16 Oct Start a travel blog
Six authors* shared their experience of travel writing with an audience of one hundred and twenty people in London on Saturday 6 October 2018. The ‘Travel Writing Study Day’ took place in the comfortable Knowledge Centre Theatre, a state-of-the-art meeting venue annexed to the British Library.
‘Travel writing is about creating a sense of place.’ Susan Grossman, journalist.
Travel writers suffer the same injustice as other writers, they find it difficult to make a living from writing. The principle questions, ‘how do you monetise a blog?’ and ‘how do you make money from travel writing?’, were partially answered, it would need a two-day workshop to fully address them.
In this study day there were plentiful hints and tips to satisfy most in the audience. Freelance writers work hard to research, write, and then find a publisher. It’s a lot of effort for little reward. A successful website that contains good quality text, images and videos could earn the owner a tidy sum but there are no guarantees.
From the questions raised by some in the audience I gauged that many were right at the beginning of their travel writing journey. Some had not yet set up their website or blog so the content covered by the speakers was really helpful. I’m going to share some of the ideas discussed in London right here for you. If you are not a travel writer, or don’t aspire to be one, most of this information transfers easily across sectors so even if you write a blog about food fashion or family life you’ll find these takeaways useful.
Here are some of the key ideas from the travel writing study day and some of my own: How do you make money from travel writing?
- Get yourself a website. Decide early on whether you want to work as a freelance writer working for magazines and newspapers or whether you prefer to go your own way and develop a travel website and blog. You could work towards both but believe me, it’s easier to focus your efforts in one direction. Either way you’ll need your own website and within it you can publish a writers’ CV and short biography. To get started use software such as WordPress. (There are others but as it happens WordPress is my favourite so I was glad to hear it recommended.) WordPress provides a skeleton website; you write the words and add the pictures. You can prettify it by buying a ready-made website design sometimes called a skin. The design will already have a layout with pages and lots of choices for content, a blog will be set up and ready to go, and the fonts and colours will be chosen for you. Some designs are free but take a look at WordPress compatible designs, they cost a little money though I have found many are reasonably priced, and find one that perfectly suits your business. You’ll have to develop a little technical know-how so that you can work on uploading quality content to your website but if you know how to use a mobile phone you can learn. Give it your best shot.
- Choose your audience. Target your website blog towards a particular audience, there is no point trying to compete with every website and blog already on the net. You need to decide what you really want to concentrate on and then aim your travel writing at the people who will benefit from reading about it. In marketing terms it’s called identifying your niche. Some examples: Travelling for large families (your audience will be large families, you could narrow this down to a particular family size, for instance ‘travelling with six kids’). Touring with pets (you could narrow this down to a particular type of pet, dogs for instance). Best value eateries in Europe, (your audience could be students on gap years, newly retired couples or families on a low budget, narrow it down further, be more specific). Whatever you call your website it should reflect your niche. Once you’ve got excited about it start Googling to make sure it’s not already being done. If it is but you think you can do better go ahead but you must be sure otherwise you’ll waste time and money. The travel writing market is well established, it might take several attempts before you find a niche that is ripe for you to explore.
- Fund your start-up. Don’t expect to get paid for your research time, or your travel, or your accommodation. You will need to finance this yourself to start with. Get travelling and get writing. Once you have published some work on your own website you can begin to approach sponsors. In the future you could get some of your costs covered in exchange for a feature article but be prepared to sink money into your business.
- Get social. Build a loyal following through social media. Choose your platform; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. but make sure it is one that your target audience uses. Time on Twitter is wasted if your travellers with pets favour Instagram. Regularly use social media to communicate knowledge, demonstrate your wit and personality, and direct followers to your website. Be nice to other users and genuinely enjoy the fun that this form of communication offers.
Travel writing sits between journalism and creative writing; it’s a mixture of news, information, speculation, observation and contextualisation.
- Build a mailing list. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018. This law protects personal data which includes names and addresses so you should not send emails advertising your business to people who would rather not receive them. This means you must ask before adding people to your mailing list and at all times give them the option to remove themselves from it. To save difficulties use mail software like Mailchimp which is easy to set up and aims to ensure all the right safety mechanisms are embedded.
- Keep improving. Be aware that if you want to freelance and get published in print you will have to write with impeccable English. Editors won’t read copy filled with errors. Websites are more forgiving but you need to be better than average, work on the craft of writing, we can all do it better. Does it matter? If you want to call yourself a travel writer I think so. It’s important to use words you know and not try to sound like someone else but the overriding thing is you need to write well enough to communicate easily. Ask some close friends what you could improve on. It might be spelling, grammar, sentence construction. Perhaps you waffle on a bit or don’t go into enough detail. Is your writing style tedious, too serious, too lighthearted? Accept your weaknesses and get stronger. Local writing classes can be fun, a place to make friends and new contacts. And there are loads of online writing courses.
- Be honest. Always, always, always be open and clear. Thank people for the help they’ve given you. In your list of credits mention if you have used someone else’s photograph, if you’ve been given free travel tickets, theatre tickets or hotel accommodation, and if a restaurant invites you to write a review in exchange for a free meal make sure you clearly state the case.
- Check your numbers. Google analytics allows you to check who is visiting your website, where they’re from and what they look at. You don’t get names and addresses but you do get numbers. If your website is purely a place for your biography or CV numbers won’t matter at all – think of your website like an on-line business card, it’s a place where people can get all the basic information they need about you in order to do business with you. But if you’re blogging and need to build your viewing audience analysis of the numbers is going to be important. When your numbers reach a critical mass, and that figure is different for each business, you’ll be able to consider incorporating adverts. There are also automated systems that award pennies for clicks; an easy way to make it pay. Be careful not to pepper your website overly much with adverts as it can alienate your readers, keep a balance, most readers understand you need to eat and pay the bills so they forgive slight interruptions to their reading.
- Hard work pays off. Did you ever think of selling a blog; you do all the hard work, get super results and then someone comes along with an offer? That’s good business, and it’s happening more and more. Success sells. Consider the options. Don’t become too attached. If you decide to sell it start another. Bear this scenario in mind from day one, a buyer is less likely to be interested in Jane Freeman travels France if you are Jane Freeman. When I started my website the possibility of someone wanting to buy it was never a consideration so mine is personal to me and I do view it as a place where people can get to know me, find out what I do for a living. Take a look at other travel writing blogs and compare how many have owners who ‘are the site’ and how many have owners with low profiles.
- Sell merchandise. Big money can be made from T-shirt sales so design a great logo, think about a hashtag and colour options, look at a shorter version of your website name. What would work best on T-shirts, travel bags, umbrellas, picnic rugs, mascots, scarves… Spin-off business like this may seem far off now but think – early decisions could increase the possibility of merchandising, or jeopardise it.
- Plan your content. Regular input to your website means you have plenty to mention on social media and it shows you’re on top of your game. What are you going to write about? Keep it fresh, a daily dose of input is ideal. Split your time according to your spheres of interest. You might choose Mondays to write about where you went at the weekend, upload some photos and share your experiences with your audience. Tuesdays could be topical, pick up on a travel-related news item and write about it. Wednesdays could be set aside for an in-depth article on travel. Thursdays might be a regular theme day, for instance it could be ‘today’s market best buys’ where you list some travel bargains. You get the idea. Plan your week, try and stick to it but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day here and there.
- Pitch to print. Research suitable magazines and newspapers, narrow it down to a dozen for each pitch and then write a dozen different articles. Use the same source material for this work. For instance, if you take a weekend city break you could write a food article for a gourmet publication, a theatre review for an arts publication etc. You need to take the initiative but once a publication gets to know your work you might find they begin to approach you with commissions. Ask yourself these questions and don’t hold back: Why is my draft suitable for publication right now? Why is my draft suitable for this publication? Why should I send it to them and not someone else? Then include these essentials in your pitch letter, keep it short and snappy. Remember there is often a six-month lead time, especially for glossies, so get hold of a magazine’s forward feature plan. Pay varies between publications but they publish standard rates for all contributors so ask the publication what their rates are. (We were told that one leading newspaper pays around three hundred pounds for a thousand words.)
- Who is the star of the show? Are you the person who writes and narrates the stories, appears in the photos? Could you retreat into the background and let the story tell itself? Sometimes, ‘when you put yourself in front of the camera you get in the way of the picture,’ Susan Grossman said. And it’s true, if the story is good enough it might be stronger without you saying ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’ so instead of seeking stardom find local people to tell the story for you.
- Write for others. Of the many articles I’ve written I’ve only ever been paid once to write for another website, in all other cases I’ve done it for free. The opportunities for payment are few, but if you would like to develop this as a route to earnings you could set yourself up as a copywriter in the travel industry. Make it clear on your website that you offer copywriting services and be specific about your areas of interest, you never know, someone might approach you if they’ve seen your name pop up here and there. Check CopyPress, it’s a matchmaking site that works with writers and clients. All assignments are paid for and you can choose which assignments to take.
Good luck with your travel writing. Get in touch with the British Library if you missed this event and would like them to run another travel writing study day – it was well organised, well worth the £50 fee, and great fun.
* Shobha George – travel writer who runs several niche websites including JustGoPlaces, @justgo_places1. Eric Martin – travel entrepreneur, co-creator of on-line travel hub Black & Abroad, @blackandabroad. Susan Grossman – journalist, broadcaster, editor, media trainer and mentor, @wordsallowed. Jane Dunford – travel editor of The Guardian and a freelance writer and editor, @Jane_Dunford. Emily Yates – an accessibility consultant, travel writer and TV presenter, @EmilyRYates. Sarah Lee – founder and editor of luxury travel blog LiveShareTravel, @LiveShareTravel.
Image credits: British Library for interior shot of the study day, others via Pixabay.