Note: This article is by Nancy Lohman. Nancy, a freelancer from Ormand Beach, Florida, was a student in his online graduate travel-writing course at Gonzaga University.
By Nancy Lohman
To be an effective travel writer, one must bring to the work a keen sensitivity to the needs of the audience, along the lines of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs.”
It begins with the most basic motivational need, the human desire to explore. Travel writing lets readers go to far-away destinations that they might never see. Renowned travel writer Pico Iyer shared advice he was once given by his editor: “The reader wants to travel beside you.” Travel writing on a very basic level takes the reader with you. It can also serve to prepare the reader. It can inform and educate the reader about how to travel, when to travel and where to travel.
As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once the most basic level is fulfilled, we continue to reach for the next level up his pyramid. Travel writing inspires the reader. It uses insightful observations to lure readers to escape their own world and lose themselves in the intriguing unknown.
Travel writing’s next level of purpose enlightens the reader about different cultures and helps the reader gain an appreciation for the differences in customs around the world. It broadens awareness and introduces the reader to the diversity in people. It can transform the reader into a more empathetic and more compassionate human being. It can help remove biases, prejudices and stereotypes developed through the narrow lenses of limited experiences. It can improve the reader’s awareness, tolerance and acceptance.
Travel writing can make a reader less fearful by enabling him or her to become more engaged with the world. It can make the reader wiser. You may not read travel stories with the intent to understand others better, but you will. Travel stories broaden a reader’s perspective. Travel writing brings the reader and the world together. “The flip side of fear is understanding,” travel adviser Rick Steves writes. “Your worldviews change when you meet others who feel their worldview is different than yours. Travel changes your ethnocentrisms.”
And most important, travel writing is an adventure in self-discovery, for appreciating nature and the beauty of the world. Travel writing can also help the reader evaluate priorities in life. Finally, travel writing can create a connection to each other. Readers can vicariously feel connected to a person, a place and an experience that enriches and expands them. Ultimately, at the top of the hierarchy of human needs, travel writing creates an influence and effect on the reader, who can become a better human being for having read a travel story.
Todd Pitock is a seasoned travel writer whose stories have taken him from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from South Africa to Morocco.
In those far-flung destinations, he reports about science, sports, politics, and culture for national publications including Salon, The Atlantic, Discover, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. I had the great pleasure of meeting Pitock when I was the launch editor of a travel magazine named Afar; he wrote the cover story, about the Berber culture of Morocco, for Afar’s premiere issue.
Based in Philadelphia, Pitock has won awards from the American Society of Journalists & Authors and the American Society of Travel Writers, as well as the Simon Rockower Award for investigative reporting. His work is regularly included in anthologies and collections such as Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Travel Writing. Last month, Pitock was named the 2015 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year by the American Society of Travel Writers.
Because several ieiMedia programs—like those in Urbino, Italy; Croatia; Spain; and France—cover travel writing, we thought it would be helpful to hear from a pro what it’s really like to report from the road.
IeiMedia: At the University of Pennsylvania, you studied English and concentrated on novel writing. What led you to journalism and how did you prepare yourself for that field?
Todd Pitock: I didn’t think about journalism as such, and I knew very little about it. I just wanted to write, and like most people I intended to write fiction, and I was pretty naive and high-falutin’. I was, though, blessed in having limited skills and no other talents at all, so even while I was getting beaten down with a lot of rejections I just had to keep at it.
My first job was an editorial assistant at New York book publisher. But I was miserable sitting in a cubicle, where my main task was to type out rejection letters to other aspiring writers, and I really wanted to see the world. It was not, though, a vague or passive desire. It was more like a gnawing, existential need.
From the time I was very young I’d look at maps and wonder what different places might be like. I was also blessed with a horrible landlord in Brooklyn, and after a judge wrested a small monetary judgment from him, I had a wad of cash to go overseas. My plan was to be away for a year. That year became five, the first two in Israel and the last three in South Africa. The latter was during the transition from apartheid and there was a lot of interest in the place, and I started writing for publications there and in the U.S. So, in short, I kind of fell into it.
I also want to point out that that’s a biography of my first 25 years in roughly 200 words.
IM: What led you to travel writing?
TP: I had two completely contradictory views of what it meant to be a writer. One was working in isolation; the other, I don’t know why, was roaming or roving all over the place. The writers I read complained about sitting still but always seemed to be doing it in a new place.
As a child, I had this picture of myself writing in northern India. I don’t know why northern India, just that it was the other side of the world I guess, and I often had the feeling that I wanted to be half a world away from wherever I was. Then, a few years ago I was in northern India, writing in my hotel room, and I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m here!” And I would have felt really content that I’d arrived except that I was in a miserable hotel with a horrible rancid smell that made it hard to concentrate.
Anyway, I got to “travel writing” because I was traveling and wanted to travel more, and writing became a kind of a magic carpet. Moreover, in its best moments it was fulfilling in a way that nothing else is, enough to endure its frustrations.
For me, an experience only really matters if I’ve written it down and made some sense of it. To write is to notice, and I was never a traveler who just wanted to tick off places I’ve been. I wanted to really know them, and writing—meaning the process of gathering the information, the interviews, the experience of a place in order to write it down—was a way to do that, to really get inside a place. In fact, that’s how I often feel as a traveler, as if I’m moving inside of a story, ready to find out what happens next.
Along the way, I read some books that helped me see the possibilities of “travel writing.” Paul Fussell’s book Abroad, about British travel writers between the World Wars, gave me a long reading list to get through, and some of those models—Graham Greene, Robert Byron, Sybil Bedford, Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipaul; many whose names and work I can’t even recall right now—gave me a new framework to think about what it is I envisioned myself doing.
While ieiMedia is a non-denominational institute, its educational approach is better understood within the context of Ignatian philosophy that informs education at Jesuit universities. I am Professor Emeritus at Loyola University (Maryland), where I taught journalism for 27 years.
The ideals of Jesuit education involve engaging the world and the development of the whole person. Initiative, professionalism and citizenship—all fully graded components in ieiMedia summer programs abroad—are among the hallmarks of experiential learning that support the education of the whole person beyond the mere acquisition of media skills. Applied ethics underlies all student decisions and actions in an experiential learning environment. I believe that from the get go, students should be exposed to Joseph Pulitzer’s dictum, still found on the masthead of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that places the practice of journalism at the service of those who have no voices in the halls of power. This is the secular root of all liberal journalism which intertwines very nicely with the “peace and justice” perspective we find threaded throughout Jesuit education today.
In field-based practica, the classroom gives way very early on to a collegial relationship between teacher and student, mimicking the relationship between editor and writer. Within that context the educational process becomes very individualized and uses the student’s mistakes and errors not to punish him but to exploit “learning opportunities”—the very essence of experiential learning.
Process courses, such as writing and reporting, usually work best when students are liberated from the inhibiting environment of the classroom. As long as the professor expounds from the front of the classroom, the student is kept in a receptive mode rather than interactive, regardless of how Socratic the method may be. Switching into a collegial mode accelerates learning at the cognitive level and, most importantly, reinforces the student’s self-awareness and ergo self-confidence. Launching the student on an inner journey of self discovery enables every aspect of cura personalis (care for the whole person).
In the typical lecture/discussion course, the opening salvo of overarching ideas and principles does little to foster the interactive learning environment. Thrusting students right into the fray, giving them the courage to make mistakes, builds the experiential skeleton which can later be fleshed out with theoretical concepts. When the professor and the student share a common experiential base, abstract discussions of principles and theory (including behaviors) are more cognitively effective.
In teaching long-form writing courses, the tendency is to start with various professional and literary models which through osmosis and analysis are supposed to inform the students’ understanding of what he is supposed to do. The fact is, the analysis will be better later on after the student has personally experienced the process and begun to find his own voice rather than mimic other voices.
My approach is to use a series of exercises to develop the building blocks students will need before creating their own narrative. At this stage, students need feedback and not a grade. In fact, it is the repetitive act of writing that activates new neural pathways to creativity. Peer learning is important at this stage because shared work shows how others are approaching the exact same material. This accelerates the learning process and reduces the number of writing tasks required to bring students to a common level of performance and understanding.
In the narrative stage, the role of the professor/colleague is to reference the text to the building blocks and ask the student to assess his own performance and do any necessary rewrites to enrich the various parts, sentence by sentence. At the same time, the student assesses his text to determine if it has met his objectives and if those objectives are of any value to the audience, and if not, how to reorganize to accomplish that goal. In many writing courses, it is one first draft, one rewrite and out. In experiential learning, one directs the student to restructure the narrative one step at a time (e.g., “This is good so far; now go back and add [this]”). A student’s achievement is best measured not by grading multiple articles based on a truncated two-step process; two narratives are all that is needed—a first narrative that is the product of multiple drafts, and a second narrative that is not subjected to a guided drafting process.
Building from the bottom up, that is the essence of Jesuit pedagogy.
Every riveting magazine piece, every compelling photo essay, and every powerful video report that ever grabbed readers and viewers by the throat and left them surprised, moved, newly informed, curious, prodded into action, or pissed off—they all have one thing in common. They all began with an idea—a strong, clear, focused idea.
And every pointless, puzzling, ho-hum piece of journalism that ever lost its audience within a few seconds? Each began—and was immediately doomed—when the reporter/writer, photographer, videographer, or producer proposing the piece spoke these words to his or her editor, “Why don’t we do something on…?”
“Something on modern art in Urbino,” “something on the Saturday market,” “something on farms that cater to tourists….” Were any more sleep-inducing words ever spoken?
Here, then, comes the mother of all tips for creating a strong story idea:
Never think and never say, “Let’s do something on…”
Saying that you want to “do something on” is nothing more than waving your hands in a vague general direction. A responsible editor should not let you go off that way, but if you do you’ll stumble around haphazardly collecting information and people and images that you’ll have no chance of assembling into a coherent, interesting piece. You won’t end up with a story, just “something on….”
So what’s the difference between a genuine story idea and a “something on?” Below are a few examples from last summer’s courses in Urbino on international reporting for magazines and multimedia. These are initial story ideas that three students pitched to us. As you’ll see, each story idea consists of no more than a few phrases or sentences; they were delivered like “elevator pitches,” during quick check-ins between student reporters and faculty editors. But these brief descriptions contained the ingredients needed to convince the editors that the students had identified promising seeds for their stories and should move ahead with reporting.
- Rather than “something on farms that cater to tourists,” here’s how the first student described her story idea: “A profile of ‘The Farm of the Singers,’ a family-owned organic farm, just outside of Urbino, that is not only a producer of quality food and art, but also a center of learning.”
- Rather than “something on modern art in Urbino,” this student described her idea as: “A visit with Vitaliano Angelini, a renowned artist who has just returned home to Urbino. I would interview him about how Renaissance art and philosophy shape his colorful abstract paintings.”
- Rather than “something on the Saturday market,” this student described her idea as: “How to put together a great look from the low-cost clothes vendors at Urbino’s Saturday summer market: consumer advice meets fashion makeover.”
As these samples show, a genuine “story idea,” as opposed to a vague reference to “something on,” points the way to a solid story in the following ways:
- It suggests or summarizes the likely characters and content of the piece. (It doesn’t simply identify the general topic area the way a “something on…” statement does.)
- It begins to solve the “problem” of how to tell the story, also known as the vehicle or approach. (An interview with an artist, for example, or a visually driven how-to shopping guide.)
- It implies the structure of the story.
- It signals the rationale. Why does the story belong on this website, on this broadcast, or in this publication (and, maybe, why now)? How does the idea connect with the target audience’s needs and interests?
- It gives focus and direction to your reporting and your plans for the writing/photographing/video shooting phase. It makes the work ahead do-able.
- It’s a tool for the team. It defines the story for everyone who’s working on it, providing a common vision and a common language.
Of course, these six touchstones are barely discussed in a two-sentence story idea. That’s why we always push students to flesh them out, either in follow-up meetings or in full, written pitch memos.
And you’ve also got to nail the execution: the research, interviews, writing, shooting, and so on. But if you formulate your initial idea in a way that is specific, focused, and clearly relevant to your audience, you’ll avoid the trap of doing just “something on.”
And you’ll give yourself a great shot at creating a piece of journalism that is, well, really something.
Many of the students in the Urbino Project’s magazine program have never written a feature story before, much less a travel story. So when they ask how to go about writing their pieces, we tell them: Read. And then we hand them model stories: Tim Cahill on the wandering stones of Death Valley, Sam Fromartz on his bakery apprenticeship in Paris, and almost anything that Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf recommends.
There’s no better way to learn how to write well than to read a lot of good writing. You’ll learn about sentence and story structure, about rhythm and emphasis, about good reporting and setting a scene and building a narrative. You’ll be inspired.
In a recent post for the New York Times’ Opinionator blog, Sara Mosle offers this anecdote:
“Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘The Tipping Point’ and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first ‘Talk of the Town’ story. ‘Talk’ articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 ‘Talk’ pieces, one after the other.”
Try it! If it works for Malcolm Gladwell, it will work for you.
That’s a standard question I ask students or cub reporters as they head off on assignments for me. Their first exposure to that query usually results in furrowed brow–which is a just another way of rolling their eyes at someone from the Stone Age. But their expression changes after they hear this story.
As a young sportswriter on the NFL beat during the last millennium, I was summoned to the office of Hank Stram, head coach of the New Orleans Saints. He was unhappy with several pieces I had written criticizing his team as poorly prepared to meet their rivals during the previous few weeks. Specifically, the team had no back-up plans; they couldn’t adjust when plans went awry.
Stram wasted no time punching back, pointing out how his attention to detail was something of a legend in the league, how he went over every last eventuality in practices–including how his team should line up for the national anthem (true).
“Unprepared?!” he stammered. “How can you write that?”
It was at that moment I had to admit I couldn’t write anything. My pen had run out of ink.
“And you don’t have a back-up!” Stram sneered. “You call that being prepared?”
He tossed me a pen from his desk.
The immediate embarrassment was bad enough. Worse was Stram’s joy at spending the next few months offering me a pen before starting every interview.
I learned my lesson. I never left for another interview without checking that I had TWO pens–and that they both worked.
But I have colleagues who think I‘m still taking risks. They always carry a backup pencil–and never run out of ink.
There are several factors that often drive the way travel writing is normally taught.
- Are the students writing for a web, a newspaper or a magazine audience?
- Is the course offered online or on campus?
- Is it normal semester length or a compressed semester?
- Is the course rooted in literary tradition or feature journalism?
- Will you be leading a writing workshop or moderating a lecture/discussion?
I taught travel writing for more than 20 years as a tenured professor at Loyola (Md.), both classroom-based and distance via email. I had a rather pat approach until I reassessed my strategies while designing a graduate online travel writing course for Gonzaga University. It’s an experiential approach that walks a student through the various layers of the travel article.
Students weaned away from the third person, observe-from-a distance approach, may resort to “opinion” or contrast-and-compare “cultural chauvinism.” Such venting is rarely informative or enlightening.
If you are teaching from a literary perspective, then the personal essay or memoir can be a workable format. But those of us who come out of a journalism tradition, equally concerned about good writing, might find a better vehicle in the specialized magazine article – which is where I am coming from.
I expect students to write two articles in the course – one guided by me and peer reaction, and the final one completely on their own.
In the first article, I take students through a six-step process that enables them to craft nearly professional-style long form pieces, well beyond the superficial short forms of daily journalism and the limitations of the academic report:
- Define the audience (market) and develop an appropriate idea.
- Write a basic informational first draft with the emphasis on place or destination.
- Transformation #1: Personalize the second draft by adding elements of memoir.
- Transformation #2: Populate the third draft with uniquely interesting people (human interest).
- Transformation #3: Put it all in a context (research) that imparts deeper meaning to the article (i.e, social, political, economic, religious, etc.)
- Just when students think the drafting process is over, immerse them in rigorous creative writing exercises, and then ask them to polish the article in a final rewrite.
This process engages the student at a cognitive level as impactful as experiential learning.
For anyone interested in learning or perfecting the craft of travel writing, I highly recommend a recent blog post by Don George, one of the deans of the genre. It summarizes his advice on how to put together a good travel article.
Don defines a travel narrative as “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.” And he stresses the critical need for a “a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader.”
Here’s how he boils down the essential steps:
- Figure out the lesson of your travel experience or story.
- Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
- Recreate those steps in your mind.
- Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
- Craft your tale with a beginning, middle, and end that shape and convey your lesson.
Strong feature writing is evocative, full of scenes unfolding before the reader’s eyes, and alive with people, sights, sounds, and smells. In short, strong feature writing is built from specific, real-word details.
For inexperienced writers, this is one of the most important lessons to learn and one of the hardest to apply. When students are in the field doing their reporting, it’s hard for them to collect compelling, concrete details. And when they’re writing, it’s hard for them to pull these tempting morsels out of their notes and use them to bring their stories to life. Without realizing it, students have a strong tendency to take the easier, sleep-inducing route of “telling” rather than “showing.”
So we try to make this point in as many ways as possible during our summer magazine course: If you want your article to attract readers and keep them riveted, get real.
One of the best ways to help students adopt this habit is to have them identify articles that grab and keep their attention. In class, ask each student to read aloud a passage from one of these articles and to briefly analyze its use of evocative, concrete, story-telling specifics.
Below are two excerpts that we used in the magazine course last summer to get these discussions rolling. The first is from a published piece with strong atmospheric and visual details. The second is part of a draft manuscript that suffered from a severe shortage of specifics. Do you have any favorite examples of articles rich in vivid, real-world specifics? Please share them in the comments section at the end of this post.
Example 1: “Raising Heaven / Where Rocks Go Wandering“
By Tim Cahill, National Geographic
I imagine the sight of Death Valley National Park is something akin to scientific pornography for hard-rock geologists. There are the obvious soaring mountains and abysmal valleys, of course. But in most other places on Earth, the folding and buckling of rocks, the colliding of crustal plates, the shores of advancing and retreating lakes, the evidence of volcanic activity, the scrape of glaciers across rock, the subtle and not so subtle effects of erosion are covered over in grass or dirt, in snow or ice. The Earth is a modest mother, but Death Valley is, for the most part, naked. It is also the only place on Earth where geology itself has made me laugh out loud. I am thinking specially of an area in the northwest section of Death Valley called the Racetrack, where, inexplicably, rocks as big as microwave ovens go zipping across the desiccated mud for distances of more than half a mile. The evidence is all there: deep tracks in the surface, with a rock at the end. One concludes, reluctantly, that the rocks somehow traveled a couple of hundred yards, leaving a telltale trail behind. There are over 150 of these roving rocks. But no one has ever seen them move.
Example 2: (draft manuscript, lacking specifics)
Film buffs have long been enthusiastic about the galleries’ film series, particularly the Iranian and Hong Kong festivals. Another joins the lineup this fall, when the Freer will present for the first time a retrospective of Korean cinema that spans the past fifty years. The festival begins with the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, continues with the unsettling period of censorship in the 1970s and 1980s, and ends with the explosion of creativity of the past dozen or so years known as the Korean “new wave.” Is Korea the new Hong Kong? You’ll have to come and see for yourself. According to Tom Vick, film programmer for the Freer & Sackler, “there are many great films coming out of Korea, and this is the first time that many of them will be shown in D.C.”
One of the most critical requirements of clear, compelling feature writing—and, sadly, one that students find the least glamorous—is a solid structure. And one of the crucial elements of a solid structure, as our furry friend here undoubtedly knows, is the so-called nut graf.
In combination with and immediately following the lead (the opening section that grabs the reader’s attention), the nut graf lays out a roadmap of the story, tells readers what to expect, and promises them rewards for continuing to read.
In the Urbino magazine project, we try to help students see what makes a nut successful by looking at strong examples. Here are a couple that we included in class discussions this past summer. If you have helpful examples of your own that you would like to share and discuss, we’d love to hear from you. Please add your contribution in the “Leave a comment” box at the bottom of this page.
In the example below, from Via, a travel magazine covering the western U.S., the nut appears as the fourth paragraph (in bold type). It’s a deliberate pause to quickly sketch out the story’s structure (a literal voyage) and purpose (to understand what dams represent to the American psyche).
As I kayaked across its untroubled surface, Lake Aldwell offered no hint that its days were numbered. Woods hugged the lake so tightly that its edges looked dusky even at midday. Off in the distance, the snowcapped peaks of the Olympic Mountains took a jagged bite out of the horizon.
For all its beauty, this 268-acre lake near Port Angeles, Wash., is as artificial as a bathtub. In 2007, the federal government will likely pull the plug by breaching the two Elwha River dams that have created this reservoir and the equally stunning Lake Mills just upstream.
In the coming years, this same wholesale revamping of landscapes is likely to repeat itself elsewhere in the West. Last fall, the National Park Service started knocking down the 17-foot-high, 184-foot-long Cascades Diversion Dam, a nonfunctioning eyesore that’s bisected the Merced River in Yosemite National Park for nearly 90 years. Other dams often mentioned in the same breath with “demolition” include Matilija in California, Condit in Washington, and Marmot in Oregon.
As such, Lake Aldwell was a key stop on my Voyage of the Dams—a meandering trip through the West designed to help me understand our conflicted attitude toward dams, those slabs that divide both water and people. It’s hard to imagine a more colossal journey. After all, what the pyramids are to Egypt, dams are to America—monuments to our ingenuity and hubris.
Surpassing even the expectations of their builders, America’s dams produce 7 to 10 percent of the energy used in the United States…
EXAMPLE #2 In this example, from Cooking Light magazine, the nut appears in the second paragraph, summing up what the story will tell us and why we should care.
Fog blankets the rich earth of California’s Salinas Valley during an early morning tour in the fields of Earthbound Farm. As we steer the truck onto a dirt path toward a swatch of lollo rosa lettuce, the sun pierces through the veil and ignites the field in a garnet glow. I bend down to inspect the tiny, ruffled red heads, and the leaves are so pristine and fresh that I can’t resist popping one in my mouth.
Later that day, these leaves and millions of others will be incorporated into one of a dozen or so Earthbound Farm salad mixes and sent off to nearly 75 percent of the nation’s supermarkets. While Earthbound Farm is now the largest grower of organic produce in America, the scene isn’t that much different than it was 20 years ago. Then, Drew and Myra Goodman, founders of Earthbound Farm, would harvest, wash, and bag armfuls of baby organic lettuce from their backyard in Northern California’s Carmel Valley each Sunday to keep in the refrigerator for convenient, healthful salads all week long. That simple practice by a busy, young couple has blossomed into a company that has changed the way America eats.
The Goodmans were both raised in New York City. But as each grew up, the country beckoned. “I remember visiting relatives in upstate New York and eating tomatoes from the farmstand,” Myra recalls, “and the calm and peace of nature.” After Drew graduated from….
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