Most travel writing is the worst stuff on the interwebs, even worse than anything released by The Killers. Unfortunately, parental controls won’t block most travel stories, so your brains have to process some of dullest and most whitewashed content on the internet. Readers click on a travel story, hoping to be taken off to a world of magic and adventure, but instead they’re left bobbing their heads and wiping the drool off their bottom lips. If your threshold for pain is incredibly high and don’t just click the “Back Button,” you are required to wade through yet another assault of writing cliches and surface level drivel that make up what amounts to just another long-form travel brochure.
The purpose of the post isn’t just to be a self-important, pretentious asshole about it–I’m far from a polished writer. But I know there are a lot of really great writers out there and unfortunately, many of them are wasting away under unimaginative, click-bait driven editors, or they have given up entirely by refusing to compromise their values.
How can good writers make a living, while telling unique and compelling stories that real people want to read? The reasons why travel writing is so jacked could fill the hole between the ears of Kim Kardashian. Instead of going through everything that is wrong, let’s just focus on three main issues: inked/digitized narcissism, writing with predetermined agendas and a system of poor incentives.
Thomas Swick gets right to the chewy nougat center:
To serve their purposes, without appearing too utilitarian, newspapers have created a standard type of travel story that is generally about a person who goes to a place — as opposed to being about a place — often with a spouse or companion. In this genre, a variation on the phrase “my husband, Ken, and I,” is pretty much de rigueur by at least the third paragraph. These two prim sojourners invariably stay in good hotels (“elegant” if in a city, “rustic” in the country), and eat in fine restaurants, savoring the “succulent regional cuisine.” They visit the museums and other sights, which allows for the inclusion of pertinent historical facts, as well as helpful touristic information. “The following two days were packed with visits to Neapolis, the Greek theater, and the Latomia del Paradiso (an ancient quarry, now overgrown), never leaving us time to use the hotel’s inviting private beach” (from a New York Times story by Ken’s wife, last September). The author may express to his or her companion admiration for ancient skills or practices, which, it is sometimes added, are sadly lacking today. They stroll cobblestone streets, palm-fringed beaches, hedgerowed lanes, patchwork fields (pick your picturesqueness); they drift blissfully through a “land of contrasts.” Though sometimes baffled by strange money or foreign telephones, they are never in any danger. They leave enchanted and refreshed — though rarely moved or permanently altered — frequently vowing to return some day. It is the travel story’s equivalent of living happily ever after, and it leaves a reader with the sense that something is missing in this fairy tale.
Any reader is asking themselves, usually subconsciously, “Why is this person telling me this story?” And the current travel writer is usually, subconsciously, telling the reader that the purpose of their story is very little beyond demonstrating how cool and great they are. It is like reading a passive aggressive selfie.
“Look where I am and what I’m doing! I hope you enjoy reading this while sitting at a desk with 14 other people before having to get on the train and commuting 2 hours back to your home where you go back and watch Housewives of Turkmenistan while eating frozen fishsticks. Also, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram where you can see tons of pictures of my amazing self standing in front of really cool shit.”
This is precisely the reason why no one wants to see your vacation photos. No one wanted to see them during the 70’s and 80’s on dad’s slide projectors and no one wants to see them now on your iPhone. You really aren’t that interesting. Unless, of course, you’re really hot and post selfies in your bikini. Then you’ll have 2 million followers on Instagram and sponsors will pay you money to post their shit in your feed and send you to even bigger and better places to take more pictures of your glistening skin next to even cooler shit.
For the rest of us who didn’t win the genetic lottery, a good writer is a simply a portal, through which they bring the reader into a moment in a place in time. A great writer has a unique voice with their gaze focused outward, while their heart remains reflective. The balance between this inward reflection, the uniqueness in vulnerability and the outward gaze is where truly magical writing is found.
Next, bad writing starts with an agenda and finishes on that note. In between, the content contains nothing by mere anecdotes, which are nothing more than evidence reenforcing the author’s predetermined conclusions. Usually these anecdotes are expressed on a rhetorical soapbox with a finger-wagged right in the direction of the reader. They heap shame on you for not recognizing something like the newly emerging service pelicans for those with altitude induced onset of flatulent anxiety. You’ll be made to feel guilty for not understanding they need these magnificent companions to fly on commercial flights, especially if they have to pay for an extra checked bag. A link to a gofundme page inevitably follows so you can purge yourself of your guilt.
Lastly, the way that writers are compensated for their stories create roadblocks for writing a good story. This isn’t the fault of writers. Currently, most travel writers are often sent on trips called “familiarization” or “fam” trips. These are fairly structured trips that are put together by tourism boards, destination consultancies, tour operators or other stakeholders who are trying to get people to travel to the places the serve. Good intentions indeed and VERY effective. They hire writers to get the word out.
On it’s face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a lot of places have reputations of being terrible or dangerous and they need to let the traveling public know that this isn’t true. The ebola epidemic in West Africa last year decimated tourism when the risk in East and South Africa was practically non-existent. Hiring writers to come out to write about how things were just fine was necessary to bring tourists back to them.
But, this does come with some baggage. With a lack of diversity in the way that writers can make a living, the travel writer is strongly encouraged to avoid the bad and the ugly. So they only write about the good. After all, other’s with a vested interest in seeing nice clean story have paid for them to go on this trip. The unvarnished truth conflicts with the benefactors supporting their trip. Want to get another one, or be blacklisted forever? Avoid talking about that pack of rats you saw marching out in front of the homeless guys sleeping on the corner is his own feces. Talk instead about how quant the sidewalk is that he’s lying on.
The problem for the reader is that this strips the story of any authenticity. We can tell when we’re being sold something. No, we won’t come to your Mary Kay demonstration. We don’t care for pink cars and our zits can be handled with a blowtorch.
Another problem these fam trips present is that they remove the writer from being an active explorer into a passive participant. Often, the only decision or active role the writer takes is booking their flight to the destination. Once they get there, they are picked up and taken from place to place by their guide(s). They are just there to take photos and recant the day-to-day until the last day when they get on the plane. There’s no real tension or drama and it makes the story really boring. The only insight the writer gets is what is told to him by the guides or people running that trip for them.
The best way for a writer to escape this problem is find ways to earn their living apart from writing their stories. In today’s day and age, finding work that requires nothing more than a computer, internet and a phone is getting easier. So you can make your paycheck on the go, while traveling to place like a real person, instead of a “travel writer.” It is difficult and takes a lot of bravery to take your hard earned pay check, throw down your own money and head out into the world not knowing what is ahead of you with the potential to come back with nothing.
But, isn’t that the point?
We know there are a lot of great writers out there who have broken out of these chains. We plan on publishing more and more of them very soon.