Travel writing dos and don'ts

As an editor, I see all sorts of bad practice among writers – from long-time professionals to total newbies. If you're new to the travel writing industry, once you've sussed out how it all works you'll need your writing to stand out from the rest.

Below are a few basic tips to start with and links to really helpful resources for travel writers, from publication's style guides to the bad practices that'll get almost every editor's back up.

1. Avoid clichés at all costs

I shouldn't have to explain this, we all know a cliché when we see one. Travel writing is open to some of the worst (or best, depending on your point of view). Every country is a land of contrasts, there are no hidden gems (and even if there were, don't even think about it) and all nightlife is vibrant.

There's a useful list of travel writing clichés here and here, and David Whitley has compiled an entire series on them here.

2. Assume nothing

I am guilty of this one on many counts. Unless you know your audience inside out and you know they're a bunch of well-travelled, worldly wise, geography-obsessed nerds, assume nothing.

Don't assume you can drop a reference to the Salar de Uyuni and they'll know what or where that is (salt flats in Bolivia, by the way). Don't take for granted that they'll know what pintxos are (Spanish snacks), or where the Cook Islands archipelago is (in the South Pacific, northeast of New Zealand).

You'll alienate a whole host of people by blindly assuming your readers know what you're talking about, and often your editor will come back to you with all sorts of questions too. Avoid the back and forth and just be clear and concise.

3. Discover as little as possible

This is everywhere in travel writing, and full disclosure: it's even in some of mine. But it never fails to irk me. You didn't 'discover' that little café or great tapas bar. It was there and had customers well before you arrived. Be aware of yourself and aware of the destination you're writing about: it existed well before you did, so don't pretend you discovered anything.

4. Don't 'do' destinations

This dismissive term makes entire places sound like commodities or things to tick off a list and move on from. It's also unrealistic: you can't do London, Paris or New York. They're huge, ever-changing cities that can offer up and entirely experiences over multiple visits.

Avoid saying 'do London like a local'. Be more creative: see it, explore it or tour it.

5. Be wary of authenticity

Authenticity is impossible to quantify and is almost always debatable. We should never assume as travel writers that we necessarily know what’s authentic if we’re not locals.

6. Don't make sweeping generalisations

"The locals are so friendly" is so overused it's becoming another cliché. But it's also a sweeping generalisation and paints an entire nation with the same brush. Writing "the locals are all arseholes" would be entirely unacceptable, so why should we be allowed to assume they're all lovely because that couple took you in for tea and let you stay overnight when you'd missed the last train?

7. Be accessible

You don't necessarily need to be a poet or a master of language to be a good travel writer. The more complex your prose the less accessible it becomes. Remember people read your stuff for fun, so make it easy for them.

8. Use a thesaurus

While we need to write accessibly for all and should only really put on paper what we'd say out loud, it is OK to use a thesaurus on occasion. When you're drawing a blank don't go to the standard terms (beautiful views, pristine beaches etc), try to find another way to describe what you're seeing.

I love the "aromatic coast" described in this piece and the way the "gnarled roots of an ancient tree dangled" in this feature.

9. Provide context

Context is key in every piece of travel writing. Whether you're explaining where in Cuba this pretty little cobblestone town is, or why there are bunkers scattered across the country in Albania, concise context is always welcome.

10. Don't glorify troubled history

Pretty colonial towns are some of my least favourite destinations, simply because of their past. From Goa to Kenya to the USA, 'colonial architecture' is glorified by travel writers the world over. Yet it represents an often tragic and oppressive period in history.

While we should acknowledge this and try to learn from it, ignoring it entirely to talk about the gorgeous white-washed churches in India or the colonial mansions in Macau is not cool.

11. Don't 'other' the local customs

You didn't eat 'weird' food in Japan, you just ate Japanese food. Making fun of cultures unfamiliar to you is never OK.

Lottie Gross

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