Writers Worth: Travel Writing 101

You know what I like about people like my new friend Jerry Nelson? They’re frank. I love that. If you’re the type of freelance writer who doesn’t take harsh advice personally, you’re going to learn a lot from Jerry.

Here, he goes into one of his pet peeves — being told how “lucky” he is to be a travel writer. His story is eye-opening, and he’s a damn good source of what it takes to make a living writing in the travel industry.

Content Mills to Travel Writing: Do You Have the Moxie to Make the Change?
by Jerry Nelson
“The finest travel writing describes what is going on when nobody’s looking,” says Tom Miller, author of ten travel books and measureless travel articles.

Travel writing is a career that requires doing more than learning.  There is no canned formula for
success; it is a craft, art.

Are You Cut Out for the Work?

As a travel writer, I’ve heard it hundreds of times:

“Oh! What I would give to have your job!” Yes. My life as a travel writer is envied. But it’s not for everyone. Ask yourself six questions and your answers will tell you if have the moxie.
1. You just missed your flight out of Mumbai. The next flights are filled, and the ticket agent tells you, “Don’t worry. Allah willed this.” You still have three more countries to cover by the end of the week. What do you do?

2. You are afraid of take-offs and landings. What do you do?

3. You are in Caracas. A new-found friend, who is a pilot, invites you on a private sightseeing flight to the falls. What do you do?

4. You’re staring at a deadline for a major piece about  skiing in Scandinavia. Your editor calls and tells you she wants a quick 500-word piece on Vermont Inns. What do you do?

5. You have to work. You haven’t worked for three months. Your credit cards are maxed out. What do you do?

6. How do you imagine yourself in twenty years?

My Personal Story
When I started, all of my cold pitches were ignored. Presently, about two-percent of my stories are accepted. I get my share of “You stink” just like everyone else, and I put time into stories that
never see sunup. I still look at rejection as making headway.

Many people can’t stand the inconsistency of this business. Some weeks I pitch ten stories; other weeks, 20. Some months I get 15 assignments — on top of my contract work. Other weeks I get two easy pieces
that are all I need to survive.

Some can’t deal with the strange. This is the toughest part of the business for countless wanna-be freelance travel writers. Yes, I have enough earnings this month. What about in six months? Lead times can be distant.

Excuse me, but my “Public Service Announcement” isn’t meant to scare you; merely guide and motivate. I get annoyed when someone tells me I’m “lucky.” Listen. No one created my luck — but me.

As far as travel writing is concerned, let me be honest: You may never make it. But, you might. One point is positive: You’re not going to secure it if you don’t try.

What are you waiting for? Start today! Start now!

Just don’t say I’m “lucky” or have the “dream  job.” I may have to kill you.

To be a travel writer means you need to keep life simple. Toss away the laptop and cellphone. Again, Tom Miller says it best:

“No camera, no recording device, no laptop, none of this palm pilot nonsense or a cell phone. Paper and pencil, a book, maybe a bilingual dictionary. Anything beyond that (a) can be stolen, and (b)
intimidates people you encounter. The more double-A batteries you carry, the more you distance yourself from the people you’re writing about.”

Should You Return to the Classroom?

Do not go back to school believing a journalism degree will help you become a travel writer. Even a master’s program at Columbia or Northwestern is just a way for you to pay for the connections and POTENTIAL job interviews. It’s not worth your money or time.

Skip classes. Don’t take them. Create your own syllabus and your own master’s course. Travel. Take notes. Write about it.

The travel writer lifestyle is not for everyone. I’ve got plenty of journalist friends who are more talented and better writers than me. But they couldn’t hack it as freelancers.

They couldn’t handle the never-off-the-clock side of the business. They couldn’t handle the no-boundary problems that come with working from home. They couldn’t handle the broad swing in paychecks I’ve mentioned.

Finally. Three things you MUST do:

  1. Network
  2. Network
  3. Network

The little accomplishment I’ve had has emerged from meeting the appropriate people at the proper time.

It’s that simple.
AUTHOR BIO: Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer and photojournalist who has traveled to — and worked in — 155 countries. Busy on assignment in South America, Jerry is always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email him at jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and join the
million-or-so who follow him on Twitter @ Journey_America.  http://jerrynelson.org http://twitter.com/journey_America


About the author




  • Cathy Miller May 30, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for putting your "dream job" in perspective, Jerry. Long before God invented computers, I had a road warrior job in my corporate days. Stuff happens became my creed, but it still wasn't one tenth of what you face. Gotta love it. ☺ Thanks for sharing a slice of reality, Jerry.

  • Elizabeth May 30, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks for your perspective here, Jerry. I think travel writers have it hardest when it comes to folks thinking they have a "dream job" because so many people think traveling for work is like traveling for vacation when, clearly, it's not.

    You may hate this question by now, but I'm curious – what's your favorite travel destination, either for work or pleasure?

  • Lori Widmer May 31, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Jerry, thank you. You delivered an excellent post with plenty of lessons packed in!

    I like that you advise writers to travel, take notes, and write about it. It's the learning-by-doing method, and I've found that same method to work in other types of writing, as well.

  • Ashley Festa May 31, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Travel writing would definitely not be my dream job. I am, however, fascinated by those who do it well. I'm glad you found a way to make a living doing what you love, even if it's a lot more WORK than people may think.

  • Devon Ellington June 1, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    This made me laugh, and I had to answer the questions:

    1. Look for a way to get out of Mumbai via train or bus or see if I can pay some one driving out of town; I'll probably get another few pieces out of it.

    2. If I was afraid of takeoffs and landings, I'd be in the wrong business, or I'd have to get the right drugs;

    3.Heck, yeah! That sounds amazing! Again, I'd get another piece out of it at the very least, and I'd probably have a darned good time seeing something beautiful.

    4. Sounds great. 500 word piece for my editor, who likes my work. I'd use some of what I know from the area and fact-check, and do some research. It would probably take an additional 4 hours, and the goodwill alone would be worthwhile. I'd also come to the Scandinavia piece with fresh eyes.

    5. Hire on at the local nursery and quit as soon as I get the next travel gig.

    6. Retired in one of the favorite places I covered!