Travel has the power to move each of us in different ways. It’s hard to visit a place for the first time and not leave changed by it, at least a little bit—so it’s no surprise that many of us feel the instinctive need to put our experiences down on paper.
Maybe you write about your travels for personal use only, or maybe you send them in a letter to loved ones back home. But if you want to reach a wider audience, there are a few important tips you’ll need to keep in mind in order to create compelling travel guides and memoirs.
Tips for Great Travel Writing
You probably won’t become the next Anthony Bourdain overnight (he’s irreplaceable), but you can use these tips to inspire more people to get out and see more of this beautiful, confusing world.
1. Keep a Journal
Even if you haven’t decided to publish your writing yet, keeping a journal of your travel experiences is a great beginning writing exercise for anyone. Keep a small journal or notebook handy in your bag so you can jot down everything—but not just what you saw and what you ate. Write about anything that surprises you, about how a place feels, about the people you meet, or about the conversations you hear.
It’s best to write things down in the moment, because that’s when the memory will be the freshest. If you wait days or even just a few hours, you’ll likely alter some details without even realizing it. You’ll also take the most honest notes about how something affected you if you write it down immediately after the event.
2. Find a Purpose
OK, now let’s start with the assumption that you actually intend for your writing to be read and used as a resource for others. Your writing should have a purpose—not just recount what you did each day. It shouldn’t read like a diary, because for most readers a detailed review of your day just isn’t interesting.
Do you want to offer tips about visiting a specific place? Or do you want to share an experience that inspires readers and sheds light on a certain location? Establishing a clear purpose early on is critical to the flow of your story and to maintaining readers’ interest.
There’s a niche for pretty much everything, so decide if you want your piece to focus on the best pizza joints in Naples or your funniest experience as a solo female traveler in Bangkok.
3. Tell a Story
While travel writing technically falls under nonfiction, that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be told as a narrative. In travel memoirs especially, it’s important that you focus on story development, complete with characters, dialogue, conflicts, and all.
Your experiences might seem like just a series of events while you’re living them—but these are what will make your story, so decide how you want it to be told. Develop a beginning, middle, and an end, with a clear starting point and an ending that shows us something has changed. Maybe you learned something, maybe you changed your mind, maybe you found the love of your life.
Keep in mind, however, that your story doesn’t necessarily have to start from the beginning. Pull your reader in with one of the most exciting or intriguing parts of your story. Then, you can backtrack and explain what led to that point and where you were carried afterward. After all, most interesting stories don’t start with, “This morning we got up and drove to the airport.”
4. Cut (and Then Cut Some More)
Yes, I’ve said a few times now that this is your story, but not every detail of your story will be interesting or useful to your readers. Start by getting everything down on paper, and then take the time to step back and decide which parts are essential. Then, start cutting mercilessly.
That sounds pretty harsh, I know. But think back to the purpose you established earlier. Do your readers really need to know about how your bus was running late that morning or how you got food poisoning the night before? Maybe, but only you can be the judge of that. Try to stick with the most important moments and build everything else around those.
5. Don’t Forget Your Characters
While traveling, you’re sure to come across some interesting people—some will alter your journey’s path, and many will simply provide directions or sell you a sandwich. Write about the ones that stick with you, even if you never speak with them.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about Carlos, the man who offered me wine from his paper bag (I declined) after drawing my portrait (I accepted) while we sat alone in a waiting room at the train station of a sleepy beach town north of Rome.
While at first he terrified me, I soon began to wonder about him. Where did he come from? Where was he going? How did he end up in a random village waiting for a train with an even more random American girl? The memory of his eccentricity and his generosity as he made sure I got safely on the right train will stick with me forever. (And yes, the portrait still hangs in my room back home.)
This just goes to show you that even the briefest encounters with the people you meet can leave a lasting impact on you. Include them in your writing, because they’re what make places and stories real.
6. Include Dialogue
The “characters” you cross paths with can also help tell your story. As with narrative fiction, dialogue can bring a touch of realness and authenticity to your travel memoirs. Don’t do all the speaking—let your readers feel that they are living that scene too, so they can imagine everything you heard and experienced.
Tip: This is another instance where keeping a journal handy can really make a difference. If someone says something that strikes you, jot it down as quickly as you can. If you try to write it later, you likely won’t remember their exact words and the dialogue will end up taking more of your voice than theirs.
7. Show, Don’t Tell
If you really want readers to feel like they’ve just entered a scene with you, it’s important that you learn to show, not tell, with your writing.
“Showing” involves descriptive or sensory words that create a vivid experience for readers, as if they were the ones living your story. It can be a much more personal experience than being “told” that something was beautiful or scary.
If you want to describe an event that took your breath away, show your readers in a way that will leave them breathless. Empty adjectives can mean different things to each of us—if you show your readers a scene instead of telling them about it, they can feel it for themselves.
8. Fact Check Your Work
If you’re working on commercial travel writing, it’s important that you give your readers the most accurate information possible. You don’t want to be responsible for a family of four getting stranded on the wrong side of town with no bus in sight.
If you’re writing a travel memoir, you’ll still want to fact check your work. Nothing’s more embarrassing than getting e-mails from locals or other travelers calling you out for your atrocious spelling, or your confusion of two different world-famous restaurants.
Fact checking is just the responsible and courteous thing to do, especially since readers might use your work as a guide for their next trip.
Your Travel Story Is Unique
Whatever you write, remember that no one else has lived the exact same experience as you. Find the most effective way to describe a place or moment exactly as you felt it.
Regardless of whether your goal is to persuade, inform, or document, this is the best way to paint an honest picture for your readers and inspire them to chase their own travel experiences. And you never know—you might even be able to turn your passion into a career!
What are some places you’d love to write about? Feel free to share in the comments below!
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