Today FZ readers are in for a real treat–insider advice from a seasoned travel editor–Celeste Heiter. Find out how to get published, what travel editors are looking for and get some advice on polishing your prose. Thanks to Celeste for crafting this piece specifically for FZ readers! – Catherine L. Tully
A Travel Guide Editor’s Inside Tips for Writing a Great Travel Essay
By Celeste Heiter
Having just finished editing the manuscript for To Japan With Love, A Connoisseur’s Guide, a travel anthology that features more than sixty contributors (including your Freelance-Zone hosts Catherine Tully and Joe Wallace), I have much to say on the subject of writing a travel essay.
In seeking contributors for To Japan With Love, I received nearly 200 essays, but only about half of them made it into the book. And while some were real gems and were nearly perfect upon submission, throughout the selection process, I also had some hard choices to make, with the most common eliminator being: What’s the point of this essay? What does it offer the reader? And in many cases, the answer, sadly, was: Nothing. Although I was more than willing to work with contributing writers in developing essays that had great potential, and I even did the rewrites myself on some of them, in many cases (to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein), “there was no there there.” Some essays simply lacked purpose.
Others, while technically well written, were far too linear. “First we went here and saw this. Next we went there and did that. Then we went home.” Some stories lacked focus, and instead included every detail of the writer’s travel itinerary and little else. And some failed to follow editorial guidelines. They were too long, too short, too encyclopedic, or they were off topic; and some were even downright negative in tone and perspective.
Good travel writing comes naturally to some writers, however, for those who don’t have ‘the gift’, I also believe that there is a basic formula that will turn a lackluster travel essay into something truly worth reading. Here’s how:
When writing a travel essay, ask yourself the following questions:
· Is my topic relevant?
· Does my essay have a sense of purpose?
· Does it have an engaging beginning?
· Is it written in an entertaining narrative style?
· Did I include vivid sensory detail?
· Does my essay offer my readers informative historical and cultural background?
· Does it have a coherent thread of thematic continuity from start to finish?
· Did I offer my thoughts and insights along the way?
· Did I (and therefore my readers) learn anything worthwhile from the experience?
· Does my essay evoke a strong emotion?
· Does it have a satisfying conclusion?
If you can answer YES to all of these questions, then your travel essay is sure to be a winner.
In addition to the basic components, there are three extra elements that will ensure that yours is a winning essay:
· A Strong Title: Much like the opening paragraph, a strong title is a powerful tool for drawing readers into your story. Often a title will spring spontaneously to mind. However, if you’re stuck for a good one, look within the text of your story for a clever play on words or an enigmatic phrase to catch the eye.
· Photos & Captions: What makes a great travel story even better? Great photographs. If you took pictures on your trip, by all means, include them. But before submitting, be sure to save them in the proper size and format, and name and number them in sequential order. And if you submit a collection of photographs, be sure to include a corresponding list of captions.
· Websites and URLs: If your story refers to Internet resources, or would be enhanced by a related link, be sure to include websites and URLs wherever appropriate.
No matter how good your travel essay may be, it still may not make the editorial grade. While I as an editor was willing to overlook certain technical flaws for the sake of colorful style and compelling content, and often made the necessary corrections myself, not every editor is quite so forgiving. In many cases, carelessness and lack of attention to detail may be grounds for rejection. So before you submit an essay for publication, make sure you attend to these essentials:
· Proofread – Before submitting your story, put it away overnight to give your eyes and your brain a rest. Reread it again the next day for style, clarity, and errors such as omitted words or incomplete sentences.
· Spell Check – Nearly every word processing program has a spell check feature to help you spot obvious errors. However, you should also check for other common errors that the spell check tool may miss, such as you’re/your, its/it’s, and form/from. These kinds of errors are easily overlooked, so check twice for them.
· Grammar Check – Chances are, your word processing program also has a grammar check feature that will help with corrections in basic grammatical structure and punctuation. However, be advised that this tool is not foolproof and will often suggest awkward alternatives that are neither appropriate nor correct. Use it, but with caution.
· Fact Check – Did you use reliable sources? Did you get your facts straight? Did you double-check your historical data? Did you include the names of all the places in detail? Are they spelled correctly? Are the trains, buses, roads and highways you mentioned in your essay correct? Accurate information is the key to the credibility of your story and well worth a second look just to be sure.
· References & Footnotes – A good journalist always gives credit where credit is due. Be sure to cite any books, websites, individuals or agencies that provided background information or content for your story.
Celeste Heiter is the editor of To Japan With Love, part of the eight-country series To Asia With Love, published by ThingsAsian Press. Celeste is also the author of five other books available on Amazon.com, and she writes a daily Asian food and film blog at ChopstickCinema.com.