A profile of travel writing school Matador U

matadoru traveling writing courseAs someone who has been traveling around the globe since before I can remember, I have always dreamed of being a travel writer. While I would often blog about my trips to my friends and family, write about my trips for school papers, and create websites and content for (unpaid) internships, I never realized that travel writing was something that normal people could actually make a living out of.

Matador has always been one of my favorite travel websites, so when I saw that they were offering a MatadorU travel writing course, I became interested. I did a bit of research, read reviews and feedback from other students, contacted the instructors, and, after deciding it sounded worthwhile, signed up. Plus, I liked the fact that they allow you to try the course for a week for $10 to see if you like it, risk free.traveling writing course with matadoruThe total for the course is $350 which gives students access to various lessons, resources, and support forums. With all the course offers, I can honestly say it is the cheapest yet most worthwhile course I have ever taken. Before even get started, there is a pre-course that helps you setup your blog and learn what steps to take to get the most out of the course. After that, there are 12 weekly chapters (although, you are allowed to take as much time as you need to complete them), each with key terms, lessons, examples to make the lessons clear, and assignments that are critiqued. Unlike many of the assignments that I completed in school, what is great about MatadorU’s assignments is that each one becomes content to help build your blog. There are also assignments that help you create photo essays, podcasts, portfolios, and advertising pages to help monetize your site. Some other important lessons learned from MatadorU include:

  • creating successful pitches
  • finding and approaching editors
  • crafting compelling beginnings, middles, and ends to your story
  • creating characters and dialogue
  • writing in different tenses and using all of the five senses
  • writing different types of articles, for example, destination pieces vs. reviews
  • crafting a successful bio
  • how to apply for press trips and etiquette to abide by if you are chosen
  • tips for successful freelancing
  • tips for travel writing full time (for example, how to get insurance)
  • how to successfully use social media as a travel writer
  • how to work on the road

And much more (seriously, that isn’t even half of what they cover). Really, though, if there isn’t something covered, you are free to seek help by contacting the instructors or posting in the community forums where your peers, as well as staff, comment. The forums are not only a great place to learn and get advice about travel writing, but are also helpful in creating contacts, finding potential project leads, finding out about writing contests and jobs, and allowing you to talk to like-minded people in your niche.

By the time I had reached Chapter 3, I had not only begun contacting editors and sending pitches, I had started making money. My first article that I successfully pitched and sold was for an online adventure travel magazine about hiking in New York. While they normally didn’t pay for articles, they liked my idea so much they gave me $50 to create a mini-hiking guide for them. While this isn’t a ton of money, just starting out, I was pretty excited, especially since for years I had been writing for websites that didn’t pay me a dime. It also gave me the drive to really put all of my efforts into the MatadorU course and get the most out of it, giving me the confidence to pursue higher paying avenues (many times, successfully!).

Aside for the immense amount of information they give you and the feeling of a strong support system, there were two things about this course that really made me feel like it was worthwhile. The instructor in charge of the course, Julie, is the most helpful teacher I have ever had. I was always amazed at how much thought she put into giving me feedback on my assignments and my endless questions and e-mails. She has taken the time to Skype with me about future steps in my travel writing career and has even set me up with some networking projects. I am not sure how she finds the time to give each student so much attention, especially since she is a travel writer herself, but she does.

The other factor that has really made me a fan of MatadorU is all of the resources that I have, and always will have, access to. Just the Magazine List alone, with publication information, submission guidelines, and editor contacts for over 100 travel-related magazines, was worth the cost of the class. There are also pro-modules that are helpful to alumni, as well as a Market Blog that posts press trips, job leads (I have actually gotten paying assignments and jobs from this), and a weekly Writing Lab where you can have any piece of writing you wish to submit critiqued.

So what did I get out of the course? A lot. By taking this course I have not only helped enhance my writing, researching, note-taking, social media, and blogging skills, but have also seen that it’s actually possible to be paid to do what I love most, travel.

Travel writing: how not to do it

We’ve had some interesting posts on travel writing lately, including Don George’s secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative and Pam Mandel’s report on Book Passage. While studying good writing is vital to learning how to write, it’s also important to study bad writing so you know what not to do.

Talented writer Steve Almond tackles this for us with his hilarious skewering of Toto’s 1982 pop hit Africa. I never liked this song, although it was the background theme to far too many high school memories. While this is a song and not a travel article, it includes many of the mistakes sloppy writers make when covering travel in general and Africa in particular. Watch, laugh, and learn.

Thanks to my friend Hannah for showing me this vid!

The secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative

For years people have been asking me for the secret formula for writing a successful travel story. I did my best to conjure this formula into my book Travel Writing, but as you know, there really isn’t any secret formula. Or is there? This year, in preparing for a spate of appearances where I was talking about travel writing – notably TBEX, a talk with Julia Cosgrove of Afar magazine, and a one-day in-the-field writing workshop that was part of the Book Passage travel writing and photography conference — I realized that I could distill what I’ve learned in three decades on both sides of the writer-editor relationship into a few pithy points.

So here’s my version of the secret formula.First of all, what is a travel story? There are many different kinds of travel stories, of course, but the kind I’m focusing on here is the travel narrative. Here’s my definition: A travel narrative is the crafted evocation of a journey, usually written in the first person, that is structured as a sequence of anecdotes/scenes, and that presents a quest that illuminates a place and culture.

Which brings us to a very important point: The narrative should have a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, then there’s no way the reader — or editor — is going to know, so don’t write your story until you know what you’re trying to say. Well, let me rephrase this: It’s fine to start writing before you know what you want to say, but at some point in the writing process, you have to figure out what you want to say – and then you need to go back and rewrite/reshape your story so that it conveys most evocatively and effectively whatever theme/lesson/point you want to make.

How should the travel narrative be organized? It goes back to the cave-and-campfire scene where one of our adventurous ancestors was describing the hunt for a Gnarly Mastodon. Like that Stone Age storyteller, you should give your narrative a beginning, a middle and an end.

To my mind, these break down like this:

The beginning introduces the place where the story is set and suggests the writer’s quest or reason for being there. (To test this notion, I recently looked through the feature stories in the current issues of three prominent travel magazines. In every one, by the end of the fifth or sixth paragraph, the writer had given one sentence that clearly articulated the reason why he/she had come to that place: the quest.)

The middle reveals the writer’s experience through a series of scenes that are ordered chronologically or thematically. (Usually, it’s easier to arrange these chronologically, but sometimes for dramatic purposes, it makes more sense to organize them thematically. You want to make sure that your anecdotes ascend in power as the story progresses, so if your best anecdotes are from the beginning of the trip, you’ll probably not want to tell your tale chronologically.) These anecdotes/incidents/encounters are the critical stepping stones that led you – and so will lead your reader – to the illumination/point/resolution that inspired your story.

The end presents the resolution of the quest and ties the story back to the situation introduced at the beginning. In the best narratives, this creates a kind of closure that gracefully sends the reader back into the world, but enhanced now with the experience and lesson your story imparted.

So, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Figure out what the lesson of your travel experience/story is.
  2. Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
  3. Recreate those steps in your mind.
  4. Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
  5. Craft your tale with a beginning, middle and end that shape and convey your lesson.

Voila! Instant travel narrative. Just add wonder.

Of course, the truth is that success in travel writing is ultimately in the execution, not in the design. But at least having the right design can get you off to a great start. The rest is up to you: First of all, to travel deeply and secondly, to choose and evoke your travel experiences in a way that transports the reader with you.

In this way, every travel narrative is the process of at least two journeys – the journey in the world and the journey in the words.

Bon voyage!

[flickr images via merrah’s and woodleywonderworks]