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Travel Writing: 6 Tips To Make It Better - Sybil Baker

Travel Writing: 6 Tips To Make It Better

Sybil Baker

Why Your Own Experience May Not Be Enough

When I first moved to South Korea to teach English in 1995 (those were pre-internet days), I would write long letters home to my parents detailing the mystifying and fascinating world of "exotic" Asia. My parents would share those letters with friends or other relatives, and invariably people would say that I should write a book about my experiences living abroad.

Conceptually, that was good advice, but practically, I was not sure what I had to say that was different from all the other English teachers in Korea. A year later, when I started traveling to other exotic locales like Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, Indonesia, and Myanmar, I still was not convinced that I had much to say that would be of interest to anyone beyond my immediate circle of family and friends. After all, who would want to read yet another tourist's impression of Angkor Wat? I think I was right to question that. Fifteen years later, after living abroad for twelve years before returning to the States in 1997, I think I still am.

Tell A Story That Leads To Discovery

Writing about your personal travel experiences, as revelatory as they are to you, does not necessarily mean they will be interesting to people who do not know you. What makes a good essay or story is what makes books like Eat, Pray, Love and Three Cups of Tea more than travelogues – they focus on a person's own journey that happens to take place on foreign soil. They tell a story that emotionally engages the reader from the beginning, a story that transcends the exotic locale the writer happens to be in.

I have written essays about living abroad that have been published (one even won Seoul's annual essay contest), but those travel essays also focused on a personal issue or struggle that occurred within the context of place. One was about my relationship to my father, who fought in the Korean War; another was about traveling alone for the first time, after my divorce. My novel The Life Plan (Casperian Books, 2009) takes place in Thailand, but the story is about a woman's attempt to save her crumbling marriage. In my linked collection Talismans (C&R Press, December 2010), half of the stories take place in Asia, but the focus is on the main character's attempt to understand her father's abandonment of her when she was a child. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, I first ask myself, what story am I trying to tell, and why would people be interested in it?

Dig Deeper

I do believe that anyone who lives or travels abroad has material for an essay or fiction piece. However, that material is rarely the writer's immediate reaction to the place, which is probably similar to most tourists or expats. An essay or a story about an American who is shocked by the poverty of a certain country and then inspired by the beauty and generosity of the people living in it is inspiring to the writer, but unfortunately a cliché for the reader. Those observations are great to share with family and friends, but if you want to write something for a broader audience you will have to dig deeper.

The writer should allow some time and reflection before writing about the place she's been to. The piece should tell a story we have not heard before. Is there an inner journey or struggle that the narrator is working through? Can the writer do more research about the place she is visiting and instead write a piece that illuminates more about the people or culture than might meet the eye? What is the particular story that the writer has to tell that would be of interest to others? Remember that you are telling a story of discovery for the reader, not just the writer.

Remember The Basic Writing Rules

As with all writing, you should have a basic command of the foundations of strong writing. Write clearly. Avoid clichés. Use fresh images and evocative details. Use strong verbs. Being a traveler or an expat does not automatically make you a writer. You may have wonderful stories and experiences, but you must still learn the writing craft if you want to appeal to an audience broader than your immediate family and friends. You might need to join a writer's group or read some books on writing.

Read And Submit

Finally, the most important way to learn how to write well is to read other travel fiction and essays. Best American Travel Writing is published yearly with an array of travel essays selected from quality magazines. If you look in the back of the book you can find many places to submit your own work once it's ready. Traveler's Tales publishes a variety of travel books and is another good place to submit your work. One of my essays was published in one of its anthologies titled, A Woman's World Again.

If you are interested in short story and novel writing, I urge you to read as much expatriate fiction as you can. Most literary magazines are open to stories that have international appeal, so you can submit widely. A great website for managing your submissions is Duotrope's digest: you can search for magazines and publishers that are accepting submissions. Make sure that if you do submit, your work is formatted correctly and meets the publishers' guidelines regarding word count or type of work they are interested in.

Travel Writing: A Journey Of Discovery

At its best, travel writing can be a great opportunity for both the writer and the reader to journey to undiscovered places and experience different ways of looking at the world. At its worst, travel writing can succumb to quick generalizations and uninspiring observations that do not offer the reader any new perspectives.
My biggest advice when writing about a place you do not know well is to, one, get to know it, and, two, connect that place with a larger narrative that takes the reader physically and emotionally to places they have never been before. Whether you are writing a blog post, email, or working on a story or essay for publication, remember that travel writing is most effective when it shows us that something is at stake for the writer and the reader, and it offers us a chance to see the world in a way we would never have thought of before.

In Summary: The 6 Tips
1. Remember that just because you had a life-changing experience in a foreign country does not mean that the reader will as well;
2. Make sure that your piece tells a story – whether it is of a personal journey or of the place you are visiting;
No matter how interesting your story is, you still have to write well;
Do not rely on first impressions: research and interview people to gain a fresh perspective;
Read other travel essays, memoirs and fiction to learn from published authors; and
Your writing should offer some type of discovery for the reader.
I wish you all the best with your travel writing!
Sybil Baker
Sybil Baker's linked short story collection, Talismans, was published by C&R Press in December 2010. Her comic novel, The Life Plan, which takes place in Thailand, was published in 2009. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, upstreet, The Writer's Chronicle, and many other journals. She was the Grand Prize winner of the Seoul Essay Contest in 2005. After living in South Korea and traveling extensively for twelve years, she returned with her South African husband to the States in 2007. She is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and she earned her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information please see http://www.sybilbaker.com
January 2011
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