Monday, 10 November 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Words

On Saturday I taught my last travel writing course at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne's southeastern suburbs. It's been an interesting course to both devise and teach, and I've learned plenty from it myself.

Having to think about how travel writing works - and how to convey that to would-be travel writers - has reminded me how different travel writing is from other forms of journalism.

How so? For one thing, travel articles are often written in first person: "I" rather than "he, she, they". They're also frequently written in the present tense.

The advantage of both these approaches, especially when combined, is an immediacy to the text. The reader is placed in the writer's shoes, experiencing his/her viewpoint as if the events are happening how.

The first person approach also allows the writer to share specific events that befell him/her while travelling: the conversation with a local on the ferry, the taste of a fine meal, the unsteady first attempts at the local language.

Of course, all this counts for naught if the writer can't convey these experiences in an interesting, lively, engaging way. If, to quote a former travel editor I once knew, the article reads like a glossy travel brochure or an account of "What I did on my summer holiday", then it's just not right.

Ever wondered whether you could take a stab at the fine old art of travel writing? Here's a few short tips to start you on your way:
  1. Observe. You can't relay your experiences to an audience if you don't pay attention to them yourself. Look at the new people, places, buildings, landscapes that you encounter, and be curious about them all. Why is this food popular? Why do people wear those clothes? Why is that style of architecture so common?
  2. Note. Every day without fail, write a travel journal entry for the events of that day. Put in as much detail as possible, down to comments you overheard or quirky interactions that happened on the street. You'll be amazed how well these preserve your details of the trip, and how much life they can add to travel articles (or even postcards or blogs!).
  3. Photograph. A picture reputedly tells a thousand words. That may or my not be true, but it will certainly prompt a flood of memories for years to come. Images also improve the chances of selling a travel article, as presenting an editor with matching words and pictures makes his/her life easier. And the pix earn extra dollars.
  4. Write to a Structure. Whether you're attempting to create a travel article, a blog entry, a postcard scrawl or one of those annoying travelogue emails to bother your colleagues back home, give some thought to structuring the piece. Don't just witter on about every event from sunrise to sunset - write about what was most memorable, most emblematic, about the place. You don't even have to start at the beginning; maybe the most interesting thing happened halfway through your stay.
However you write about your travels, you'll find that it's a great way of fixing the memories of your trip in your mind, and bringing to the forefront what was most memorable about it. Remember, the journey of a thousand words begins with a single keystroke...