Packing up your writing gear and heading somewhere warm and sunny for vacation? Or just a trip back home?
It doesn’t matter where you’re off to — there will be a story waiting for you. (And plenty of travel writing jobs and outlets to consider sharing your experience with once you’re home.)
Our travels are made up of great stories — ones filled with drama, cultural misunderstandings and frustration, as well as serendipity, joy and transcendence.
5 tips for travel writing
Writing about these stories will not only fulfill your storytelling itch, but also improve your general writing skills. Whether it’s refining your powers of observation or enhancing your ability to reflect on meaningful experiences, writing about your travels can be a masterclass in everything from memoir to nature writing to world-building.
Here are 5 tips for writing a travel essay.
1. State your quest
Every journey is a quest, whether you know it or not.
Ask yourself: How did it start? What are you aiming to do or achieve?
Your quest can be as abstract as ‘find myself’ or as specific as ‘swim in the Atlantic Ocean.’ It can be as monumental as ‘change my life completely’ and as small as ‘replace the glass ring my best friend gave me in 1999.’
This quest doesn’t have to be the ONLY reason you’re going to this new place. It can be part of the reason, or become important once you arrive and spend time in this place.
Think about it: all good travel memoir books and essays have a quest at their center.
In The New Mecca, George Saunders is trying to form his own impressions of Dubai outside of the media’s portrayals of the city.
In Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets, David Farley is after the secret recipe to a dish found only in the Vietnamese town of Hoi An.
We all know that Elizabeth Gilbert has a suite of deep quests in her famous travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love. She wants to move on from the crippling male relationships in her life and find a deeper meaning to her existence.
Once you start writing about your quest, your readers will want to know: does she achieve her quest? Does she get the thing she wants? Keep your reader guessing until the end.
2. Plant a question in the reader’s mind
What’s the difference between a well-read story and a not so well-read story?
The opening. Plant a question for the reader as early in your opening as you can. The question doesn’t have to be life-or-death or profound. It can be very simple.
I suppose I should have warned Rand. (from Pranzo in Italy)
This is a very short and simple opening. But do you want to know more? Of course you do! You want to know what she should have warned Rand about. And who is Rand anyway?
The question needs to provide enough intrigue to keep the reader interested. There’s a fine line between creating curiosity or puzzlement, so don’t aim to befuddle your reader. You must also answer your question at some point in your story.
As soon as you plant a question, the reader is going to be curious about what happens next. It’s simply human nature to want to know the answer. It’s all in the way you phrase the opening.
3. Tell the story of what drew you to this place
What were your impressions of this place before you arrived? Dive deep into your memory to uncover some specific basis for these impressions.
Was it the video game Carmen Sandiego and the sounds of those foreign cities names: Jakarta, Katmandu, Kuala Lumpur? Was it a religious studies class freshman year, where you watched a video about monks in Sri Lanka?
It could be literally anything. Even having no impression is an impression—how did this place slip your radar completely?
You may think this information doesn’t matter. After all, everyone wants to go to a place like Hawaii, don’t they? Sure, it’s a dream trip for many. But what is that dream for YOU? Only you can tell that story.
Writing about your initial impressions of a place and how it met or didn’t meet your expectations will make for a much richer travel story.
4. Tell a small story
Don’t try to write about everything that happened during your summer in Sri Lanka or even your week in Hanoi.
Choose a very small story instead.
For my travel memoir, my story covered the two years I spent in the United Arab Emirates.
Of course, A LOT happened. But each chapter is made up of a small, specific story that illuminates something larger about that two year experience.
Here are some examples of the small stories I told within my book:
- A student who tells me a secret
- The day I yelled at my all-male class
- Visiting the Gold Souk in Dubai with my boyfriend, where he buys me a fake engagement ring
I smoothly connected those stories so that the entire book read as a unified story.
Nothing dangerous or profound needs to happen. These small stories are satisfying because of their small scope and the change that’s revealed at the end.
5. End with a change
Travel changes us. Every time. So how did you change? Did you accomplish your quest?
Whether your answer is a yes or a no, you learned something in the process of trying to achieve it. All travel memoir stories end with some kind of change. It can be huge, or it can be very small. Just a shift in perspective is quite enough to satisfy a reader.
Whether the change is a realization that you actually enjoy traveling by yourself or that you do feel a connection with your grandmother’s village in Sicily, telling and showing the reader your transformation will make your story memorable and worth sharing.
Take these tips with you on your holiday travels. You’ll have something exciting to write about in the new year.
Remember, no one else but you has traveled to this place at this particular time, and had the thoughts and experiences you did.
Share them as precisely and deeply as you can.
We originally published this post in 2016. We updated it in 2019 so it’s more useful and relevant for our readers.
Photo via Jacob Lund /Shutterstock