Todd Pitock on What It Really Takes To Succeed As A Travel Writer & Journalist

TWEETCHAT-MAY31-EditionMy name is Todd Pitock, and I’ve been a journalist, writing on travel and other topics for a while now. It’s a pleasure been hosted on this edition of the #NigeriaTravelChat by Sam Adeleke and the team at Travel Massive Lagos.

To begin with, I got to write for the big titles — National Geographic Traveler (US and other editions), Smithsonian, The Atlantic, the NY Times and so on — by dedicating a lot of time on two paths.

One path was all about the craft, the other was about the business behind the craft. The two paths run parallel, with a lot of crossover. But let’s talk first about creativity and craft, because you can’t talk about publishing and business, or any product, if you don’t have the goods to sell. The first thing is defining what it was I wanted, what kinds of stories I wanted to write. And what I mainly wanted was STORIES, compelling narratives. And I drew a distinction between travel and vacation writing.

Travel, at least to me, is about engagement, whereas vacation is about escape. So, I’m a lot more in cities, for example, than resorts, which aren’t that interesting to me personally. I want to know how people live, what they’re talking about, what they believe in, how they see their world, and their views about mine.

The relevance of that, for “travel writing,” is that for me it is a very elastic category. It’s about a journey, but that journey might start with politics, or science, or sports. And in fact, I’ve had stories that appeared in one place labeled “travel” and in another — same exact story — as “science.” I’m thinking now in particular about a story about light pollution, a big issue in both science and travel.

The question I’m always asking myself as I travel is, what is this thing, whatever it is, really about, and what does it say about the place I’m in. The world is filled with unique experiences, but sometimes they can seem to be generic ones. And to get to the business side — we’ll toggle back and forth — I also think a lot about what’s salable and to whom. And to do that you have to know and understand publications.

todd-pitock-sam-adeleke-rwanda-gorilla-tracking-rdbLike, you should know that Conde Nast Traveler requires a luxury angle, but National Geographic Traveler probably doesn’t. As many editors will tell you, most queries don’t work because they’re just wrong for the publication. So, in short, you need to know what you’re trying to create and then match it to the right venue. It all starts with the idea, and next is the presentation of that idea in the form of a query. A query has particular elements.

Know first of all that it showcases your writing, so write it well. And since editors count on accuracy, if they don’t know you, make sure you get the little things right to begin with, such as the proper spelling of the editor’s name. The query itself should articulate the idea, and then show why you’re the person qualified to write it. It’s also a good idea to target your query to a particular department. Do I need to mention that magazines have roughly three parts: the front of the book (shorter pieces), the departments (mid-form), and features (long-form)?

Unless you’re quite well-established (and sometimes even if you are) and unless the magazine is coming to you (not the norm), you’re not going to aim for a feature on the first contact. They can also be a lot of work, pay the least, and get the least attention. But they can have value. An FOB for one place might be a query for another.

So be open to doing them. But as I said, aiming for the thick middle, the departments, is smart. Stories can range from 500 to 2,000 words, and get things in motion for future work.

What I got paid for my first piece? There isn’t a standard rate. American pubs tend to pay a lot more than elsewhere. I guess my first proper magazine story was $500. But rates have fallen. Ten years ago they ranged from US$1.50 to $3.00 a word at print magazines. Now $2/word tends to be the upper limit — and word counts have fallen, too.

That gets us back to the craft & business link. If you have a great idea, and if you execute it well, and if you’ve done the legwork to know markets, and if you did your homework to understand the contract and negotiate it, and you held onto rights.

You can multiply your income through syndication and reprints. So, for example, after I wrote the story Sam referenced in promotions for this TweetChat, the one about gorillas in Rwanda. I sold the idea to an American magazine for a little less than $3,000. But I also negotiated the rights, retaining all international rights, and I’ve sold them off one by one to New Zealand, Australia and Asia at $1,000 each.

So I earned $6,000, or about $4/wd, so far, and I would think that over the next year or so that’ll grow to about $10,000. I share that otherwise-private information to encourage people to understand the business better, so they can do better. People have a habit of jumping in, finding the water’s very cold, and getting out quick. Whereas if they’d take some time to let the water warm up, or warm themselves up, they might do better.

And I’d also add that it’s essential that you write well, which means deep reporting, doing the reading, doing the interviews, thinking about your topic, and how to make it your own. And of course you can’t get started, and certainly can’t start on reprints, until you start to learn the business, including where to find publications. In that case, the thing that has driven down rates, and in some respects cheapened “travel writing” with the kind of shallow stuff Sam referred to in the promo — is also your friend, because it has made it possible to find and communicate with editors everywhere.

Question: What is the distinction between a travel journalist, travel blogger and travel writer?

I think it’s a distinction between narrative and service. A travel journalist focuses on the practical, the nuts and bolts of travel, while a travel writer reflects on the emotional impact of travel. And I think bloggers tend to specialize and serve the needs of that particular audience they’re cultivating. In some sense writing is writing, whatever you call it, right?

Question: What really makes one a good travel writer?

For me “good” means someone who tells a compelling story, and personally I like writers with humor, spirit and style.

My educational background and professional affiliations?

Well, I’ve got  just a bachelor’s degree in literature. And I also subscribe to the #travelmagazinedatabase. It’s $20/month. It doesn’t necessarily have info you can’t get on your own but it’s in one place. You can also look up Regarding associations, I belong to two, the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. And I have writer friends. I’d encourage people to scour directories for markets they can sell ideas.

I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts. One, take good notes. Get in the habit. I love reporters notebooks. They focus me and make me notice and help form connections that might otherwise be lost. Do work in advance. Read. Contact people. Read some more. Write lots of queries and contact lots of people. But write them thoughtfully and respectfully. Read, re-read, share, re-write them.

Sometimes, someone will say, “No, it’s not what we’re looking for, BUT, what we are looking for…” And they’re offering the second part b/c they liked what they saw in the query. And lastly, stick with it. Be persistent in every way. Don’t take rejection personally. Be gracious even when others aren’t being gracious. Go forth and prosper, my friends!

To contact me, feel free to send me an email: todd@toddpitock.com

 

#NigeriaTravelChat is a bi-monthly tweetchat moderated by Sam Adeleke, and hosted on Travel Massive Lagos Twitter handle.

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