I receive emails every week asking, “What is the secret to your travel writing success?”
This request often is worded differently like, “How can I get to where you are now, in the shortest possible time?”, or, “How can I get lots of articles published and get paid for them, like you do?”
These aspiring writers are looking for that ONE key to immediate success. But is there just one key to success?
There are some basic components for success, and they’re laid out in this post.
The closest I will ever come to revealing the “one true secret” to success is, TIME. All successful writers put in years of hard grind from the
first time we put our pens to paper until we achieve success.
Few successful writers (or artists of any kind, really), achieve phenomenal success right from the outset. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling’s early writing careers are graphic examples. They suffered many years of disappointments and tribulations before they eventually struck pay dirt.
To put it simply, most of us have done our hard time and doggedly stuck with it long enough to achieve a reasonable level of achievement. We’ve steadily built our bylines over many years. We’ve improved our creative writing and forged working relationships with editors. And we’ve dealt with the inevitable disappointments and rejections without allowing ourselves to get disillusioned.
Freelance writers have to put in the time to succeed. Forging a writing career won’t happen instantly, no matter what hyped-up sales copy you’ve read.
Your professional freelance writing career will advance in step with the time you put in. There’s no other way around it. No shortcuts.
I know this answer isn’t romantic or sexy. It’s not what you’re hoping to hear. You might read about “instant success” in slick sales copy. But you need to be in the game for the long haul to be successful. Otherwise, you’re likely to join the abysmally high numbers of travel writing drop-outs.
I have a good friend who happily makes his living from various forms of freelance journalism, including travel writing. Guess how long it took him to break into freelance writing and make a full-time career of it? Six years!
So, the formula for success can be expressed as:
WRITING SUCCESS = TIME
On your travel writing journey (pun intended) you’ll try, fail, and learn from your mistakes and successes. I doubt there’s ever been a writer who hasn’t learned valuable lessons from making mistakes. When you get your figurative writing fingers burned or make mistakes that cost you assignments or money, you’ll internalize those experiences and learn to do things differently next time around.
So, the formula for writing success can be expanded:
Writing Success = Time + Experience
But, as you might guess, there’s far more to being a successful freelance writer than just putting in your time and gaining experience.
I’ve noticed that the novice writers I coach have all advanced at different rates. By the end of their first year, some have only had a handful of stories published in modest print and online publications. Others have had two or three dozen articles, or more, published in highly respected paying print and online media over the same period.
Initially, you might think these differing achievement levels are due to varying writing abilities. This has not been the case.
It’s the writers who are constantly dreaming up new story ideas, cranking out query letters by the dozen, and pitching them out like bullets from a Gatling gun, that get published more frequently. They’re working hard, very hard on the up-front creative work.
So, the formula for success expands to add Work :
Writing Success = Time + Experience + Work
The fourth component to the freelance writing success formula is Education.
For freelancers, it’s important to understand the value. There are plenty of educational activities you can be doing to help you break into freelance writing. Here are a few:
Travel writing conferences usually provide excellent educational opportunities. At these meetings, you can suck freelance writing advice and information from experts like vacuum cleaners. And when you’re not listening to the presenters, you could be picking your fellow writer’s brains to see what they’re doing to get published. Or you could be meeting with magazine editors to see what they’re looking for in a good story.
Have you kept up your reading about freelance writing?
You don’t have to restrict your reading to specific books about the craft of travel writing, either. The most valuable book I’ve ever read on selling and marketing your stories is Moira Allen’s weighty book on general freelance writing, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer.
(I reviewed it in this article about travel writing books for marketing.)
Do you read weekly or monthly newsletters for travel writers?
Do you belong to a professional travel writing organization? Well-run professional organizations provide updates on new developments in the industry and dispense other freelance writing advice.
Have you hired a writing coach or mentor to speed up your passage through the freelance writing minefield?
So, we’ll expand the formula for writing success to include Education.
Writing Success = Time + Experience + Work + Education
By now, you can see where I’m going with this article. Clearly there are multiple “secrets” for freelance writing success.
You might wonder, “What about writing skills and creative writing talent? Surely that must count for something?” And you’d be right!
You won’t get your work published in paying print media without solid writing skills. Editors avoid writers with sub-standard writing skills because correcting and editing poorly written articles takes up an inordinate amount of their time. They’re way too busy to babysit you if you can’t be bothered improving your writing.
Here’s the assumption: if you’re pitching stories to magazines you have the chops to deliver a well-written story. The story should require minimal editing.
What are the writing skills or “chops” I’m talking about?
You need to master basic mechanical writing skills such as spelling, syntax, punctuation, grammar, structure, order, detail, vocabulary and sentence variety.
If you don’t have the writing skills, and still want to be a freelancer, take some remedial classes to move your writing up to publishable levels. Until then, don’t pitch your stories to glossy, paying print media.
You can also take a community or online writing class to beef up your writing. This doesn’t have to be at college-level. It just needs to give you enough guidance and feedback to improve.
I use feedback in the form of my published articles, too. I always compare the original manuscript I submitted to magazine editors with their final published article.
I’ve learned so much from this technique about tightening up my story, and sequencing my paragraphs for flow and transitions between paragraphs. Studying the changes editors have made to my work has improved my writing tremendously. And the best part of this simple learning technique: it’s free!
So, we’ll add Writing Skills to the formula for writing success .
Writing Success = Time + Experience + Work + Education + Writing Skills
There’s a myriad of less tangible aspects of creative non-fiction writing. We use certain techniques to craft breathtaking and compelling travel stories. These skills come under vague names like tone, voice, inspiration, the art & craft of travel writing, and even “the muse”.
Many writers believe we’re born with these talents and can’t develop them. This is not true. By carefully studying well-written travel stories you can learn what techniques work and how to apply them.
As you put this knowledge into practice, your writing will improve. Suddenly, you’ll find your queries accepted for publication with increasing velocity.
So, we can add Writing Talent to the formula for success:
Writing Success = Time + Experience + Work + Education + Basic Writing Skills + Writing Talent
Finally, we can’t forget to add business knowledge.
Writing skills and talent will only take you so far. Business knowledge – from basic invoicing skills to more advanced marketing skills – will help you succeed. I know several highly talented writers who have dropped out of the field because they lacked the business skills to succeed.
Freelance travel writing is a business and your success depend upon it. I’ve written several articles about the importance of business skills.
Here are some links to some of my business articles. From this small sample you can start to see how business is an important aspect of freelance writing:
Getting Paid for Your Travel Stories
Business Policies for Travel Writers
Coping Strategies: New Editors and Editorial Changes
But basic business knowledge isn’t enough. Anyone who knows me understands that marketing is a big part of my success. In fact, it’s the major part of my success and the success of other writers.
Why? If you can’t sell your stories, you don’t get to write them.
My entire platform is about the multiple aspects of marketing and sales for your success. You won’t get your name in print if you can’t sell an editor on your story idea. This is a big topic. You can find further reading on the art and science of marketing your work on this website in a large number of articles mentioned on this page.
You can also learn more by attending our April 2018 Travel Writing & Marketing Master Class in Seattle. It’s a 3-day crash course on marketing, selling, getting press trips, and creative writing. You won’t find another workshop like it, anywhere!
And you can learn about my entire marketing process in my book The Complete Guide to Marketing and Selling Your Travel Articles.
So you need basic business knowledge including marketing savvy. I’ll call this Business & Marketing Savvy and add it to the formula:
Writing Success = Time + Experience + Work + Education + Basic Writing Skills + Writing Talent + Business & Marketing Savvy
Freelance writers need these major attributes and abilities for success in travel writing. No one gets far without them.
Skimp on any one of them and you’ll likely shortchange yourself and find that you’re not succeeding as you hoped.
There are numerous other skills and characteristics for travel writing that we also need, like persistence, determination, a thick hide, and imagination. You can probably think of a few other things to add to the list.
Do you have shortcomings in any of these major areas? Address each one and make adjustments one step at a time. Each one of us is a work in progress – just get started and keep working. That’s the real secret to travel writing success!
Roy Stevenson is a professional travel writer and the author of www.PitchTravelWrite.com. Over the past ten years, he’s had more than 1000 articles published in 200 magazines, trade and specialty journals, in-flights, on-boards, blogs and websites and has traveled on assignment around the U.S. and to dozens of international destinations.