines stacked up, I spent less time pitching and more time writing. As I forged longstanding relationships with several magazine editors, (some of which I maintain today), I found it easier to pitch them more stories. Because I was a proven entity, they were more receptive to new story ideas.
One time, I sent the editor of a UK running magazine the titles (no pitch) of 8 stories I’d like to write for his magazine, and he responded with an email the next morning saying “They all look good to me. When can you have them written for me?” Jackpot!
For several years, I was writing up to 15 stories each month. Once I wrote 10 articles in 12 days! I could walk into a bookstore and always found at least one magazine on the rack with my work in it. On one occasion I picked six magazines off the rack with my feature articles!
I became curious about how many of my pitches were being accepted for paying print magazines, so I counted them. The result: I was selling 90% of the stories I pitched! Most freelancers consider themselves lucky to get 25% – 40% of their pitches published.
Eventually, I would shoehorn my stories into more than 200 regional, national, and international magazines, newspapers, trade journals, custom publications, specialty magazines, in-flights, on-boards, plus a few online travel magazines.
I was always trying new marketing and sales techniques, most of which worked to some degree.
I would pitch new story ideas when I sent my completed manuscripts to the editors. I pitched multiple story ideas in some of my queries (i.e. more than one story idea in each query letter). Both these strategies worked well.
A few of my marketing experiments flopped, but at least I learned something from these failures.
Novice writers tend to neglect some, or all, of the links outlined above. They take short cuts, and meet with predictably disappointing results. Then they wonder why editors are not responding to their queries. Disillusioned, most drift away.
There are no short cuts in freelance travel writing. This is why the drop-out rate for beginning travel writers is well over 90%.
Many writers who can’t be bothered doing their prep work thoroughly, or don’t develop their writing skills, eventually drop out or end up writing unpaid travel stories for some else’s websites.
This may all seem daunting to novice writers who would be thrilled to just see their name in print once and be paid modestly for their work. So you need to understand that it can take a year or more to gain traction and get your work published. And this obviously depends on how much you apply yourself. If you only send out sporadic queries, your progress will reflect this.
If you apply yourself wholeheartedly, you’ll get much faster at researching story ideas, preparing your distribution lists, writing your query letters, and writing your articles. Today, it takes me about one third of the time to do these tasks compared with when I was a novice.
If you work at it systematically and steadily—and assuming that your writing is publishable—freelance writing offers the opportunity to get paid to travel, and to globe trot almost at will, with VIP treatment that few others on this planet ever get to experience.