Telling stories

At the risk of going over familiar ground, I want to put down a few thoughts prompted – yet again! – by a post on Jeremy Head’s excellent Travelblather blog, discussing ‘the skillset of the online travel writer‘.

In the comments, Debbie Ferm of Traveldither.com wrote, “Like all web copy, travel writing will need to be more scannable… almost like copywriting.” What a pity if she’s right!

What interests me are people and places. I’m a writer. I care about the travel industry only to the extent of how it impacts on the stories I want to tell. The stuff I’m proud to write – which, not coincidentally, matches the stuff I like to read – is not round-ups or hotel reviews or sponsored puffs. That’s for paying the bills. When I’m a doddery old grandpa, few people may care about my stories of travel, but absolutely nobody will give a monkeys about my opinion of the travel industry in the long-forgotten 2010s.

Newspapers have painted themselves into a corner. By abandoning the journalistic model of paying skilled writers to report on people and places, they turned themselves into mouthpieces for the travel industry, which has funded the creation of travel ‘content’ for years now.

That model is now breaking down, as the travel industry withdraws its funding and cuts back on print advertising. This has left traditional media high and dry: by their parsimony and, some might say, corruption in years gone by, they’ve killed the goose.

Online travel writing is in a different place. Divisions and micro-definitions get boring, but perhaps one is justified here: travel journalism, i.e. round-ups, site reports, reviews, listings, investigations, industry analysis, is different from travel writing, i.e. stories of people and places, features, profiles, cultural insight, long-form creativity.

Both are valid. Thanks to the old media models, the former dominates. It shouldn’t.

And, online, it needn’t. Long-form feature writing about travel matters. It can do things that no other kind of writing can do, and can make connections that might otherwise never be made. Old media nonetheless sold it down the river.

If we accept Debbie’s notion of online travel writing as glorified holiday-brochure copywriting, SEO’d to within an inch of its life, the same thing will happen again.

11 Comments

  1. Annie Bennett

    Couldn’t agree more. Sadly spending more and more time churning out ‘content’, and less on ‘travel writing’. Bit dispiriting, but then again, I’m glad to be busy and making a living, even if it is mainly from ‘travel journalism’.

  2. Jeremy Head

    I agree. BUT I think the key problem with your suggestion here is that web doesn’t encourage long reads. Reading on-screen just isn’t conducive to proper reads rather than quick scans and I can’t see that changing. (Maybe the next generation brought up with Kindles and iPads will disagree with me… )
    I agree totally that there should be a place for ‘proper’ experiential, travel writing, and that newspapers have lost the moral high ground, I don’t think the solution is on-line. I think it will be in a small number of high quality travel magazines… that people will subscribe to. (National Geographic, Wanderlust for example)

  3. Matthew Teller

    Thank you, both!

    Jeremy – you’re right, but as you say tech designers are developing devices to enable long reading. It’s already easy and comfortable to read prose on an iPhone (can vouch for that first-hand), and the iPad will take that further.

    And why are people designing such devices? Because long reading matters! We just happen to be stuck in the gappy couple of decades between the comfort of reading newsprint and the comfort of reading iPad (and its successors). What’s important is that we don’t lose perspective and start thinking the future of travel writing lies in what is being produced now. It doesn’t.

  4. David Whitley

    Very nice distinction between the two. I never know whether to call myself a writer or a journalist. In truth I do best, but I know that the pieces I’m always most proud of usually fall into the writing category. Put simply, I love to tell a story.

    My inkling – and it is only an inkling – is that both journalism-style and writing-style content will flourish on the internet. We should always remember that the web is only in its infancy (or at best, adolescence). Who knows what it will be like when it matures.

    Jeremy Head also pointed me to another post – http://bit.ly/cMfzQT – which gave me great hope. To summarise, recommendation is becoming an increasingly popular way to find things on the web. I think – and certainly hope – that it will only become more. Discovery by recommendation is far more suited to the writing-style pieces that I enjoy reading and creating.

    Let me give an example from two of my own pieces (and sites).

    This piece on how to get to Australia using budget airlines – http://www.australiaflightbargains.com/australia-cheap-flights-guide/can-i-fly-to-australia-using-low-cost-airlines – is classic web fodder. It’s useful, reasonably SEO friendly, and it gets a steady trickle of people coming in via search. It’s not very exciting or inspiring, though, so few people are going to link to it or Tweet it.

    Then take this piece on doing the Bush Mail Run in the Australian Outback – http://www.grumpytraveller.com/articles/bush-mail-run-from-the-australian-outback-town-of-broken-hill-nsw
    It’s a traditional, positively SEO-antagonistic, long piece of travel writing. It’s one that I’m proud to put my name to. And guess what? It gets as much traffic as the drab Aussie flights piece – if not more. And that traffic has come almost entirely from recommendations (including one by National Geographic), retweets, stumbles etc.

    I’m not quite sure how good travel writing will be monetised – I’d guess a combination of subscription, micro-payments and advertising. But I’m fairly hopeful that we’re about to enter an era where it can thrive on the basis of others seeing it, liking it and wanting to share it.

  5. David Whitley

    Ah nuts – lack of proofreading there. That was supposed to say ‘I do both’, not ‘I do best’.

  6. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, David – great response. Now, if only I understood how stumbles work…

    The problem comes in your last para. You may well be hopeful that long-form writing will thrive – but who is going to publish it, in order for it then to be picked up and shared? If old media won’t, and new media follow Debbie’s line from my original post, the only outlets left will be books and perhaps Jeremy’s handful of expensive subscription mags.

    Or will every travel writer – as well as blogging, tweeting and sharing – have to set up their own monetized outlet for publishing their long-form articles, in the hope of picking up recommendations? Life may turn out to be too short for all this…

    And the crucial element lacking – as we’ve discussed before – is professional editing. To be good, writers need editors. Where will they come from?

  7. Mark Hodson

    Hi Matthew, nice stuff, as ever, but could you not splash out $1 for the rights to the stock photo?

  8. Matthew Teller

    Apologies – my mistake. I’ve changed the pic.

  9. Debbie Ferm

    Hi Matthew,

    I cringed a little when I left that comment wondering how people would react. It’s been an interesting discussion. However, I think you may have slightly misunderstood what I was saying.

    I believe you should write for people…always. Optimize what you write, but never just write for search engines.

    There’s definitely still a place for traditional travel writing, but if you are going to use a particular medium, it’s important to understand that medium and the mindset of the people who use it. When people are on the web, their attention span is different than when they are reading a novel. If you want to capture those people, and keep them interested, you need to write for them. The writing is not about you. It is about the audience.

    If you can write stories that are compelling enough, people will read them, google will like them, and everyone wins. I certainly don’t think travel writing needs to read like a brochure, but frankly, some of the wordy, adjective laden travel articles I’ve read seem to be more about the author than the reader.

    Interesting discussion certainly, and it will continue as things shake out. It is my hope that there is room for all kinds of writing, and that it finds its “right people”.

    Thanks for linking to my blog. I appreciate it:)

  10. Matthew Teller

    hi Debbie – thanks so much for dropping by to clarify. I couldn’t agree more: the proliferation of travel sites in the last few years means that there’s a lot more bad stuff out there than before. (It also means it’s easier to access the good stuff!)

    This comes back to issues I’ve blogged about before, concerning professionalism and why editing matters (e.g. here). A short round-up of Top 5 Spa Hotels in Thailand (or whatever) for a website arguably doesn’t need an editor, but a long-form feature piece in prose certainly does. Lack of editing, I’d suggest, leads to the “wordy, adjective-laden travel articles” you talk about!

    I’d say write for the market, sure – but also push the envelope a little. Otherwise we’re all condemned to go round and round the same, formulaic circuit…

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