I can’t remember the last time I sent a pitch for a travel article to a newspaper or magazine. It’s something that doesn’t really interest me now. For a long time, there was a buzz seeing my name in print, but that wore off. It’s more important I glean satisfaction from writing rather than write purely to earn a crust. If I can combine both then, bingo, it’s an ideal world.
Part of the problem is the way in which many travel articles are structured. As a reader, I can feel I’m reading the same piece over and over, just with a different destinations and location appropriate restaurants/attractions added. I also know a significant amount will contain information collected during press trips or equivalent. These are essential, otherwise most travel writers wouldn’t be able to make any money from travel writing. But they do mean many writers end up with the same dossier of information, so you regularly see the same restaurants referenced across various articles, restaurants that either a tourist board or PR company are pushing. They also often involve whistlestop trips, and I prefer the travel advice I read to be insightful, knowledgeable, and sourced by authentic experiences rather than off the peg ones.
From a writer’s perspective, it can be shackling. There have been times when Andy and I haven’t been able to recommend what we felt were best in a location as we were instructed to choose places close to specific resorts, where whichever company was sponsoring an article had their hotels.
Rigid structure often means there are similarities. Just this morning, I saw this tweet by travel writer Annie Bennett:
“Mention the word ‘sherry’ and most of us picture that thimble of sweet amber nectar that Granny enjoyed while cooking the Sunday roast.” One day an article about sherry will not start with that sentence. Once again, today is not that day.
I used to feel the same when it came to articles about La Gomera whose authors invariably felt compelled to compare the island with its ‘brash’ neighbour, Tenerife.
Subsequently, not only have I stopped pitching travel articles, I rarely read any. I still love travel and am addicted to new travel experiences, but immersive ones; real experiences rather than carefully curated ones. Experiences which can be exhausting, educational, fun, occasionally infuriating, that take us out of our comfort zone, and which are ultimately exhilarating. Travel, Slow Travel especially, mostly involves a mix of these factors. Travel writing doesn’t always reflect this, especially where negative aspects are involved.
This week, I saw examples of the best and worst of modern travel writing. The best was in The Guardian Saturday magazine and involved an account of the author’s train journey across Turkey on the Doğu Express. It came across as authentic, involving the good, the bad, the ugly, and the bizarre. By the end, I felt I had vicariously lived the experience and knew what to expect should I follow in his footsteps. This is the type of travel article I do read.
The worst was in the Daily Express. Tabloid travel articles are invariably poor, dumbed down and pruned to the extent there is nothing useful in them. Most could be written after a few minute’s research on Google. The Daily Express article illustrated a disturbing trend in the press, using social media to compile articles. The source of information in this case was TripAdvisor.
Subsequently, La Orotava on Tenerife was described as ‘one of the island’s secret hidden gems’ despite the fact tour excursions disgorge passengers there daily. One TripAdvisor contributor remarked it was a happy accident they stumbled across it, when it was a tour guide who had taken them there.
This isn’t travel writing. If it is, then I want no part of it. I prefer to write unfiltered travel articles on our own websites rather than produce something diluted and sanitised for somebody else. I’ve also been seduced by forays into fiction writing, which allows far greater creative freedom. I’ll be publishing the first of these, a tale of magic & mystery set in the Canary Islands, in October.
Despite not pitching, Andy and I have written three Slow Travel guides this year. These do give me great satisfaction, even though our names aren’t attached to any. I know there will be people biting into cheese and artichoke pies from a side street panini shop in Parma frequented mostly by locals or walking a trail through pines and lave fields on La Palma without encountering other people, using guides we’ve written to direct them.
For me, the reward from travel writing is in sharing information that isn’t widely known by the target audience. Otherwise, what is the point?