How to Write a Bad Travel Story

How To: Sure, you could write a compelling story. But why, when you could just as easily write a snoozer? David Farley explains.

06.08.09 | 3:25 PM ET

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Despite popular belief, becoming a travel writer doesn’t always require moving to a village in Provence or restoring a villa in Italy. In fact, it doesn’t even mean you have to write good travel tales with a deep sense of place and an intriguing angle or storyline. See, you can simply write bad travel stories.

Here are a few tips on how to do just that.

● Let’s start with the intro, or, as it’s called in the biz, the lede. The lede in a bad travel article should usually open up with you, in general, and you and your husband Larry, in particular. Example: “My husband Larry and I marveled at the lush landscape surrounding the cottages at our overnight lodge, even though it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and dry season in East Africa.” Your goal here is not to write an intriguing, attention-getting lede, but to mention Larry as soon as possible. Goal achieved! 

● Try not to have much of a point. In some travel magazines and newspaper travel sections editors like articles to have something called an angle—a perspective—and normally it should be as fresh and unique as possible. The “nut graph,” an oddly named anatomical literary part, comes toward the end of an article’s intro and states the focus of the article. It tells the reader where this article is going and it helps you, the writer, craft a piece that stays focused. But in this case, you don’t need a nut graph. Instead, craft a narrative that involves a play-by-play of everything that happened on your trip.

● Use as many clichés as possible. Are you writing about Mumbai or another city that has a large gap between the wealthy and the poor? Then you’re obligated to refer to it as a “city of contrasts.” In fact, this useful cliché could apply to all cities. And be sure to pepper your articles with: “quaint,” “charming,” “rustic,” and “cute” to describe villages. And don’t forget “unspoiled gem” and “breathtaking view.” Also, comparing one country to another—as in “Croatia is the next Italy,” “Montenegro is the next Croatia,” or “Albania is the next Montenegro”—is always a good idea.

● Tell, don’t show. Sure, you could write something like, “We traipsed across the chunky cobblestones of the village’s only lane, flanked by half-timbered, thatched-roof houses, and we could smell the morning’s first offerings from the village bakery.” But why, when you could just as easily write, “The village was quaint and charming”?

● Don’t concern yourself with what is called “exposition.” As Thomas Swick wrote in his essay Roads not Taken, “It is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.” And by that, he means you put the place into a historical context to corroborate the point of your piece (which, as mentioned above, is unnecessary). This is what exposition does and it’s usually interwoven between scenes and dialogue (all of which you shouldn’t have, either). Swick need not be listened to. Making sure that the reader is both entertained and educated is not your problem. Travel writing is all about you (and your husband, Larry).

● Speaking of solipsism, it’s important when you’re on the road and gathering information and experiences to write about, that you talk to as few people as possible. Remember: We only want to hear about you (and Larry)—not the locals. Quoting people is for real journalists, not travel writers. Which brings up another characteristic you should not fall trap to: curiosity. It killed the cat. Don’t let it kill you.

● In your conclusion, don’t worry about ending your piece with an effective jab or about making sure the ending captures the point of the story. Travel articles should end with a nice cliché: a vow to return, for example, never fails. Here’s an example from my own private cellar of bad travel writing, originally published in the travel section of a large daily newspaper: “... despite mixed results about the new Berlin, it seems that locals have created an infectious buzz about the city. I know I caught it, because as soon as I got to the airport, I started making plans to come back.”

● Don’t read good travel writing. It’s true that reading good writing can make you a better writer, but it will only serve to make you frustrated. Don’t read The New Yorker or Granta. Likewise, don’t read any “how to” books on travel writing, especially the best one, Travel Writing, by Don George. Neither should you consider joining a writing group or taking a writing class.

See, it’s easy to be a bad travel writer. And if all else fails, there are still several villas in Italy in need of restoration.


David Farley

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s a contributing writer at AFAR magazine and his writing appears in the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, and Gadling.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University.


42 Comments for How to Write a Bad Travel Story

Frank 06.09.09 | 12:26 PM ET

Awesome.  Also, don’t forget to use “nestled” and “has something for everyone.” Those really spice things up.

Arun 06.09.09 | 1:21 PM ET

A good take at bad. Actually sounds like the essence of Don George’s book turned upside down.

Chris 06.09.09 | 2:30 PM ET

All this time I’ve aspired to be a good travel writer, and it turns out it is much easier for me to just keep being a bad travel writer. Why didn’t you share this sooner, Farley? Why?!?

pam 06.09.09 | 2:47 PM ET

Ouch. Ha ha ha. Ouch. Ha. Ouch.

Could we talk about the world “authentic”, too? Coz that should be used as frequently with as little context as possible.

Colleen 06.09.09 | 3:05 PM ET

also, use “chic” and “hipster” as much as humanly possible. and use them in place of providing actual details about a place.

Nancy D. Brown 06.09.09 | 3:05 PM ET

Great post. Sounds as if you are speaking at Book Passage Annual Travel Writers & Photographers Conference taking place August 13-16,2009 in Corte Madera, CA with Don George. I hope Jim Benning will be making a return appearance, as well. It’s a great conference for travel writers to polish skills and wannabe’s to learn from excellent teachers. It’s all about the lede and writing a good nut graph. Of course, evening libations are a key ingredient.
http://www.bookpassage.com/content.php?id=45

jamie 06.09.09 | 3:18 PM ET

So great.  I especially warmed to the line “Speaking of solipsism”.

Scribetrotter 06.10.09 | 1:44 AM ET

Don’t do any research about your destination… make sure you arrive fresh, with no idea about what to cover, so you’ll get that ‘unspoiled’ feeling about a place… and don’t ever, ever let facts stand in the way of a good travel piece. Numbers are irrelevant - what counts is the reader’s perception. :-)

Mike Gerrard 06.10.09 | 1:52 AM ET

You should also refer knowingly to what the locals think, even though you only arrived the day before. Pointing out ‘this is where the locals eat’ is also helpful, although locals eat everywhere from MacDonald’s to Michelin-starred restaurants. At least one mention of ‘locals’ in some context like this is obligatory.

Eman 06.10.09 | 11:44 AM ET

I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

But what if you’re not married? Are you just dead in the water? Or do I have to find a guy named Larry?

Mike Gerrard 06.10.09 | 11:47 AM ET

You have to mention Larry in order to justify his expenses to the IRS, and his presence to the company that hosted you. If you’re not married you need to go off alone and intrepid to places no-one has ever heard of, or is ever likely to visit on holiday, and brag about it.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 06.10.09 | 12:16 PM ET

Great article.  I especially liked “Tell, Don’t Show.”  I’m sure at one point in time all of us have written a travel story that was less than stellar.  When you’re starting out, you may make a few mistakes.  The important lesson is to learn from them and become a better writer. 

I like to do a bit of research before I go to a destination.  After all, I don’t want to wind up in jail for breaking a law that we may not have in the states.  Each country is different…I like to know the basics before I go…That’s just me!

John 06.11.09 | 12:31 PM ET

A really great way to teach good writing. Now let’s talk about “Travel dispatches from a shrinking planet.” “Shrinking planet”?? I’d have to say that ranks right up there with “quaint village.”

Jim Benning 06.11.09 | 2:05 PM ET

Good point, John. Maybe we should have done more showing and less telling in the site’s tagline.

Maybe something like:

World Hum: Travel Dispatches from a Planet That is Growing Smaller and Smaller, at Least Metaphorically Speaking, with Each Passing Day.

That has a nice ring to it.

Alice 06.11.09 | 2:43 PM ET

Shit, I knew I should have married Larry.

John 06.11.09 | 2:57 PM ET

Haifa 06.11.09 | 3:17 PM ET

Farley! I read this in a fluster, because I am undeniably guilty of most (if not all) of your bad travel tips, and especially guilty of vowing to return. ::Cringe::

The more I (think I’m) learn(ing) along the way, the more dreadfully painful it becomes to look back at stories I thought were really provocative and “fresh”. But one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “A story is never finished, it’s only abandoned.” Rewrite! (I think that was a spin on a da Vinci quote?)

In the meantime, thanks for crushing my ego.

=)

Mike Gerrard 06.11.09 | 3:21 PM ET

I think it was Picasso who said that a painting is never finished, only abandoned.

PJ 06.11.09 | 4:27 PM ET

I once worked at a travel magazine and the editor-in-chief, who had low standards, used to mock me for my crusade against the word “perched.”  In Bad Writer Land, every damn destination with a cliff invariably has something “perched” on it, like a canary.  I always took that word out.  “Nestled” went, too.  The word “great” must also die. It’s the “amazing” of written English: banal and meaningless through over-use.

Tammie Dooley 06.12.09 | 4:27 PM ET

personally, I like the word “awesome” to describe just about anything.

Final_Transit 06.12.09 | 6:58 PM ET

Lovely read and very entertaining. I am guessing that I disregard most of your tips here, but there was a lot to learn. Thanks!

Frank 06.12.09 | 8:09 PM ET

Rad.

Michelle-Laptop Road Trip 06.12.09 | 10:27 PM ET

Too funny for words. And so true. Great article.

Remy Scalza 06.15.09 | 5:24 PM ET

This is a needed article, since the bulk of travel writing today is disappointing.  But there’s a big paradox from the professional side that is partly overlooked in this article.  To actually get published and survive as a travel writer it is often necessary to write poorly.  There are a few, elite publications - like The New Yorker and even this site - that value strong writing, character development, pacing and thoughtful description.  But the overwhelming majority of outlets seem to really want mindless blurbs that string together cliches and rehash existing preconceptions of iconic travel destinations.  Quotes, background, facts and research . . . . There’s just no room for that. 

Mr. Farley, you make a great point: Travel writing, by and large, needs better trained and more serious writers.  Unfortunately, the flip side of that is that the good travel writers - more often than not - are also out-of-work. 

Remy Scalza
http://www.remyscalza.com 
A travel blog about places you haven’t been

Mike Barish 06.15.09 | 8:14 PM ET

A great piece.  Now, how do I leave a bad comment in a travel post?  Actually, I see too many of those everyday!

Mike Barish
twitter: @mikebarish

David Farley 06.15.09 | 8:15 PM ET

Thanks all for the very nice and thoughtful comments. Remy, you make a great point. Thanks.

Robert Reid 06.16.09 | 6:48 AM ET

Gazing at my laptop computer screen, I felt pleased when reading this story.

Kristine Squiers 06.16.09 | 2:13 PM ET

I always find the personal experiences more relevant than the facts.

Camels & Chocolate 06.18.09 | 12:29 AM ET

David Farley, will you marry me? This was pure genius.

Charlie Kulander 06.18.09 | 6:12 PM ET

The real secret is, you don’t have to travel to a place to write about it. Why suffer the indignities of travel when you can research any destination with a few taps on the computer. Hide behind enough generic descriptions, careless cliches, and blithe generalizations, then end it all with the standard play on time (present day “insert name of destination” has one foot firmly in the future, the other still planted in the past.

TambourineMan 06.19.09 | 6:41 PM ET

Ah yes, “Larry and I.” I wrote a few of those when I was starting out. Who didn’t?

Yes, Remy makes a great point. I’ve had eds dumb-down my stories, which I didn’t think possible with my stuff. It happens. What can you do? Don George gives me a thrill, but he don’t pay my bills.

Katarzyna 06.22.09 | 2:43 PM ET

So glad I stumbled upon this article. You’ve got some great ideas there that I definitely have to keep in mind as I work on my writing. There’s still so much to learn.

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus 06.24.09 | 3:25 PM ET

I’m watching a documentary on France 2 (French public TV) on the Mediterannean. They just ended the first reportage on the cruise boom with a couple who visited Egypt as a port of call and “are just stepping back onto the ship, but already planning to come back as soon as they can.”

Then another reportage on Naples, Italy with “one foot firmly planted in the antique history of the Mediterannean, yet resolutely turned toward the future.” David, could you please address a copy of your article to France Télévisions?

I’m going to bed. My husband (I’ll call him Larré) has to wake up at some ungodly hour tomorrow morning. Bonne nuit!

Jason Wilson 06.25.09 | 9:27 AM ET

One clarification: Albania IS the next Montenegro.

At least that’s what my husband Larry always says…

Kathy 06.30.09 | 6:55 AM ET

Nice article! really liked it…

RDog 07.06.09 | 9:15 AM ET

I’d say don’t read the New Yorker and I’d mean it, Joe Chardonnay. Lightweight.

N. Chrystine Olson 07.07.09 | 5:15 PM ET

Very funny…and as with all concise observation, dead on. You wouldn’t by chance be a mid-western smart ass?

anisha 07.10.09 | 8:05 AM ET

thanks for the super smart way of sharing tips for good travel writing :-D

V!VA Travel Guides - Roaming Writer 07.10.09 | 3:16 PM ET

Entertaining, yet insightful! Great post for those looking to get into travel writing.

Travel writing is easier said than done. But there are some great tools out there to help people become successful, savvy travel writers. Books are great, like the Don George one you mentioned.

However, for more hands-on experience, there are workshops. For example, V!VA Travel Guides offers Travel Writing Boot Camps throughout Latin America that do crash courses on the career and then let camp graduates write for their guidebooks. Pretty cool.

Gwen McCauley 07.17.09 | 10:16 AM ET

Still laughing at not letting curiosity kill you, or rather, the cat that is you!!  Love it!

Maria 07.18.09 | 12:27 AM ET

I love this, especially rule #1 about Larry. The real problem, however, is that many editors not only allow but encourage such personal twaddle—the use of “I,” focus on individual experience, and insistent use of the names of companions and children. The idea is that personal details draw the (dumbed-down) reader in and make the authorial voice cozier; it’s the same philosophy behind the explosion of published memoirs in recent years. In today’s travel writing, we are expected to take an interest not necessarily in place, but in one person’s experience of a place. Personally, I’ll take place every time.

mae 07.19.09 | 9:23 PM ET

In 4th grade, when we did show-and-tell on Mondays, the teacher had a rule that you weren’t allowed to end with “and then we went home.” But that would be a great ending for the stories you are recommending. I think she had a few other suggestions that are counter to creation of bad travel writing as well—so you don’t necessarily learn everything in Kindergarten, you might have to wait for 4th grade.

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