Writing Travel Stories: A Few Tips

If you’re in that nomadic phase in your life, you might want to consider writing travel stories. After all, you’re already on the road, experiencing life on the go. Might as well document it and get paid for sharing your adventures. And even if you don’t end up selling your content to publications, you could set up a travel blog and share some valuable insights that could help others planning to take the same trip. What things should you keep in mind when putting together tales of travel and exploration?

Show, Don’t Tell

This advice goes for most any writing exercise, but it’s especially important in travel stories, since it’s too easy to fall into the trap of telling when writing places, events and day-to-day interactions — all of which will comprise the bulk of what you’re likely to write about. There are many ways to “show instead of tell.” The following are the most important to keep in mind:

  1. Use dialogue. Conversational exchanges between characters isn’t just for novels and short stories — they work great when used in travel stories. Not only does dialogue allow the reader to feel privy to what’s going on in the scene, but interactions between tourists and locals often end up being an interesting (and, sometimes, humorous) high-point in many travel stories. Dialogue reveals more than information, often helping shed light on elements such as character and mood.
  2. Use sensory language. Choose language that incorporates sensory information. It’s a great way to integrate the full sensory experience without having to outright assign a portion of the text to it, giving them a chance to see, hear, taste, smell and touch what’s going on in a natural way.
  3. Be specific and concrete. Avoid abstract and general language — they end up imparting the same vague and fuzzy qualities to the message you’re communicating. Specific and concrete words, those which refer to objects and events that are easily accessible to the senses, will make any message clearer and easier to understand.
  4. Write descriptively. Don’t just settle for inserting a modifier every few words or so. Instead, be mindful of your word choices, using detailed description and figurative language to paint a picture of scenes and events. You might need to rely on your creative abilities for this, so prepare to sit down and use your imagination.

Make It Personal

When writing travel stories, you’re usually telling your own stories — your experiences and adventures in a foreign land. It’s a first-person account, so there’s no point writing in the second or third person. Of course, you’ll want to weave in facts and description along with the narrative to fill in necessary information, but the heart of the story will always be your personal experiences, feelings and observations about the trip.

Additionally, write in the right tense. Since most travel stories will be written after the fact, use the past tense. The present tense could work, too, if it’s an ongoing thing. Otherwise, take a view looking back — it feels more genuine and accurate that way.

Start Strong

There are many ways to start a story. Most travel stories, though, work great with a short anecdote that introduces the heart and soul of the trip. Unless an opening presents itself, use the anecdotal opener as your default, presenting a short narrative that conveys the general feeling, tone and purpose of your experiences in the new place.

What anecdote to use? Preferably, it’s something that happened during the trip — not on your way to the airport or after coming back home. Things that happen right on the trip tend to be more emotionally-charged, making it more interesting to readers.

Important: make sure the main point of the story (whether it’s a life lesson, a cautionary warning or something else) is integrated into your opener. As with every good piece of writing, the better the reader understands where you’re going, the easier the journey is going to be.

Give Locals A Voice

You know how news features often include colorful and memorable quotes? You want to do the same with your travel story, inserting quotes and soundbites from locals to give your readers a good feel of the kind of people you meet out there. If you can identify the individuals (not just by name, but presenting various aspects of their personality), all the better, as it makes the message more believable and relatable.

Just make sure not to insert quotes for the sake of inserting quotes. Have your quotes serve a purpose, particularly for clarifying some questions that could be lingering in the reader’s mind. Quotes not only aid the readability of your story, it also gives you room to present a snapshot of the people and the culture, as can be gleaned from how they speak.

Write In Your Language

Don’t use slang in the foreign country in your own sentences. Think of them like jargon — sure, you think they make you sound cultured, but all they really accomplish is alienating the reader. If you want to use colorful local slang, use them as part of quotes. What about those few times when the local slang could be central to the feel of the story? Then use them, but introduce the slang properly, such that readers will note their importance early on in the piece.

Double-Check Facts

Many travel stories, especially ones written by novice writers, come with plenty of misinformed facts. Don’t let yours be one of them. Not only is it bad form to present inaccurate information, it shows a lack of respect for the country you just visited and the people you interacted with while there. With the ready availability of official sources of information online, refusing to double-check facts is just lazy.

If You Can Establish A Narrative Thread, Do It

The best travel stories usually include a narrative thread that runs through the length of the piece, allowing readers to easily link the beginning to the middle to the end. If you can establish that, do it. Don’t force one, though, if it’s not available — manufacturing a thread that feels unnatural will just lead to a story that reads in a very awkward way.

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