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.
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.
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 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.