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How I Became a Travel Writer

There’s no formula to becoming a travel writer — especially a freelance travel writer. Everyone arrives at this job by a different path. Whenever I’m at a conference I make a point of asking people how they how they ended up in this line of work. The answers vary widely.

A lot of people email me and ask me how I became a travel writer, so I decided to write this post so that I could just send them a link to it and they’d get a good answer to their question.

This post is not meant to be a guide to becoming a travel writer. It’s just meant to show how I got here.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve also written about my evolution as a writer on my About Me page.

I’ve Always Wanted to Be a Writer

When I was ten years old I wrote my first book — a children’s book about a cat — during summer vacation. In high school I took creative writing and got an ‘A’.

I didn’t want to be a travel writer back then. I wanted to write moving novels about the human condition like Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky.

After high school I enrolled in the University of Victoria’s creative writing program. I made a few friends. We drank a lot, because that’s what writers are supposed to do. We wrote weird experimental prose because that’s what we believed good artists did. We’d show up to class hungover and write poetry on the blackboard before anyone got there.

Nobody was very impressed.

I wrote one extremely dark nonsensical short story on which the instructor wrote the comment, “Pure nihilism does not make a story.”  I burned one poem in front the class while reading it — The Fire Poem.

My teacher didn’t like The Fire Poem, but I still think it was pretty good. The presentation must have biased her.

Since my professors didn’t recognize my natural genius, I switched to the Professional Writing (i.e. journalism) program planning to earn money writing for magazines until I published my first novel.

I’ve managed to accomplish the former, but I’m still working on the latter.

Just Another Starving Writer

After I graduated I moved to Vancouver where I worked various crappy jobs (bartending, tutoring, mowing lawns, planting trees) and wrote in my spare time. I submitted stories to any place that would publish me — and a lot that wouldn’t — usually for little or no pay.

After a year-and-a-half of doing all my writing between 6 and 7 a.m. and barely being able to pay the bills, I made one of the best decisions of my life: I decided to move to Taiwan to teach English

Taiwan and Xpat Magazine

In Taiwan I could English 20 hours per week, make enough pay my student loans, live in a nice apartment, go out on the weekends, and still have a bit of money left over.

To jumpstart my writing career, I decided to use my newfound time and money to start a magazine. I called it Xpat.

Although Xpat would turn out to be quite successful, I’d later learn that it was also a mistake (I’ll get into that a bit later).

I worked about 60 hours a week on Xpat. The learning curve was steep.

I had no budget, so I found young creatives who were looking to build their portfolios and convinced them to help me make a magazine. Since my ‘staff’ was all volunteers, I could never expect everyone to finish their work on time. During the production of any given issue, I was guaranteed to have at least a couple of volunteers go MIA and I’d have to finish their work.

So, I had to learn how to do everything.

I learned Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign and designed about half of the issues myself. I built the magazine’s website in Dreamweaver using the elementary skills I learned in University. I wrote articles, edited everything, and on the weekends I rode my motorcyle to different cities in Taiwan to sell advertising to pay for the magazine to be printed.

My sales pitch was one of the first conversations I learned to have in Mandarin.

Over the next two years I grew Xpat into one of the biggest and best-known all-English magazines in Taiwan.

Then, after three years, I sold it.

Freelancing

Although I gained experience as an editor and learned volumes about running a business, Xpat did little to help me advance my writing career.

I thought that experience as a magazine editor would give me a foot in the door when writing query letters to magazines.

I was wrong.

The only boost my career as a writer received from Xpat was the fact that a few editors in Taiwan knew my name. I had no paying gigs and very few connections to editors, which are the the two most important elements in a freelancer’s career.

Without Xpat, my writing lacked direction. I sent a funny story to McSweeney’s, which they rejected (though I hold to this day that it’s as good as anything on their website).  I wrote a feature about a Taiwanese biker gang for a local news publication.

Although I was getting published, I was not selling nearly enough of my work to earn a living.

I decided that I needed to become an expert in a niche. It’s much easier to convince editors to buy your articles when you’re an expert on something. There were few writers publishing stories about travel in Taiwan, and I knew a lot about the country, so I decided to become a travel writer.

Choosing a topic to focus on was definitely a step in the right direction.

Before long I was writing a column for Transitions Abroad. And, while writing an article for that column I made a discovery that would change my direction as a writer dramatically.

Blogging

The editor at Transitions Abroad suggested that I interview some successful travel bloggers.

At that time I had no idea what blogging was. Like many ‘professional’ writers, I looked down on it. I was amazed to learn when I interviewed Nomadic Matt that he was making more than $3000 each month.  That convinced me to get serious about my own website which, until that point, had simply been a resume and list of links to my published articles.

So, I began writing blog posts semi-regularly and, after about a year, my blog started to bring in money.

In the meantime I also started blogging occasionally for the Huffington Post for exposure.

It was 2010 — the year that I got serious about making money writing. As my desire to earn a full-time living as a writer increased, I realized a couple of thing.

First, I saw that I should have started blogging much earlier. Nomadic Matt started his website around the same time that I started Xpat. If I’d put all the time and money that I put into my magazine into a blog, I would have been much farther ahead.

However, it was too late to start a budget travel blog. There were already dozens of good ones. The niche was full.

Second, I realized that I was very different from other travel writers. I didn’t want to write about exotic foods and luxury hotels. I liked traveling by the seat of my pants, getting lost, riding motorcycles in monsoons, and climbing mountains of bat poo.

One afternoon I typed “adventure travel blog” into Google. A few blogs that belonged to magazines showed up, but there were no independent adventure travel blogs. I decided that would be my niche.

It fit my personality perfectly and it was one of the best things I could have done for my writing career.

Travel Writer 2.0

Remaking my blog as an adventure travel site was a big turning point for me.

I spent a lot of time making it look as professional as possible. I put up carefully crafted writing and photography portfolios. After that, there was a marked difference in the way editors responded to my queries.

Several editors made comments about it. In fact, my first really good assignments came not from people who I had pitched, but from people who had only seen my website.

This website has probably sold more articles for me than all the experience I gained running Xpat, all the hours I spent studying in University, and all of the clips I’ve amassed, combined.

These days, I continue to work on my blog and in hopes of building a large audience that attract a long-term sponsor.

I continue to write for Transitions Abroad, the Huffington Post, Travel + Escape, and write the About.com Snowboarding Guide.

I also continue to pitch and write for magazines — most recently En Voyage (Eva Air’s inflight magazine) and Kootenay Mountain Culture.

I haven’t finished that novel yet, but I will.

 

29 Responses to How I Became a Travel Writer

  1. Micamyx|Senyorita September 25, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Glad to know your ‘transition’ story, Matt! You’ve succeeded as a travel writer, but I am looking forward to reading that novel of yours 😛

    • Matt Gibson September 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      Thanks Mica. I’m looking forward to finally writing it!

  2. Leah Travels September 25, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    I also find it interesting to know how and why people end up in the travel writing genre. To understand where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through to get where you are is a great story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Britany Robinson September 25, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I’m pretty fascinated by the fact that you’ve sold more articles through people finding your blog than through your running your own magazine – a glimmer of hope for a travel blogger trying to elbow my way into a travel writing career. 🙂 Really love the content on your blog and I’m looking forward to your future adventures – and hopefully your novel too!

    • Matt Gibson September 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      To clarify (I don’t want to give anyone false expectations) I haven’t sold a ton of unsolicited articles because people simply found the blog — although two of my best assignments were the result of people reading my blog and offering me work.

      The majority of the articles that I’ve sold, though, were sold because I pitched an editor and the editor was impressed when they visited my website.

      Glad that you enjoyed the article!

      BTW: If you’re serious about getting into travel writing, I’m currently looking for a second intern to help out around the site in exchange for mentoring 😉

  4. sam jones September 26, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    Awesome.. thanks for sharing Matt 🙂

  5. Steve Namo September 26, 2012 at 2:09 am #

    Great post! I enjoy your posts and look forward to someday read your novel! Also as a snowboarder, I can’t wait to read about your Utah ski experiences. I’ve heard they get crazy powder days.

    • Matt Gibson September 26, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      Glad you liked it Steve! You’ll be seeing some sick snowboarding powder photos on here soon. Right now I’m trying to hook up a blogging job that would get me free passes to ALL the hills. Wish me luck!

  6. Bret @ Green Global Travel September 27, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    It was really cool to read your story, Matt. I took a long and winding road to becoming a travel writer myself, starting out in radio, then working for a record company, then becoming a music and entertainment writer before ultimately transitioning into travel. It’s not an easy field to break into by any means, but I’d argue it’s easily among the most rewarding. Thanks for sharing!

    • Matt Gibson September 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

      Yup, it seems like it’s always a crazy journey. I’m hoping to help my interns to take a more direct route. I swear that with some guidance I could have been where I am now five years ago!

      Either way, I’m glad I’m here now!

  7. Name Joe September 27, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Really enjoy reading your posts. I love traveling and writing as well. I handle the travel for Ralph Lauren and work on some photo shoots as well. Start writing that novel soon.

    • Matt Gibson September 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Thanks Joe. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Working on travel and shoots for RL sounds pretty sweet.

  8. Ava Apollo September 29, 2012 at 1:06 am #

    Keep it up, Matt. We’re in the same boat 🙂

    • Matt Gibson October 7, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

      I’ll never quit! You better not either, lady 😉

  9. Abby October 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Always happy to read about other writers’ paths! We all have to stick together. I’m working too much to write a book right now, although I’ve twice tried… It’s a tough process, but I can’t wait to go through it again!

    • Matt Gibson October 7, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      I’m always totally interested to hear how others got where they are. I’m looking forward to seeing your book (eventually)

  10. Jay Dennison October 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    I just got back home from over 10 and a half years abroad. I am now in Peterborough, Ontario Canada, living with my family. It is amazing how great this little town is, and how much I appreciate being here.

    Will I be off and running again? Maybe. But not until after I rediscover home!

    Cheers!

  11. D August 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Wonderful Blog — saw you on television. Wanted to send support from one writer to another.

  12. Matt Gibson August 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Thanks D!

  13. CO September 26, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    thanks for standing up to kim kircher with her “The Trouble With Snowboarding” post back in feb. i’m going on 5 years teaching snowboarding full-time and can’t believe the negativity that still exists towards it

  14. Matt Gibson September 26, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    No problem. I was happy to do it! That was an awful article by Kim!

  15. Jenny July 12, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Hi Matt,
    Nice to met you in Siem Reap:)
    (Thanks for the help of getting that Taiwanese boy out from the hotel room.hah)
    So happy to know you so that I can know/read the posts, really enjoy:)
    I always want to be a travel photographer and I just get so much inspiration from you and your blog,especially this post:)
    Have a good time.

    • Matt Gibson July 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

      It was great to meet you guys too! I wish we could have spent more time together.

      If you ever have any questions about travel photography, just let me know!

      Cheers

  16. Ella February 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm #

    Great story, it really is inspiring! That must have been A LOT of work, starting up Xpat and running it for three years. It is very impressive that you also learnt Manderin..fair play!

    I want to get into photography, just always kick myself, as I was given a lot of opportunity to learn when I was younger, but I guess its better late than never!

  17. Carolyn Albers October 26, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

    I wish I had decided upon a college major, instead of bouncing around & sitting & thinking. I now reside in Montana, teach gardening, defend youth headed to court & long to return to India. A travel writer would have solved the constant wonder lust. Can’t moan, been to Denali MT, unreal at sunrise, (no film left) Or in India where the humidity forced me to buy a junk camera. Memories are forever. The book will jump upon you. Have a few atop my head. I believe the joy leaps when an elder shares their story. i.e. ‘Oh, I just walked around the Himalayas for 22 years barefoot & slept in caves”. Check out the Tibetien singing bowls on you tube. Onward, it’s all a quest to find ourselves. Best Regards. (comment is to you only) shy Carolyn Albers

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