Sunday, June 03, 2007

The 10 Sins of Travel Writing…

Most writing articles talk about what you should do to create great articles. But it’s just as important to know what not to do, as Thomas Swick (editor, South Florida Sun Sentinel) points out in his ‘10 Sins of Travel Writing.’

1. All travel stories sound the same.
To stand out from the crowd, your story must have a personal voice and a point of view. This does not necessarily mean writing in the first person, though that is often the easiest way to achieve these elements. Remember that almost any place you write about has been written about before; your challenge is to find something new and original to say about it. And, since every person is unique, the best way to do this is to examine your own individual reaction to a place. What about it struck you, amused you, depressed you, intrigues you, moved you?

2. They are riddled with clichés.
Avoid the “land of contrasts” school of writing - “best-kept secrets” that “pulsing with.” Again, find a more creative way of saying things.

3. They tell instead of show.
Don’t tell readers the people are friendly; show them this through an anecdote. Likewise, don’t say that city, harbor, etc. is beautiful; describe it in such a way - with well-observed details - that we see that it is.

4. They try to cover too much.
Don’t try to squeeze every aspect of a city or country into your story. Often a well-chosen (and well-described) vignette conveys a better feel for a place than a broad overview.

5. They gush.
Bad writers pick up on all the predictable things and, in hopes of elevating them to a grander status, write noisily about them. Good writers notice the unexpected things and present them calmly, without fuss.

6. They ignore the people.
Doctors are accused of treated diseases, not people. Travel writers suffer from the same cold, clinical approach. If you go anywhere for a story and don’t make contact with at least one local - of you don’t, as Forster said, “connect” - you have failed. For how can you ever hope to understand a place without talking to the people who live there? Dialogue helps a travel story immeasurably, but so few writers include it.

7. They are superficial.
Most travel stories just scratch the surface. It is not enough to describe a place, you must try to understand it and pass on that understanding in your writing.

8. They are humorless.
Travel - the displacement from the familiar to the foreign - is rich in comedy, but rarely do I get a story that makes me laugh.

9. They lack continuity.
A good travel story is more than just a collection of random impressions; it has a definite theme. Decide at the beginning what point you want to get across about the place and then work your impressions around it. Don’t simply write an article, but tell a story. (This is where the people come in handy.)

10. They fail to enchant.
So few of the travel stories written, and published, these days convey any sense of the wonder of travel. They are dry compilations of information relieved, so their authors think, by “cute” leads of unbearable triteness. Yet a travel story, in the right hands can have the narrative flow of a short story, the elegance of poetry, the discursiveness of an essay and the substance of a history lesson.

Note from Liz: Thanks to Thomas Swick to letting me reprint this and also to Shannon Hurst Lane to bringing it to my attention. I‘ll be putting a copy of this on the wall in front of the computer to remind me of travel writing sins to avoid…

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alicia said...

He did a great job, and I'm glad he let you share it with us, too.

As I was reading these, I noticed they can apply (with a little switch here and there) to conducting and writing up interviews. (For me, anyway, and the interviews I do for Revolt.)


It is a great list of tips that can apply to any form of writing...I've put a copy of it on the wall in front of the computer to help me stay on track...

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