Andy and I didn’t know it at the time, but our very first commission for a travel article back in 2004 taught us a number of invaluable lessons in writing town and city guides across Europe.
It was for a magazine on Tenerife. The subject of the article was an ‘In Deep’ feature for a hill town in the south of the island called San Miguel de Abona. San Miguel is a nice enough little town with a certain charm and good authentic restaurants, but it’s not the sort of place to set a traveller’s pulse racing. The feature included the typical sections generally found in town guides – what to see; what to do; history; culture; shopping; where to eat; what to eat etc – with specific word counts for each topic ranging from 50 to 200 words and an overall total of 1800. Pruning text to meet these word counts was crucial training.
We were keen to do as good a job as possible, hoping our first commission wouldn’t be our last, so we pounded the streets of that town, exploring every lane, dead-end, patch of greenery, and plaza in search of something interesting. An early lesson was, it’s a hell of a lot easier to compile a town guide for a decent-sized town than it is a small one. The more there is to see, do, and eat, the more there is to choose from and write about. But we found something to fill every section, and learnt a lot about the area in the process. In fact, I recently used one of the surprising snippets we ‘discovered’ in a community centre library in my novel By the Time Dawn Breaks (soon to be published). Even after twenty years, I’ve still not seen anyone mention this ‘snippet’ in English language media.
You’d think that on an island visited by millions each year, everything there was to be written about the place had already been covered. That commission taught us otherwise. Even though the town lies not far from the most popular tourist resorts, it and its history were never mentioned in English language travel articles. The more of these In Deep articles we wrote, the more we realised how much of Tenerife was overlooked in the world of travel writing. That was probably the biggest lesson of all because if that applied to a hugely popular tourist island, it was likely it also applied to other travel destinations.
We weren’t the only writers responsible for compiling In Deep features, there were a couple of others, especially when we first started writing for the magazine. One of the other things we noticed early on was individual writers approached the job differently. Their personal preferences seeped into their words. For example, one would barely mention shopping. Another would only make a passing reference to nightlife. As a result, there was generally a slight imbalance in the published article. We devoted the same amount of attention to each topic – seeking out information on what made one church more worthy of a visit than another with as much enthusiasm as finding which restaurant served the best local food or which bar was the most eclectic.
Twenty years down the line, there’s a lot more information to hand than there was back then. But you know what? Despite this, things haven’t changed all that much. Access to information is obviously far easier. However, there’s still a tendency for the same information to appear repeatedly. And it isn’t necessarily accurate or meaty. There is good information out there, but it isn’t easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. I was reminded of this during a visit to Italy last week. The trip involved compiling first-hand information for various towns in order to put together town and city routes. Prior to visiting, we researched the relevant destinations using the most reputable sites we could find, creating lists of what we felt were the most interesting aspects. These lists act as helpful guidelines, but the real work comes in pounding the streets, confirming attractions, both big and small, did exist and were where they were supposed to be, as well as looking out for interesting aspects we didn’t already know about.
Despite reams of information on the internet, there were plenty of anomalies. These ranged from points of interest not being where Google or websites said they were, and ambiguous or even incorrect information about trains to some things not being mentioned at all. This is why copywriters who specialise in travel have such a difficult task accurately writing about destinations they haven’t visited, and why, on our websites, we only write about places we have been to.
When it comes to compiling town and city guides, there is no substitution for first-hand experience, and to get that experience involves a lot of legwork.
Basically, there are no shortcuts to insightful travel writing.