Improving Your Travel Writing

This guest post was written by Ankita Kulkarni.


“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” - Henry Miller

The smell of freshly baked bread and pastries in France, a hike into the beautiful snow-capped Swiss Alps, posing in front of the magnificent beauty of Taj Mahal, deep sea diving in Hawaii, wine tasting in Napa Valley, watching the mesmerising northern lights in Iceland, feeling the hot sand on your face as you trudge through the deserts in Egypt, gawking at the huge pyramids and the glittering blue Nile -- I am sure at least more than one of the above places must be on your bucket list!

Travelling is like meditation; it allows you to reflect upon yourself as you explore other cultures and observe new people. It makes you reflect on your place in this vast world. If your journey is like meditation, your writing is the peace - the calmness - that spreads through your body at the end. It is the sense of achievement, the sense of elation you feel at the end of every adventure. Your travel writing is the reflection of your journey wherein you describe what you, yourself, achieved through this wonderful journey.

We as writers/creative thinkers tend to seek perfection in everything. It might sometimes feel like a truly tiresome job, as nothing you come up with seems good enough. Every time we try to re-read our written pieces, we come up with a lot of mistakes. But travel writing is a task which comes more from your heart than from your brain. You write what you feel as much as what you think. It is about describing what you remember, what you felt throughout your journey, what you perceived, and what lifelong memories you brought back with you, just as much as describing the factual details of your expedition.

Here are a few tips which might help you to improve your travel pieces:

What Makes Your Readers Care?

What is the key element in your story that might catch the attention of your readers and make them care enough to read your entire piece? Try to identify this key element. It might be an incident that happened during your travel, some interesting character that you met, or an unknown fact/place which you might have discovered which no one else knows about. These things will help to keep your readers engaged in your story.

Begin With Something Impactful

You might try to begin your piece with an interesting quote that you might have come across during your travel. It can be even more interesting if it is in the native language (provided you translate it for the benefit of all your readers). Preferably do not start with how you reached the airport and took a flight. Involve your readers in your story from the beginning itself and cut out the mundane things like travel (unless something out-of-the-ordinary happened). You should also start your story with a punchy headline.

Building Your Story

The most important and difficult task is creating a story - a quest - out of your journey. A travel piece will intrigue us if it has a storyline to it and is not just written like a diary entry or a travel guide. Create characters and give them interesting voices. Introduce secondary characters that might be recurring or play a minor (yet important) part in your piece.

Even the simplest of journeys can become an attractive story. For this, you should give your narrative a purpose. Try to come up with a motive for your journey; see if you can think of a conflict or a chain of events that might interest your readers. It is not necessary to tell the story in the same exact way it happened - try to mix up the chronology of the events! You can switch the events around if you think that something exciting happened at the end which might give conflict to your story. Also try to add a recurring event, a memory or a character which the reader is regularly reminded of throughout the story. Have a theme for your story.

Truth or Fiction?

This is one of the major questions every travel writer has to ask himself while writing his story. Should your story completely stick to the truth and be told exactly the way it happened or should it be fictionalized to make it more interesting and appealing? I believe the correct answer to this question is to equally balance your story between the truth and fictionalized elements. Your readers want to read about your journey, how you discovered that place, your struggle to get there, your achievements, disappointments, human errors, as well as feeling homesick. These are the things which will help your readers identify with you and empathize with your story.

Nevertheless, you can add a few fictionalized elements to make your story more interesting, such as creating a character that you might not have really met but could play a major role in your narrative. Or creating a conflict which will prompt your readers to continue reading. Try not to make it into a complete fiction story by over exaggerating the events or the plot. Try to strike a perfect balance between truth and fiction. Your story should make your readers want to visit that place, retrace your journey and have an adventure of their own.

Four Magic Beans for Every Travel Piece

There are four magic beans that play a significant role in every travel piece.

First, is the historical elements of the destination. Every part of this world has some vital historical importance and your story should contain a few details referring to it. This will add interest and provide an interesting backstory for your piece.

The second magic bean is the visualization/ geographical information of the place. Try to create a visualistic effect in your piece by accurately describing the geographical features you’ve encountered. Allow your readers to be awed by the snow-capped mountains or the great roar of the sea as the waves lash on the beach. This will create an illusion for your readers, almost as if they are there with you on your journey.

The third magic bean is food and culture. Try to include elements of the local culture, the native people, their language, their traditions, and the local, popular food. Let your readers peek into to the day to day lives of the natives, let them experience the colors of the local fashion, the delicious smells coming from the street food carts, the satisfaction of drinking a steaming hot cup of tea from a red mud cup made by the villagers on their pottery wheel while gazing at the beauty of the Himalayas. This will add a personal touch to your piece, allowing your readers to dive deeper into your journey.

Last, but not least, is the fourth magic bean. This fourth magic bean is the missing element in your story. This is that one special thing which will give a boost to your story and only you what it is. It might an incident, a person, an experience or a life lesson. This missing element will differ from travel writer to travel writer. But this is that one secret ingredient which will give your piece the aromatic, mouthwatering effect.

Let your exciting journey begin! Happy writing!