The Quality Quotient: Travel Writing That Matters

Last summer, in the middle of an epic five-week grand tour that took me the equivalent of 1.7 times around the globe, I had the great pleasure of speaking at the TBEX blogger gathering in Dublin, Ireland.

The Irish capital was just as charming as the hype would have it be; every taxi driver seemed to have a streak of James Joyce in him, every pub was poetic, and the Bulmers cider flowed like the River Liffey–but that’s the subject of another post.

What I want to share now are the quintessential tips I offered in the talk I gave at the conference: “The Quality Quotient: Creating Content That Engages and Expands Your Audience.” I’ll do this in three parts.

Every piece of writing, it seems to me, rests on four pillars of engagement: with your subject, with yourself, with your audience, and with your writing. Each of these is essential to the success of a piece.

You have to engage with your subject, to understand its history, character, and heart.

You have to engage with yourself, to understand and mine the deeper connection between you and your chosen subject.

You have to engage with your audience, keeping some sense of their background, knowledge, and interests in mind as you develop your piece and choose what to include and what to leave out.

And you have to engage with your writing, to make it as precise, melodic, and meaningful as possible.

How do I go about trying to achieve this? I think the best way to explicate that is to trace my own journey when I work on a story: before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.

> Part I: Plotting Your Story Before You Go

When I’m setting out to find and shape a story, I begin with a lot of research. Essentially, I ask myself: Where do you want to go and why do you want to go there?

The why is an essential part of this equation; it becomes the vehicle that moves the story along. So I look for things–festivals, spiritual sites, historic sites, beliefs, rituals, wildernesses, legacies, characters–that excite me in a place, things that stand out as potential passion points and connections.

Then I sketch out a skeletal itinerary for the destination, an itinerary that will encompass the history, culture, and attractions that seem to define the place for me.

Of course, there’s an extremely good chance this will change once I get where I’m going, but having an itinerary in mind before I get to a place helps me to maximize my time on the ground–and also gives me the confidence to follow the goddess Serendipity when she suddenly appears to point me in another direction.

“Oh, you’re going to that Everyoneknowsaboutit Festival?” the hotel clerk will say. “That’s actually pretty touristy. Have you heard about the Neverheardofit Festival? That’s also taking place tomorrow and it happens only every five years–and it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Strictly local. Oh yeah, you can catch a bus right outside the hotel.”

Thank you, Serendipity. She appears to me at least once every trip, and I always follow her inspirations–and often get my best stories that way.

Having a skeletal itinerary liberates me to detour from it. I have a sense of what I’m looking for and a sense of where to find it–and when I suddenly discover that there’s apparently an even better place to find the same quality/character I’m looking for, I’m emboldened to spontaneously follow that lead. I know that in the very worst case, I have my original itinerary to fall back on.

Finally, if I can, I try to frame my journey in the context of a quest: I’m going to X in search of Y… Why? This approach lends the story a built-in nice narrative arc, a shape, that can make the experience on the ground and in the writing ultimately much more cohesive and compelling–and a lot less painful.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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