The Masterclasses by National Geographic Traveller (UK) returned in March 2023 with a series of three hour-long online sessions led by experts for aspiring travel writers and photographers.
In the writing sessions, the panel of expert writers and editors discussed their approach to researching stories and finding fresh angles as well as writing and delivering a story – from developing ideas to editing and successfully pitching a feature.
These are their top 10 tips on how to find your story, how to plan your trip, and how to structure your piece to help you enhance your travel writing.
1. Harnessing the power of social media
Researching a destination before you travel is crucial to finding an interesting and topical story. Our panel discussed social media as a powerful tool when it comes to connecting with local people and finding a focus for your piece.
Before travelling to a destination, award-winning travel writer, Jonathan Thompson, suggested using social media to find popular spots and local events. “The first thing I do is go to Instagram and start looking at the hashtags that relate to the place I’m going to, to see what people like and the types of discussions that are happening.”
2. Seeking out local stories
While trips to exotic destinations may be unfeasible for some, our panellists stressed the importance of the story, not the destination. “Since the pandemic, there’s a much bigger interest in covering stories about Britain,” said Kate Simon, former travel editor of The Independent on Sunday. “Editors are more prepared to think about destinations outside the honeypot areas of the Cotswolds or the Lake District.”
“The writing part of travel writing is more important than the travel part,” agreed Jonathan. “A good story near you in Essex or Kent is better than no story in the Maldives or Mauritius.”
3. Successfully selling it to an editor
The next step is selling your great idea to an editor. The trick is to keep it concise, as Emma Thomson, two-time British Guild of Travel Writers’ Travel Writer of the Year, explained. “Fifty to 150 words explaining — why now, why it’s topical, why them, why it suits their publication and why you are the best person to write it.”
Using your personal connections to the story will also help you sell it. “You might have a personal connection with that country, or you speak the language or something that just gives you the edge over someone else’s pitch,” said Emma.
Our experts also reminded us how to pitch to the right publication and to keep their audience in mind. “Do your homework and have a good look at what publication you’re pitching to,” advised Kate. “Make sure you have some idea of where it might fit, but also keep yourself flexible.”
4. Planning your trip
When creating your itinerary, our experts suggest using local resources to find ideas. “Look at the local newspapers, magazines and local guides,” recommended Kate. “They’ve often even thrown up a new idea for me to pursue when I’m in the destination, possibly as a secondary idea.”
Jonathan identified going on food tours as a good way to soak up the local culture, by “walking around the city and seeing interesting parts of it, while sampling local food and talking to the guide and the other people on the tour”.
5. Developing your story ideas
Developing your ideas into a piece can be difficult at first. “I usually go in with a theme-led piece and keep the angle quite narrow,” explained travel writer, Kerry Walker. “It helps to focus on things that you care about and let the story shine.”
A recurring piece of advice from our experts was to keep focusing on the personal aspects of the trip – how you felt, the memories of the place and what you found interesting and important. You want to transport the reader to the destination and tell them a good story about it.
6. Always have a back-up for your notes
On a trip, it is important to keep track of the notes you make, as well as keeping them safe. Emma Gregg talked about using a holder for her phone around her neck as well as a notepad: “I make sure nothing can get away and I have manual alternatives to tech.”
Always having a method of documenting things to hand is also crucial. “First impressions fade so quickly. They are really precious and can produce the richest descriptions, so record them any way you can,” said Emma.
7. Take advantage of free time in a destination
Our experts agreed that spontaneous conversations with strangers are often the key to building interesting stories and can help make your piece shine. “If you can get free time on a trip, you can build more colour into the piece. Some of the most colourful interviewees can be the people you just bumped into,” advised Jamie Lafferty, a freelance writer and photographer.
Freelance travel writer and editor, Stephanie Cavagnaro, emphasised the value of local guides. “Sometimes guides can provide this level of expertise that you can use for quotes instead of loads of exposition in your piece.”
8. Structuring your story
Our panellists discussed how to perfect a great opening to a piece, starting with a hook that will engage and excite the reader. “You need a personal element, or some kind of universal truth rather than just describing a scene,” suggested travel writer Oliver Smith.
“From something small, something bigger grows,” he said. “When your mind happens along the right way to start, it’s almost instinctive.” Inspiration can come from anywhere, as Oliver highlighted when describing how a slate tile on his roof led him to write about an epic adventure in Snowdonia.
9. Don’t just recount the whole trip
After a captivating opening, you need to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole piece. “Don’t try and cover everything that happened on your trip. It’s impossible!” said freelance travel journalist Alicia Miller. The important thing is to “find key points, distilling those points, and then thinking about how that weaves together in a narrative that is interesting to read.”
Journalist and travel writer Monisha Rajesh suggested that the middle section is crucial to keep momentum and the reader’s attention. “The middle bit is a really good opportunity to zoom back out on what you’re doing and to reflect. I start to think about how I’m feeling while I’m travelling because I want my reader to feel the same thing.”
10. Take time to read your piece back
Despite the tight deadlines that often come with professional writing, our experts agree that taking the time to read your work back is an important last step. Giving yourself the opportunity to see your piece with fresh eyes will make sure it is polished and complete.
“You get a feeling when it’s done,” advised Monisha. “I keep coming back to pieces, and often print them out to get a feel of them that way. You notice things you don’t notice when they’re on a screen.”
Oliver echoed this advice: “Having fresh eyes on something as many times as possible is really helpful. It’s best to take breaks and rinse your brain of everything you’ve done.”
Recordings of all session are available to buy here.
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