How I Became a Paid Travel Writer

Jul 25, 2013    /    my location-independent career

Photo by Ed Dorsett of Dorsett Photography and Wicked Fotos.

A few years ago in Denver, before I published my book, I went to an event at the largest of our local booksellers.

There was a man there speaking about all the new books coming out from one of the publishers. Since he worked for a big publisher, I assumed that he read a whole lot of books, both the ones that made it big and the ones that didn’t. And I was hoping he’d give me some food for thought, some path I could take to make my own work better. So I asked him my burning question:

What do bestsellers have in common?

“Good writing,” he said.

And, instead of excited or ready to take on the world, I walked away annoyed.

Because anyone who has studied writing knows that modern-day bestsellers are not necessarily the most well-written books on the shelves. In fact, sometimes the writing is downright atrocious.

I mean, come on: 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Di Vinci Code, Marley and Me…whether you like these books or not, the actual writing ranges from not stellar to downright horrifying.

So, no, the answer isn’t good writing.

But my conversation with him and my subsequent refusal to accept his answer made me think.

What is the common denominator? How do things become runaway successes?

I thought about the bestsellers I love (the Eat, Pray, Loves and Harry Potters of the world) and the bestsellers that I hate. I asked myself what these all have in common.

And the answer was story.

Not grammar or writing, style or poeticism. Story.

Because whether or not I think Marley and Me is poorly written, I must concede that it is a beautiful story. Even if the writing in The Di Vinci Code isn’t my favorite, I totally get the appeal – the intriguing, fascinating, wild, and compelling story.

Of course, not every great story makes it. These stories all had the additional benefit of great marketing, large publishers, etc. But, if you look at all the books with exceptional marketing and word of mouth, I think you’ll find that those that rise to the top are the ones whose stories resonate with people (for better or worse).

Which brings me to my own journey.

*  *  *

During my teenage years, I wrote all the time. I published poems and fiction on story websites, encouraging strangers to leave me feedback. I wrote tips for volunteer travel on a small website I built myself (this was after my first few volunteer trips to Australia and Africa). And then I took a leap: I started writing pitch letters to magazines.

They all came back with rejections.

Since I was far from supporting myself anyway and writing for a small online audience for free was far more rewarding, I gave up on magazines and focused my efforts online.

I didn’t feel any worse about my writing, but I did get the idea that magazines were a saturated market and breaking into writing for one didn’t seem worth the trouble.

*  *  *

Fast-forward to this year.

Even though I’ve been writing for a living for years, I’d never again queried a magazine. When friends talked about having their stories published in National Geographic or some other big pub, I basically thought they (my friends) must be made of magic. So minuscule was the chance of getting a foot in the door.

After a couple years as a full-time freelancer, though, my desire to tell travel stories – not just brand stories – started to grow beyond the bounds of this blog. And I asked myself, as I so often do, why not try?

Why not try to get something published in print? Why not try to make my living a mixture of brand writing and creative writing?

After all, I’d been a successful copywriter and content strategist for years. I understood writing, editors, deadlines, structure, and selling. And I’d been writing paid pieces for online publications both in the content world and the travel world.

So why not pitch a magazine story?

Worst case scenario: I waste an hour or two of my life. Big deal.

*  *  *

For my first travel pitch, I chose International Living Magazine because their focus is so well-aligned with mine. They’re all about practical advice, living abroad, and having a wonderful quality of life. They’re targeted at people who want to live abroad, not just short-term travelers. And I like their style.

So here’s where I bring this blog post back around to the beginning. My theory – that writing succeeds not simply because it is good writing, but because it has a powerful story – was put to the test. I pitched an article about traveling or moving to Europe with a dog.

The story here – that you can live your travel dream without leaving your best friend in the dust – is a compelling one for many people. Because we just can’t imagine life without our fuzzy companions. It’s also something that not many people are doing yet, so the whole idea feels new and intriguing.

*  *  *

I think you already know how this story ends.

International Living accepted my story and published it in May. And I’m writing three more articles for them as we speak.

So here are my thoughts, new to magazine writing though I may be, for anyone who might be thinking of doing a little story submitting of your own:

Yes, you should work on your craft. Yes, you should care about words and communication and the art of writing. But. BUT. That’s not  enough. You also need to have a story.

Sure, there are plenty of “the top 10 things to do in Brussels” articles out there. But how many of those are truly remarkable? How many of those allow you to wedge your foot in the door of travel writing and make a name for yourself?

Great writing, truly great writing that gets you in the door, leaves readers speechless, and, well, sells – that kind of writing always has both story and personality.

So you want to be a writer? Do something remarkable, unusual, wonderful.

Tell a universal story. Tell a unique story. Tell a sad story.

Always tell a story.

 

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17 Comments
  • Rhonda
    July 25, 2013

    I love this post. I agree that the story is what makes or breaks it. I loved Marley & Me and the Da Vinci code… not because of the quality of writing but because I was drawn into the storyline.
    Rhonda recently posted…Finding Beauty in SimplicityMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 25, 2013

      Thanks!

  • Beverly Elaine
    July 25, 2013

    As a firm believer in the law of attraction, I have to tell you your timing could not be better. Thanks for being an instrument of inspiration!!
    Beverly Elaine recently posted…Italy as Eye CandyMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 25, 2013

      Excellent!

  • Dave
    July 25, 2013

    I couldn’t agree with you more! When we allow ourselves to not only tell a story, but also get immersed in that story (whether it’s one of our own or one of our imagination), we are able to express emotions which make the story come to life. Yes, we may become vulnerable, but we also express our true selves and those are the stories that are most compelling and interesting. Thank you for sharing your story. It sells quite well ;-)
    Dave recently posted…Chasing dreamsMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 25, 2013

      Thanks, Dave!

  • Victoria Virgo
    July 26, 2013

    Hello Gigi (love the name),

    I discovered your blog while twitter surfing. I definitely believe that authors become bestsellers because of the stories they weave. I can not tell you how many books I have tried to read just because people went on about the excellent use of wordplay, structure, language and hidden meanings in the themes of the book. WTF??

    I want to read books that inspire, that provide a little escapism from the day to day grind, something that will make me laugh, cry and have me on the edge of my seat.

    Congratulations on pitching your story to the mags about your dog – great hook. I look forward to snooping around your blog some more :)

    • gigigriffis
      July 26, 2013

      Thanks, Victoria! Welcome!

  • Nathan
    July 27, 2013

    Hey Gigi, I think the first big disappointment I suffered as both a voracious reader and a budding writer happened years ago, when I realized that good stories are not always well written. I’m glad you weathered the rejections and finally got the opportunity to travel and get paid to do it! Cheers!
    Nathan recently posted…The Sweet Taste of Azucar Bakery in San DiegoMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 28, 2013

      Thanks!

  • Sally
    July 30, 2013

    Thank you thank you for this article!!! I’ve had major block for ages because I’ve been so worried that my writing is not good enough but I know I’ve got great stories to tell… I’m just gonna tell them now! Thanks for the reminder…oh and maybe one day I’ll pitch to a magazine too…

    • gigigriffis
      July 30, 2013

      Excellent! I’m so glad it was helpful. Sending good wishes your way for your own magazine pitching!

  • NC
    August 3, 2013

    While I understand your point, I feel like I missed something. The title of your entry is “How I Became a Paid Travel Writer”. You talk about early rejection and then deciding to continue focusing on online. Then you “fast forward”, and your first sentence begins, “Even though I’ve been writing for a living for years…” Huh? How did you go from writing for free online to writing for a living for years? Isn’t that the point of this entry?

    • gigigriffis
      August 4, 2013

      Hi NC,

      I’ve been making a living as a copywriter/content writer/web writer for years, but I’d never published a travel piece in print. So this was really about how I became a paid travel writer (my long-time dream), not a paid writer in general. Sorry for the confusion!

      If you’re looking for some info on how to break into copywriting/content strategy/etc., I wrote a series of posts on the topic here: http://www.content-for-good.com/2013/07/16/how-to-break-into-a-content-career/.

  • Lucy
    March 12, 2014

    This is such a great post and such a valid point to so many people. I have a handful of friends who have been on holiday, told their stories and had a few chuckles and decided that they are going to be the next great travel writers. I admire and love their goals, but I feel a great deal of sadness every time we sit and they say “But why aren’t people reading my stories?”.
    For me, I think it’s because they’re writing not for themselves, but in the hope that they’ll be discovered and published in every magazine. I tell them, keep writing until you are only writing for you, for the love of it. And just like you, perseverance and tenacity may just get them somewhere.
    Thank you for writing such a great post.
    Lucy recently posted…The C Word.My Profile

    • gigigriffis
      March 12, 2014

      Thanks!

  • Maria
    September 10, 2014

    I find it hard to write about anything but me and I am told this is wrong. I am told no one wants to hear your story they want practical things. But, I have a story and god its dying to come out and at the same time I am horrible with organization. I write as I think- complete stream of consciousness and it is apparently wrong. I know no other way.

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