The Travel Writing Advice You Don’t Want to Hear

March 11, 2013

A big THANK YOU to everyone who took my 2013 survey! It gave me a ton of insight about what you want to learn about, and I’ll be covering your suggested topics in the coming months. (If there’s something you really want to read about this year, it’s not too late to let me know.)

One of the big topics you brought up is travel writing. You want to know how to land travel writing gigs, how to be a better travel writer, and most of all, how to make money as a travel writer.

Image: Life in Mali

Mopti, Mali

Warning: You aren’t going to like what I have to say.

First, let me tell you that I don’t really consider myself a travel writer. Yes, I like to travel, and yes, I write about how to set your life and career up in a way that allows you to travel, and yes, I occasionally tell stories about places and people around the globe.

But writing about travel is no longer my focus, and to be honest, I don’t think it was ever my strength. That’s why, as part of my blog redesign — coming soon! — I’m replacing The Traveling Writer tagline with a phrase that better describes the evolution of my work: Make your own luck in your career & life.

So maybe when you hear — and scream over — what I have to say, you can temper it by telling yourself that I’m not really much of a travel writer anyhow.

The Bad News About Travel Writing

Here’s the main thing I want to share in response to your questions: It’s almost impossible to make a living these days through travel writing.

Why? Because publications simply don’t pay for it anymore. Sure, they pay big-name writers, journalists who have been doing this for years, those who got their start when the media industry was totally different.

But even publications that do pay don’t pay much. You don’t have to look far to recognize that most publications pay little, if at all — partly because so many people are willing to write for free. (I’m not opposed to writing for free; I do it myself sometimes — usually to send traffic to this site — and work with several large blogs that run posts by writers who aren’t paid. But one of the negative consequences of this shift is a decrease in quality.)

So it’s difficult to earn enough to make this your bread ‘n butter. Even if you’re making $50/post as a blogger, which I would say is a decent rate these days, that’s not enough to make a living. Sure, it’s good side gig money, but you’d have to write a ton of $50 posts every month to make your rent. That’s why most freelance writers diversify, mixing in some of those $50 posts with different types of better-paying clients.

Because of these shifts in the media landscape, it’s nearly impossible to make a living solely by selling travel pieces to publications, which is what most of you are probably thinking of when you say you want to be a travel writer.

BUT. There IS some good news in all of this.

Good News About Travel Writing? Do Tell!

While it’s harder than ever to make money as a travel writer THE OLD WAY — solely by writing for publications — it’s easier than ever to make money as a travel writer THE NEW WAY. You just have to change your definition of travel writer.

What’s the new way? It’s being entrepreneurial. Building an online platform. Creating your own career. Diversifying your income stream. And developing a persona of a travel writer, so you can earn some of your money by writing for publications and the rest (possibly the bulk) of your living in other ways.

Maybe those other ways include consulting or selling products or copywriting for clients, some of whom are also in the travel industry. Maybe you figure out another novel way to charge for your skills. You can use those other gigs to subsidize your travel writing — and still call yourself a travel writer — but you’re not depending on your poignant essays about place to pay off your student loans.

How I make my living is a perfect example. Yes, I use my writing and communication skills every day, but barely anyone pays me solely to write. Occasionally I’ll freelance a piece for a magazine — and I love doing that! — but I make far more income by writing in other capacities, both for clients and for YOU.

What I’m saying is, to make a living as a writer, you have to be more than a writer.

How does this blog fit in? It’s the most fulfilling job I have, but no one pays me to write it. No one pays me directly, anyhow. (My blog = your travel writing.) The truth is, this blog helps me sell my guides and courses, it helps me land clients, and it brings all sorts of other opportunities my way — the same as travel writing could do for you.

So that dream of becoming a traditional travel writer, someone who’s paid to fly around the world and write? It probably ain’t gonna happen.

But if you can fly around the world and write AND use that wicked smart brain of yours to figure out how to make money in addition to the scrap you get paid by magazines and blogs, then you’ve managed to make a living doing what you love. Then you’ve WON.

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13 Replies to “The Travel Writing Advice You Don’t Want to Hear”

  • As a travel writer, I couldn’t agree with you more!

  • Stephanie Jaeger says:

    Hi!
    I am glad you have told the truth
    about travel writing. So many people teach
    it and try to get you to think you might make
    some money doing it. I agree travel writing
    doesn’t pay. Even the people teaching
    it and doing it for years can’t make a living
    at it. They make their living teaching it.
    I don’t think it is possible to make a living
    just writing anything anymore unless you
    happen to write something that gets made
    into a movie. Too many people write for
    free now and websites and magazines are
    becoming accustomed to getting free, high
    quality copy for nothing.

  • Sarah says:

    I completely agree with you. I think diversification these days is key. I consider myself a traveler but use my teaching abilities to fund these travels. I hope to say I am a travel writer someday. Working hard at it!

  • SO true, Lexi! I’m happy that I have my blog as a platform my travel writing, but very grateful that I also have other income streams that keep me afloat.

    As you said, the changing world of travel writing isn’t a negative. It’s exciting to be able to travel and write about it, even if it’s not the only way you’re supporting yourself.

    Love this: “Be more than a writer.” And, of course, keep traveling!

  • Joanna Penn says:

    I’ve found that you can make way more money from writing fiction than non-fiction. People EAT fiction 🙂 and once they find an author they like, they buy the back-list. So if you have travel adventures, consider fictionalizing them to create a different product to add to your portfolio of income streams. I have made heavy use of my own travel in my ARKANE thrillers, and now I go on research trips for new books, e.g. Budapest last Nov as a setting for the next book.

  • Very well said. Yes, it’s frustrating that those $4/word, all expenses paid trip around the world jobs no longer exist, but pining over the “good ol’ days” doesn’t do anybody any good. Writers today need to look at themselves as more than just writers – and I think that, in many cases, this leads to more fulfilling outcomes anyways.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • My thought is that this is happening just about in any topic you specialize. Most of the magazines that work with freelancers buy articles from their steady stable of freelancers, and are rejecting new ones. And a lot just get permission from bloggers to reprint (the publication I work for does that).

    I was blogging for a book site at $25 per post, but I was only allowed to write two per week. Plus most blogs want a lot from the writer for such a small amount of money. To make enough money to cover the rent and other bills, you’d have to be writing 24/7. So obviously, we all need to branch out. But I have to say that my writing ambitions have always been to write fiction and what Joanna noted is definitely encouraging.

  • I got regular paid writing assignments for a travel blog but quit because research even in the city where I live took too long. After the novelty of getting paid to write about a restaurant I ate in or a place I visited wore off, I realized it just wasn’t worth it. The tipping point came, though, when they asked me to go out of town but weren’t willing to pay any travel expenses.

  • Mike Bacos says:

    I definitely appreciate the “all too-honest” advice. I was looking at being a travel writer myself, and taking a course at MatadorU to help develop my craft, but it seems that there is a ton of competition wishing to write for NatGeo, Travel and Leisure, or Conde Nast. It seems that in this age, that creating your own space on the internet is the way to go. It is very easy to take initiative on the net; just have to set up your website and create your own content. Of course, it has to be epic, as Corbett Barr would say, since mediocre is just par for the course. But if the opportunities are few and far between nowadays, it’s better to create your own opportunity.

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