The Quality Quotient: Travel Writing That Matters

Last summer, in the middle of an epic five-week grand tour that took me the equivalent of 1.7 times around the globe, I had the great pleasure of speaking at the TBEX blogger gathering in Dublin, Ireland.

The Irish capital was just as charming as the hype would have it be; every taxi driver seemed to have a streak of James Joyce in him, every pub was poetic, and the Bulmers cider flowed like the River Liffey–but that’s the subject of another post.

What I want to share now are the quintessential tips I offered in the talk I gave at the conference: “The Quality Quotient: Creating Content That Engages and Expands Your Audience.” I’ll do this in three parts.

Every piece of writing, it seems to me, rests on four pillars of engagement: with your subject, with yourself, with your audience, and with your writing. Each of these is essential to the success of a piece.

You have to engage with your subject, to understand its history, character, and heart.

You have to engage with yourself, to understand and mine the deeper connection between you and your chosen subject.

You have to engage with your audience, keeping some sense of their background, knowledge, and interests in mind as you develop your piece and choose what to include and what to leave out.

And you have to engage with your writing, to make it as precise, melodic, and meaningful as possible.

How do I go about trying to achieve this? I think the best way to explicate that is to trace my own journey when I work on a story: before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.

> Part I: Plotting Your Story Before You Go

When I’m setting out to find and shape a story, I begin with a lot of research. Essentially, I ask myself: Where do you want to go and why do you want to go there?

The why is an essential part of this equation; it becomes the vehicle that moves the story along. So I look for things–festivals, spiritual sites, historic sites, beliefs, rituals, wildernesses, legacies, characters–that excite me in a place, things that stand out as potential passion points and connections.

Then I sketch out a skeletal itinerary for the destination, an itinerary that will encompass the history, culture, and attractions that seem to define the place for me.

Of course, there’s an extremely good chance this will change once I get where I’m going, but having an itinerary in mind before I get to a place helps me to maximize my time on the ground–and also gives me the confidence to follow the goddess Serendipity when she suddenly appears to point me in another direction.

“Oh, you’re going to that Everyoneknowsaboutit Festival?” the hotel clerk will say. “That’s actually pretty touristy. Have you heard about the Neverheardofit Festival? That’s also taking place tomorrow and it happens only every five years–and it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Strictly local. Oh yeah, you can catch a bus right outside the hotel.”

Thank you, Serendipity. She appears to me at least once every trip, and I always follow her inspirations–and often get my best stories that way.

Having a skeletal itinerary liberates me to detour from it. I have a sense of what I’m looking for and a sense of where to find it–and when I suddenly discover that there’s apparently an even better place to find the same quality/character I’m looking for, I’m emboldened to spontaneously follow that lead. I know that in the very worst case, I have my original itinerary to fall back on.

Finally, if I can, I try to frame my journey in the context of a quest: I’m going to X in search of Y… Why? This approach lends the story a built-in nice narrative arc, a shape, that can make the experience on the ground and in the writing ultimately much more cohesive and compelling–and a lot less painful.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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  1. Noah Ger
    May 9, 2014, 3:56 am

    Now I understand the value of setting loose milestones: So that you have an excuse to breach them, in my case, for more exciting ones! Thanks Don!

  2. Agata
    April 11, 2014, 6:42 am

    I enjoyed Dublin very much! The TBEX conference was really cool, including the opening party in the Guinness Storehouse. I also brought a precious story on Samuel Beckett and John Minihan.

    Read the full story here. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Andrea Joyce Yancey
    April 9, 2014, 8:02 am

    Very useful. I like the idea of planning loosely before you go.

  4. Christa Thompson
    United States
    February 26, 2014, 10:52 am

    I had the absolute pleasure of being in this session in Dublin. I will be forever grateful to Gary Arndt who instructed me to skip the session I was actually going to attend which, I can’t even remember now. Don, you are a pleasure to learn from. You radiate joy.

    I am so happy that this made it to the internet using world. These are invaluable tips from one of the best travel writers in the business. Thank you for sharing them again. Till next time, happy travels.

  5. Don George
    United States
    February 23, 2014, 1:22 am

    Thanks to all of you for your great comments. Good luck following your travel writing dreams — passion and persistence are key!

  6. Shaun
    February 23, 2014, 1:17 am

    Nice tip. I’m in the middle of a 6 week RTW tour that was carefully planned out well ahead of time. This included activities and articles to write. My only issue is finding time to write them! Anyone have tips there?


  7. Hafidh
    February 10, 2014, 10:00 pm

    Being travel writer is my dream, this post is very nice. thanks

  8. evi
    Jakarta - Indonesia
    February 7, 2014, 9:48 pm

    nice tips!
    Thank you for sharing….it’s really helpful…
    now I know how to start….

  9. Sugar Jones
    Ensenada, BC
    February 7, 2014, 6:34 pm

    I love the idea of farming the writing as a quest. The personal narrative is so appealing. Sometimes, I get more from reading what a writer discovered about him or herself on the journey than the destination itself.

  10. Shelly Rivoli
    SF Bay Area
    January 29, 2014, 10:39 pm

    Thanks, Don! Now traveling with 3 kids, there HAS to be some basic framework before we go, obviously. But it’s also helped up the serendipity quotient for us as well. Gas station attendants recommend great local playgrounds whether we ask or not, hotel clerks offer the best tips on family-friendly restaurants not in the guidebooks, and of course the kids have a way of making you cross paths with good people you might never have met otherwise–with great stories and insights that can completely change things up for your trip. I’ll keep these 4 in mind next time I recount for my readers to help pass them on.

  11. Larissa
    United States
    January 29, 2014, 1:48 am

    I like the idea of pinning down a few sights or experiences that will help frame a sense of a place. It gives you a basis for your reactions when you actually get there. Thanks for the suggestions.

  12. Peggy Coonley/Serendipity Traveler
    January 28, 2014, 7:11 pm

    Serendipity is one of the best tools for travel and travel writing!

  13. Edita N Laurel
    Minneapolis, MN
    January 28, 2014, 4:05 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Really helpful especially for those who are just starting with their travel blogging and/or content writing.

  14. Carl Joe Wright
    January 28, 2014, 7:39 am

    Nice tips on how to write travel blogs. It is useful. Having skeletal frame regarding your topic really helps.