Developing a Career as a Travel Writer

three active travel writers

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

In “Expanding Boundaries: Pioneers of Travel Writing,” I took a brief look at the history and some of the pioneers of travel writing — a genre that has allure and an aura of glamor that so many (including myself) find compelling.

Of course, there are writers, active today, who are pioneers of their own, documenting experiences and revelations that are only possible when traveling to new places and experiencing new people and cultures. If you are interested in learning more about your own humble place in the universe through travel and travel writing, you’ll benefit from the insights of the three veteran travel writers highlighted here.

Sam Manicom: Into Africa

As a novice motorcyclist, Sam Manicom set out on a cross-Africa tour — described in Into Africa: Every Day an Adventure — during which he encountered a daunting array of obstacles and extreme incidents that would have turned many others away early on.

Since self-publishing that book in 2011, Manicom has penned a series of travelogues, met Birgit (his long-term partner) while on one of his journeys, and expanded his adventures to every continent (except Antarctica — ice and motorcycling don’t mix well). He’s a well-known figure at conferences and motorcycle travel events and is very open about sharing his knowledge and experiences with others.

travel writer Sam Manicom next to his motorcycle
Learn about Sam Manicom’s travels at Adventure Motorcycle Travel Books.

“They say, ‘never do something if you don’t have passion for it,'” Manicom told me. “They also say, ‘only write about the things you know well.’ Well, that’s boxes one and two ticked.

“The magic of travel writing comes from a mix of key factors,” he continues. “The writing must be entertaining, informative, humorous — where relevant — and always real. Put your reader there with you in the scene you are describing and there’s a chance of success.

“Another key to success is knowing who the likely readers are,” Manicom adds. “Write for them. Preferably, you’ll identify several groups of potential readers.

“Finally, enjoy the writing. This is a sharing exercise and can be amazingly good fun. Each book is a new adventure, so be aware that you’ll have down moments and route changes, but flexibility is where the fun begins and your storytelling unfolds.”

If you make progress and succeed in writing a travel book, at some point you’ll need to make that serious decision that all writers face. “One of the hardest parts of making a book happen is the decision between chasing for a publishing house’s attention or choosing to self-publish.” (Manicom has self-published all his works — and narrated his own audiobooks as well.)

“The other hard part for most aspiring authors is the promotional work. But that can be a new adventure as well, if you accept it.”

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Carla King: The inner journey

Carla King has taken bold motorcycle trips on unproven bikes, trusting on the mechanical expertise she picked up at a very young age to find her way out of difficult situations.

“My niche as a solo female motorcycle adventure traveler specializing on riding unreliable indigenous motorcycles around the world was my entrée into travel writing. I wasn’t so great at craft in the beginning, but my stories were compelling enough that editors were willing to work with me.

travel writer Carla King on her motorcycle
Enjoy stories from Carla King’s upcoming book, The China Road Motorcycle Diaries, by subscribing to her news at CarlaKing.com.

“The best travel writing,” King continues, “is as much about the inner journey as it is about the road trip. Stories that reveal what you make of what’s happening are much more popular than service pieces. So, take your passion on the road, whether it’s motorcycling or gluten-free cuisine or musical temples or whatever thing you love and want to talk about for decades to come.

“Bringing the credibility of passion and expertise to your writing — and sticking to it — is critical to getting the attention of both readers and editors,” she advises. “Once you’ve honed your craft and become known as a writer within your niche, you can branch out from there.

“My stories always include a lot what we call ‘helmet time’ in the motorcycle world, with flashbacks and backstories that reveal the inner journey and connect the reader to what is happening on a personal level.

“Oftentimes,” King adds, “the full story of a journey cannot be processed until years — even decades — later, and perhaps not even until the death of a loved one. When my former partner passed away last year, I was surprised about how much it freed me to include the theme of how our struggling relationship affected my long solo journey in China. I just started writing about it again and a flood of memories and emotions resurfaced. It’s now a much more honest book that I know will speak to many more readers.”

Erin Van Rheenen: The power of place

Erin Van Rheenen writes fiction and nonfiction that explores family dynamics, cultural differences, and the power of place. Her work has been anthologized and published in Atlas Obscura, BBC Travel, The Sun, and Best Women’s Travel Writing, and she’s preparing to publish a new novel set in Costa Rica. She’s also a science writer, an editor, and a teacher.

travel writer Erin Van Rheenen
Learn about Van Rheenen’s travels at ErinVanRheenen.com.

“I didn’t set out to be a travel writer,” she explains. “I was drawn to fiction and poetry, places of pure imagery and imagination. But while living in Ecuador, I wrote a letter to my boyfriend’s mother about a group of remarkable local artists who lived high in the Andes, painting with car enamel on sheepskin. My boyfriend’s mom wrote for the Arizona Daily Star, and she encouraged me to write an article about these painters. When I sent her the piece, she wielded a heavy editorial hand, adding terms like ‘lush,’ ‘breathtaking,’ and ‘off the beaten track,’ which I would later recognize as travel-writing clichés.”

“Lest people think I lucked into travel writing, it would be over a decade before I published my next travel piece. What got me going again was being hired as an editor at Avalon Travel Publishing, which had just swallowed several small travel presses: John Muir Publications, Foghorn Outdoors, and Moon Handbooks. I learned an enormous amount about the travel-writing ecosystem by working at a travel publisher. When I became series editor of Moon Handbooks, I also learned that I most definitely didn’t want to write one of those guides. They were a massive amount of work and jammed full of perishable information — like hours and prices — which would change even before the book hit the shelves.

“Also, I was a fan of long stays in low-rent places, like Ecuador, where I spent two years. My next assignment as an editor was perfect for me: to rethink a John Muir Publications series giving advice about moving to places like Mexico and France. I rethought the series to match what I, as a relocator, would want to know, then realized it would be more fun to write one of these books than to edit it.

“I pitched Living Abroad in Costa Rica (a place I’d never been, though I’d traveled extensively in Central and South America). They said yes. After all, I’d designed the template for the series! I left the desk behind and hit the road. I would be away for years. Researching and writing that 440-page guide to Costa Rica almost killed me and took a big chunk out of my savings. But the book gave me a kind of legitimacy and a niche that would serve me well as I tried for other assignments.”

Van Rheenen offers these three lessons learned from her circuitous journey to becoming a travel writer:

  1. Welcome serendipity, but don’t rely on it.
  2. Know your industry.
  3. Invent things you want to be a part of.

“Oh,” she adds, “and don’t expect to make much money.”

A travel writer’s responsibility

Van Rheenen believes writers have a unique responsibility to the places they write about. In an interview posted on her blog, she says:

I have mixed feeling about being an agent of bringing more people to Costa Rica. The way I handle those mixed feelings is to be aware of our impact in developing countries, and to not be your typical ugly American, but to be an American who has done her homework and understands the place of our country of origin in the larger world — the effect we’ve had on other countries, other people.

Most of the movement around the world, of course, is people crossing borders because they are feeling economic or political pressure or fleeing environmental disaster. I’m in a very privileged position to choose to move someplace else.

Find community

“There was no internet when I started taking my writing seriously,” Van Rheenen muses. “I enrolled in an MFA program, looking for a community I never quite found. Nowadays, the opportunities for writing community have exploded, especially online. As an introvert, I was slow in taking up that challenge, and when I did, I was often disappointed. Online groups imploded because of gatekeeping or politics. A Zoom writing class left me feeling alienated and unseen. The members of a small writing group had wildly different skill levels and expectations for the group.

“But I persevered. Video conferencing allowed me to study with teachers who lived and worked thousands of miles away. I lowered my expectations for online groups, trying to keep my own contributions positive. And I found a great group of writers who support each other.

“You can really improve your writing by sharing it with people you trust and listening to their feedback. It’s also imperative that you develop your own skills in giving useful feedback. I think of my literary life as an ecosystem in which I play different roles at different times: editor, writer, promoter (of other people’s work, and my own), submitter (of my work to agents and editors), student, and teacher.”

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