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The incomparable Don George (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

Travel Writing Tips: Don George on Self Editing

I sat down with Don George, editor at large at National Geographic Traveler and author of Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing, and asked him to don (no pun intended) his editor’s cap and dispense some pearls of wisdom about what budding travel writers can do to make their work sing.

This is what he had to say:

Leslie Trew Magraw: William Faulkner spoke of the need to “kill all your darlings” during the writing process. Do you have any tips on how to be a more effective self editor?

Don George: You should always give yourself time to put a piece of writing away. Get away from it for at least a day or three so that you come back to it with somewhat fresh eyes. It just reads differently when you are out of the moment of writing it.

The other thing I always encourage people to do is read their writing out loud. You can hear wooden rhythms, phrases that just aren’t working, and leaps of logic.

If you’re a beginning writer, I encourage you to join a writers group, where people with different perspectives can read your work and comment on it. If you can’t find one, start one. Somebody might say, “I just don’t get this lede; it takes so long for the story to get to the place where it takes off. Why don’t you start at seven paragraphs in?” That kind of feedback can be really helpful.

John McPhee, one of my professors at Princeton, told me that every sentence, every word, is a building block: If it doesn’t advance the story, get rid of it. He would give our class a short–maybe 250 words–front-of-book piece from The New Yorker that had been edited by, at that time, probably ten editors, and say, “cut ten words.” As a student you were like, “Okay, I’m going to do this,” and would read every single word, word by word. And you would pause after each word and ask yourself, “does that need to be there?” You could drive yourself crazy doing that with a 7,000-word story, but it’s a really great principle to keep in mind.

LTM: You’re a veteran editor as well as an accomplished travel writer. Is there something you see over and over again that you want to give a lesson on?

DG: I started out being a travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, and would wade through the hundreds of unsolicited stories that were submitted each week. The same problem I’d see there I would see in all my other editorials, too, and it’s that the writer doesn’t really know what they are trying to convey. They don’t really know what the point of their piece is.

There are so many stories that I have read through the years that are just like “I got up in the morning. I had a really great lunch, then walked down to the beach and spent the afternoon there. There was an awesome sunset, then I went back and had a really great dinner. “As a reader you think, “Why are you telling me this? What do you want me to take away?”  

You should have a very clear sense, as a writer, of what your point is. You should be able to write one pithy sentence where you say, “What I want the reader to take away from my story is ________.” If you can fill that in, you need to do some more work. Keeping that question front of mind gives you a road map, a tool to help ensure that you’re on track as you write.

When I teach classes and workshops, I often ask my students to write “Why are you telling me this?” at the top of their page because that’s exactly what the editor is going to be thinking as he or she reads your piece. No one wants to hear a recitation of what you did that day. Especially as an editor I really, really don’t care about that. Teach me something. Move me in some way. Emotionally engage me.

LTM: I call that “Dear Diary” writing. Diaries are private for a reason! Do you have any other pet peeves?

DG: People who write “its” when they mean “it’s” or vice versa. Misspelling. Really, really basic stuff like that, where you think Really? Don’t you know you call yourself a writer, and you don’t even know these incredibly basic rules of grammar or rules of syntax? It makes me question the whole credibility of a person on a much larger level.

And then there’s information that doesn’t reveal anything about a place. You know, just talking about yourself and whatever is going on in your life, without any reference to the experience you are having. That really drives me crazy because I don’t really care about you. I’m not reading this story to find out about you. I’m reading this story to find out about Greece.

I really think, as old fashioned as it sounds, that people should read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style because it is a precious communication tool. You have to respect language and use it well if you are going to be a great communicator. Really, what we are all trying to do, I think, is share our experiences as openly, smoothly, eloquently, and richly as possible. The better we understand the instrument we are using to do that, the more beautiful the music we can make with it.

Leslie Trew Magraw is the editor and producer of the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @leslietrew.