Travel Writing That Matters: Part III

Last summer, in the middle of an epic five-week Grand Tour which took me the equivalent of 1.7 times around the globe, I had the great pleasure of speaking at the TBEX blogger gathering inDublin, Ireland.

Dublin 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: “The Quality Quotient: Creating Content That Engages and Expands Your Audience.” I’ll do this in three parts: Before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.

Part III: Re-Creating the Stepping Stones of Your Journey

In Part II, I wrote about how to find and focus your story when you’re on the ground, in the place you’re going to write about. I talked about the importance of two things in particular: making sure you vacuum up all the information you could possibly need while you’re there, and continually asking yourself “What am I learning?”

This question becomes critically important in phase three, when you are sitting down to do the hard work: shaping and writing your story. 

In this phase, the first thing I do is write down the most memorable experiences and the main lessons that I learned from the trip.

Often, in the process, one quintessential lesson will leap out at me. But when there are two or three lessons in competition, I write them all down and sit with each one for a while to see which one has the greatest resonance. Which one really inspires my passion and seems to offer layers of experience, connection, and meaning?

This lesson becomes the principal point of my story, the reader’s takeaway.

Once I have determined what it will be, I ask myself: How did you learn that lesson? What were the steps that led you to understand it?

I identify and write down these steps, tracing my journey to the lesson. Then I pick out a few essential stepping stones and try to recall as vividly as possible the experiences, details, and characters involved in each.

Those stepping stones become the map of my journey, the path I’ll follow to write the story.

One thing I always try to remember is that the story is not ultimately about me, it’s about the place. That’s what the reader wants to know about.

My experience is the vehicle that illuminates the place.

My job as a travel writer is to present my experiences in that place in such a vivid and coherent way that the lesson I learned–my own quintessential takeaway–is shared on a profound level with the people who are reading about it.

When you return from three weeks or three months on the road, you often have a book’s worth of experiences and stories. But if you’re writing just one story, you need to focus.

The beauty of the stepping-stone approach to storytelling is that it lends direction to the writing process. Figuring out the lesson you want to tell, and the steps that led to that lesson, helps you discard all the encounters and events–however wonderful and memorable they may have been–that don’t play a role in that particular lesson.

You need to ruthlessly edit your experience, cutting away everything that doesn’t contribute to the reader reaching the same place, the same illumination, that you have reached.

But the prize is priceless! When you can successfully bring the reader to that same illumination with you, when you can share a place’s quintessential lesson, you create one more connection in the beautiful chain that links writer and reader, traveler and traveler, visitor and resident.

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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