Travel Writing: 5 Tips to Set Yourself Apart

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to be a travel writer? What can you do to set yourself apart?

The travel writing industry is booming. However, there are five common traps that travel writers fall into. If you avoid these traps, you will set your writing apart from the rest.

Here are some tips to set yourself apart.

Travel Writing

Travel writing describes a place, the people who live there, and what it’s like to be there. But these features should reveal a deeper truth about the city or its people. What’s special about this place and its people? 

Here are our travel writing tips on what traps to avoid:

1) Switching attitudes: Writers often start by casually telling readers about their experiences in a new place before changing to a more detached travel guide style. Pick one tone, and keep it consistent throughout the piece. 

(Shortform note: To avoid switching attitudes, experts recommend following one narrative thread throughout your travel writing. Doing so will link your piece from beginning to end, creating cohesion. With one main narrative thread, you’ll also be less likely to explore different facts about the place that will cause you to sound like a typical travel guide. For example, in “Heart of Dark Chocolate,” the author begins the piece by describing first tasting Bolivian chocolate and how that compelled him to travel to Bolivia to discover the source of the chocolate. Through this narrative thread, we learn about Bolivia, the rainforest, the cuisine, and the people there.)

2) False novelty: Keep in mind that you are not the first or only person to visit or live in this place. Many people have already visited Paris and described the city’s fashion and the Eiffel Tower—what makes your experience of this place different from everyone else’s?

Write Original Stories by Traveling Without Expectations

To avoid false novelty, you should rethink how you travel, not just how you write about traveling. In his essay “How To Write About Africa,” Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina exposes the hurtful and demeaning common attitudes of travelers who visit Africa. He implies that many travelers go to Africa with an idea of what Africa should be and then write about experiences that confirm those biases, rather than experiencing anything meaningful about Africa. This kind of travel results in travel stories that discuss the same experiences, descriptions, and tourist destinations.
Experts agree with Wainaina’s idea—they find that by expecting certain experiences, travelers may actually be less likely to find authentic, original travel stories or even enjoy their trip for what it is. Instead, focus on learning about this place and its people, rather than supporting existing ideas or expectations about what that place already is or isn’t.

3) Using clichés: Writers often describe busy Middle Eastern “bazaars” and “exotic” safari trips. These are unoriginal, overused descriptions, and Zinsser advises against using them. 

(Shortform note: As you write about your travels, consult this list of common travel clichés to eliminate from your piece, including “a breathtaking view,” “off the beaten path,” and “a blend of old and new.”)

4) Stating the obvious: When describing a new place, writers often state the obvious, such as discussing the desert heat. Heat is a standard characteristic of a desert, so telling the reader this detail is redundant.

(Shortform note: Zinsser doesn’t discuss it here, but stating the obvious is a form of clutter. It creates redundancy and uses more words than necessary. But adding unexpected details does add value, like if there was a random thunderstorm in the desert.)

5) Lacking humanity: Travel writers often describe the things you can do in a city or the typical food there, resulting in a detached and impersonal tone. But these features don’t reveal any deeper truth about the city or its people. What’s special about this place and its people? 

(Shortform note: When thinking about Zinsser’s idea of travel writing as understanding the humanity of a place and its people, consider Erich Fromm’s distinction between looking and seeing to improve your ability to find and write deeper truths about a place and its people. He relates looking to an interest in lifeless, immobile artifacts. But unlike simply looking at something, seeing implies a recognition of the life or humanity in something. Seeing requires embracing your own humanity, openness, and interest in the world. So rather than trying to use your writing as a form of looking, write with the intent to see the life of a place and its people.)

Travel Writing: 5 Tips to Set Yourself Apart

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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