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.
If a reporter can’t convincingly sell a story idea—to an editor or to a professor—the story may never be written, photographed, or produced. (It shouldn’t be, anyway.) For that reason, Susan West and I spend a significant amount of time in the early days of the Urbino magazine course laying out the elements of a perfect pitch.
We ask each student to write a memo that makes the case for the idea in one or two pages, which is very much like what we as magazine editors expect from professional freelance writers. Below is a handout from this past summer’s magazine course that summarizes the four key elements. What makes a pitch persuasive to you? Would you add anything to our list? Please post your comments below.
Elements of a Perfect Pitch
Urbino Magazine Project 2011
Focus: What is the one question that the story will answer? The single main point? The one thing you want the reader to take away? What do your target readers want to know about this subject area, this place, or this new development? Aim for their “sweet spot.” That is the focus, or angle, of your story. Specific, not general. Narrow, not “all about.”
Approach: How will you tell the story? What is the vehicle that will give the story structure and allow you to make all the salient points in a coherent, natural way? Will it be a first-person account, a straight analysis of the facts, a guided tour or travelogue (taking the reader along on a journey), a story woven together by a central anecdote, a 10-best list…? Whenever possible, give a sample of that approach in your pitch.
A Whiff of the Meat: Give some key tidbits of the information that the story will provide. Show that you have done enough research to know that there’s a there there. Ideally, the pitch previews the likely main points of the story. There’s no sense in bringing up an idea that may evaporate with the first few phone calls or after the first few interview questions. Preliminary reporting prevents nasty surprises, long hours, and drastic, unsatisfactory “save jobs” later.
Rationale: Why does the story belong in this magazine (and, maybe, why now)? How does the story hit the target reader’s sweet spot—serve his/her needs and interests? This is the “peg,” or “hook,” or justification for doing this particular story (at this particular moment). For example: You have identified an outdoor adventure sure to be of interest to the numerous nature enthusiasts among our readers and it is an easy bus ride from their base in Urbino. Or, your proposed story covers an authentic local cultural event that tourists can participate in—and it recurs every summer, when we know our readers will be in town. Whatever it is, your rationale must answer the question: Why are we offering this story to this reader in this magazine?
We had an impressive bunch of students in the magazine program in Urbino, Italy, this past summer. The best evidence of that is Urbino Now, the 92-page glossy that they created. Our challenge to them: In barely a month, create a travel magazine for English-speaking visitors to Urbino and the Marche region. Not incidentally, we wanted the students to learn all they could about international reporting and magazine journalism.
I hope you’ll take the time to enjoy every page of the magazine. You can read it online here or order a copy to be printed and mailed to you from our virtual, “cloud-based” production plant at MagCloud. Meanwhile, I wanted to share a few highlights within this blog post. Here we proudly present summaries of the especially strong student contributions that were honored at the end of the course. Each winner was awarded a “Raffie,” a cheesy yet coveted plastic likeness of the Renaissance artist Raphael, who was born in Urbino.
- Sydni Dunn for “Snips of History,” a warm, day-in-the-life portrait of Pippi Busignani, Urbino’s last traditional barber.
- Sunny Thao for “A Renaissance Artist in the 21st Century,” a story that skillfully balances insights about Renaissance painting with a profile of contemporary artist Vitaliano Angelini and his modern art.
- Caryn Maconi for “Le Marche on Two Wheels,” a first-person story of a regional biking trip that combines a vivid sense of place with useful information for readers who might like to follow in her tracks.
- Rosa Castaneda for “Versatile Verdicchio,” a story about Le Marche’s unique verdicchio wine, for which Rosa did enough backgrounding to become a wine expert, interviewed three Italians without the help of a translator, and tracked down both Italian and American outside perspectives.
- Caryn Maconi for “Le Marche on Two Wheels,” for which she reported the biking trip both by bike and by car, and also researched accommodations, sights, safety, and transportation advice; AND found a bike rental shop, which was not at all as simple as it sounds.
- Victoria Staples for “Pesaro: A Sunday Market for Shopaholics,” a you-are-there story for our Day Trips section in which Victoria rummages through nearly every stall and befriends almost every merchant at Pesaro’s alternative to Urbino’s Saturday market.
- Caryn Maconi for “Le Marche on Two Wheels.” As we’ve said earlier, Caryn’s biking story offers succinct, specific, well-researched, and well-written advice about where to stay, what to do, and how to do it along this 70-km bike route.
- Jordan Holloway for “Shopping for Mr. Big,” a short, but extremely useful article about where to buy Big Guy-sized shirts, pants, and shoes in Urbino, Italy.
- Sarah Lorsch for “Fano: Beach Town With a Bonus,” a Day Trips story that recommends Fano’s off-the-beaten track attractions, including its unusual rocky beach, an underground city for insiders only, and a local’s favorite spot for affordable dinners of fresh fish.
- Lauryn Smith for “Farm Life.” This article for our food section introduces readers to the owners and volunteers at a nearby agriturismo where visitors can learn organic livestock farming.
- Jordan Howse for “Urbino 101.” This 150-word article is packed with fun facts about Urbino, such as the fact that Urbinati believe it’s bad luck for a local to visit the Ducal Palace before he or she graduates from college.
- Sydni Dunn for “Sometimes Graffiti is Just Graffiti.” Sydni’s short article for our front-of-the-book section demystifies the apparently scholarly debate that surrounds the popular graffito called “Urbinzoo.”
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….
Here’s a treasure trove of great reporting and writing published by newspapers, magazines, and websites last year: Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism.
For teachers, this collection is a terrific source of examples for classroom discussions and exercises. For students of journalism, communications, and marketing, just reading these articles can be both inspirational and instructive. (This past summer, Susan West and I worked a few pieces from this list into our magazine program in Urbino, Italy.)
The stories were selected by Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic magazine, who every year keeps a running list of nonfiction journalism he considers exceptional. He has helpfully organized his top hundred from 2010 into such groups as the art of storytelling, crime and punishment, sports and leisure, food, multimedia matters, and profiles.
Soon after Friedersdorf’s “nearly 100” appeared in May, I picked my way through the most appetizing and meaty offerings—and found myself hungry for more. If you have the same craving and can’t wait another six months for his 2011 choices, I recommend subscribing to his monthly e-mail newsletter, Best of Journalism.
Our 2011 multimedia program in Urbino, Italy, got some nice airplay the other day on WLUR, the radio station of Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
W&L Professor Doug Cumming and James Madison University student Mojan Nourbakhsh, both of whom spent a month this summer working on the Urbino project, recounted their experiences in a half-hour interview.
Here’s a recording of what they had to say. To listen, just click on the little triangle icon, below.
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by Christina Botticchio, Ryerson University, Urbino Project 2015