On Saturday, I attended a travel writing workshop run by Phoebe Smith, editor of Wanderlust magazine. The workshop was one of a varied programme of events at ShAFF (Sheffield Adventure Film Festival) held in Sheffield's Showroom cinema.
The room was full for Phoebe's talk - obviously there are a lot of aspiring travel writers out there! I did notice, however, that very few attendees were taking notes; so either the've got brilliant memories or they're not quite that serious after all.
After telling us a bit about herself, Phoebe spent an hour sharing lots of tips. As part of the workshop we looked through a travel article from the Guardian and discussed the different techniques the author had used. The workshop ended with a Q&A session.
Throughout, Phoebe was friendly, clear and, even though it was only an hour, managed to impart an awful lot of good information. As I've read so much about writing over the past year and I'm currently taking part in a travel writing course with the London School of Journalism, I had been hesitant about the benefits of attending this workshop and wondered if my time might be better spent at one of the other events. By the end I was so glad I'd made my last-minute decision to go as it was definitely an hour well spent. And I know that if I ever get the chance to do a longer workshop with Phoebe, my name will be first on the list.
I took pages of notes - below I've included some of the main points.
Make people interested in what you're writing – don’t just assume they’re going to be interested.
How do you get people interested?
- Know who you are writing for:
- Write accurately
- Grammar, punctuation
- Write with a purpose – what’s your aim?
- Write well – get your audience to come back
- Practise, practise, practise ...
- Not reading your finished piece through first – print it and read it on paper as well as on screen; get someone else to read it
- Making it too personal – do your readers care?
- Humour – great if it works; cringeworthy if it doesn’t
- Toilet stories – nobody wants to know about your bowels
- Grab the reader in the first paragraph
- Make it suit the tone of the article
- Try a couple of intros to see which is best – you can make your final decision later
- Look at how other people begin their articles – read the work of others analytically
- You can start with a strong quote, but it has to be good
- Write straight away – don’t worry about what you write, you can change it – just get started
- Go back to the intro at the end – do you need to change it?
- Beginning – grab your reader with the introduction
- Explain and elaborate – explain why you’re doing the trip or activity – each paragraph has to move the story forward – don’t lose sight of the purpose/reason for your article
- Ending – don’t suddenly end because you’ve got to your destination or the activity has finished – bring it slowly to a conclusion – slow it down over the last few paragraphs before concluding it
- You can write about anywhere at all – it doesn’t matter if you’re not travelling – where you are now is a destination for someone else
- Notice everything – e.g. people’s habits – what are they doing with their hands? Are they chewing, fidgeting, limping?
- Record everything – always have a pen and paper – you will forget details if you leave it till later
- Speak to people – get local knowledge
- Start writing
Writing the Perfect Journal
- Who is your journal for? - Is it just for you? Is it online for friends and family to read?
- When writing your journal think about potential beginnings and endings for articles – circle or highlight them so you can easily find them when you look back
- If it’s a public journal, leaving out things can be as important as what you include – don’t woffle or include every minute detail to the point of boring your readers
- It doesn’t have to be chronological
- Use your senses - what can you smell, taste, etc
- Dialogue – have a ‘cast list’ at the back of your notebook – people's names and notes about their personality, etc – assign a symbol or number to each so you can quickly refer to them in your main text, especially when making a note about what they have said
- Avoid listing everything
- Get out a pencil and sketch
- Scrapbook it – stick tickets, receipts, etc in your journal
- Do use a date
- Do leave gaps so you can make notes on your notes
- Stick to what interests you
- Get it down on paper while it’s fresh
- Enjoy it!
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep e.g. don’t say you’ll write every day if you can’t
- Be unique
- Write about what you know
- Let the passion show
- Be accurate
- Use photos
- Get to grips with some of the techy stuff e.g. SEO, plugins, etc
- Social media is your best friend
- Do try to get some revenue, but don’t do it for the money!
- Your blog is a great shop window – it’s the portfolio of the modern day
- Think about your local papers as well as the national press
- Try digital magazines as well as print magazines
- Write for other people's blogs - guest blogging
- Other websites
- Guidebooks and advice books have more need for writers – you need to be very disciplined and write within a strict structure – much more so than a personal travel-writing book
What Editors Want / How to Pitch
Phoebe used an interesting scenario to explain this -
Imagine a bar full of editors and writers – editors are needy and promiscuous, but getting a lot of offers – as a writer you’re trying to catch an editor's eye – build some trust – let them see who you are and that you're serious and dependable – it can take a long time to get noticed as you have some pretty stiff competition - it took Phoebe two years of trying before she got a freelance article published in Wanderlust even though she was an established writer.
Continuing the allegory, Phoebe advised us to start by asking the editor for a drink and not proffering a marriage proposal straight away, no matter what your long-term intentions are. In other words, start by pitching a short article, not a full-blown series.
Getting that first date is the hardest - once you've got it, make it a success, then you'll find the second date much easier to get.
Phoebe gets around 100 pitches a day and although she reads every one you're going to have to stand out from the crowd to have any chance of being successful - make sure you have a good subject line and introduction.
As for how to pitch, most magazines will have guidelines on their website. The guidelines for Wanderlust can be found on the ‘about us’ tab.
Your pitch should include:
- Paragraph about the article/pitch
- Intro of the article
- A bit about you
Other tips when pitching include:
- Photos are not usually essential, but if you have them it's better to include a link rather than clogging up the editor's email box up with attachments.
- There are many reasons why you might not be commissioned – the magazine might already have enough articles; they might have already covered the topic or already commissioned it.
- Magazines plan 6 months/issues ahead – bear this in mind when pitching, especially if your article is topical
- Newspaper features/articles are usually 700-1000 words
- Magazine features/articles are usually 2000-2500 words
- Multi-pitching – make it different for each pitch – if multi-pitching the same or a similar article and an editor accepts after another one already has, tell the second editor the article is no longer available