It is, understandably, a frustrating conundrum, and it comes up often at the travel writing workshops I teach.
Publishers want to see writing clips before they give you an assignment. Yet it’s hard to land that first writing assignment when you don’t have any published proof that you can write.
Don’t despair, though. There are many ways to work toward your goal step-by-step.
The first step is to find a publication that might be willing to work with new writers.
When I was playing softball in college, my coach often said: “Quit trying for a grand slam, just get me a base hit.”
In that same manner, don’t try to land an assignment in National Geographic. Instead, look around for publications that might be willing to give a new writer a chance. They can provide your base hit. Here are a few ideas:
Look at Your Local Newspaper
When I say “your local paper,” I’m not talking about The LA Times or The Chicago Tribune. I’m referring to the small local paper for your neighborhood community. These publications often run on a purse string, and they’re looking for content that has a local connection.
In my case, I did a little research on my own hometown at that time of Littleton, Colorado. Like many communities, Littleton has several “Sister Cities” across the globe. This program, started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, was designed to build friendship and global community.
I learned that one of our town’s sister cities was the town of Bega, New South Wales. Since I was going to Australia on a family trip, I looked up that town and read everything I could about it.
Then I wrote a simple letter — called a query letter — to the local editor of our Littleton paper, telling her about the connection between Littleton and Bega, NSW, and asking if I could write a short article about Bega.
A week later, she wrote back and said she liked the idea. Instead of assigning me the article, though, she asked me to write the article “on spec.”
This meant that she gave no guarantee of accepting or running the article, but that she was willing to review and consider a finished piece.
As soon as I got back from my trip, I wrote up a short 800-word article, careful to include a strong local angle. I included a few photos with captions, as I had learned to do in a travel writing workshop.
It was thrilling to get the editor’s positive response and my check for $15. My next goal was accomplished — to see my work in print or online.
When you’re looking for ideas that might appeal to your local paper, consider writing about day trips in your local area. Is there a new hiking trail nearby? Or a kids’ museum with a new exhibit?
You don’t have to go far to be a travel writer. You can write about what you know right in your own backyard.
Look for Online Opportunities
The print world, as we all know, is shrinking. Print publishing opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer. Fortunately, the Internet has opened up a huge realm of publishing possibilities.
Get online and do your research, starting with areas that interest you.
Are you a Baby Boomer? Look up online publications that focus on Baby Boomers. Sure, there are some huge publications, like AARP, that will be hard to break into. But there are smaller websites that cover Baby Boomer travel that might be willing to take a chance on a new writer.
Maybe you’re a foodie or a beer aficionado. Are there websites that cover those interests? Maybe they’re looking for content.
After you find sites of interest, look for their online writer’s guidelines. Many publications have these readily available online in the website footer. If not, email the editor and ask.
Writers guidelines detail if and how the website works with writers, as well as what they are looking for.
Study the guidelines carefully and then review the content that the site has already published. If you have an idea that might fit, send them a query via email.
Many smaller sites have little staff and small budgets. Some sites might assign a story from a query, but many will ask to see the finished piece. Some sites will pay; others will not.
If your goal is to gather some strong writing clips in order to build your career, it’s good to work with these sites.
Start a Blog
Once you have a strong collection of clips, put the title, excerpt and links to the online articles on your own blog or website.
Blogs are another topic of much discussion at our travel writing workshops. Some writers put very little effort into this online “proof point,” but an online blog or website is your best calling card for future work.
In addition to putting your clips on your blog, start writing and publishing blog “posts,” which are short pieces about a topic or idea. Blogs are not full-length articles, but rather short pieces (generally 200-400 words) on a topic or idea. Blog posts showcase your thought process, expertise and writing ability. They are an excellent step in building your online presence.
If you don’t know how to set up a blog or website, you’re not alone. Sign up for a writing workshop, and you’ll find that a little instruction may be all you need. If technology is sometimes daunting to you, it’s much easier to have someone lead you through the process of setting up a blog or website step-by-step.
If you approach your goal of becoming a travel writer in a systemic way, with achievable steps along the way, you’ll find that the goal is not so overwhelming. In fact, you might even find that it’s a lot of fun.
I know I have.
In Part 3 of “What Can You Learn from a Travel Writing Workshop,” we’ll discuss the seven things you need to know about travel writing.
Travel Writing and Photography Workshop in Santa Fe
Dec 11-14, 2014
11-Day Travel Writing Workshop & Tour in Vietnam
Feb 6 -16, 2015
Author bio: For the past 12 years, Janna Graber has been covering travel in print, online and broadcast. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Parade, Outside, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, The Chicago Tribune and many others. She is a managing editor at Go World Travel Magazine, an international magazine celebrating world travel, and serves as the director at Travel Writing On Location. She continues to freelance for numerous outlets and publications.