About a year ago, I was doing Google searches on "how to become a travel writer." Hint: wikiHow wasn't helpful, and neither was much else. I assume I can't be the only one, so in an effort to fill that niche, here's everything I've learned that's gotten me from complete noob to landing my first press trip. For the record, I'm still figuring things out and I'm still pretty new, but if past Jacqueline would've known the contents of this list, this last year would've felt so much easier.
Breaking into the Industry
1. For starters, become a decent writer.
To play devil's advocate, yes, there are PLENTY of people who "can't write" that make it. In fact, I would willingly admit that most travel blogs I read are by people who are too self-absorbed to realize that what they're saying is either grammatically a disaster or just plain boring. Yet somehow they still make it, and that has to do with their wizarding marketing or photoshop prowess. If you have those, great! You can ignore everything else I say.
2. Do some writing work. Anything. At all. Just do it.
When I go back and read the first article I wrote (for The Word in Vietnam), it was terrible. Absolutely terrible. Then I got a job at wikiHow and slowly, magically, I got better. It's like playing an instrument, right? It kind of just happens with practice. Trust that it will. So whether you wind up writing for a shitty how-to website or grants for bill 2.1.14.A for your local government, do it. It'll get your resume going, help you feel like a real writer, and get you used to what it's like to write for dollar dollar bills.
3. Consider a travel writing "program."
Unless you have some serious balls (I do not) or you're incredibly well-connected with people who matter (I am not), a travel writing program may help you get your foot in the door. I chose Matador Network after doing a bunch of research, and it's paid off in spades. The first day I was a part of it was the first day I started working on my online portfolio. It's the step, the hand-holding, that I needed to get going.
To be clear, this step isn't necessary. If you want to just start pitching, fantastic. Kudos to you. I, however, was way too scared to just jump right in with both feet and needed some guidance. That's what Matador Network was for me, and it's help me learn the ropes, meet people, and get a grip on what being a travel writer really means.
4. Sign up for sites like MediaBistro.
They have an awesome "how to pitch" section and a decent freelance marketplace. To be honest, MediaBistro really helped me see that I was dealing with people and that it was literally just an email I was sending — that it wasn't this ridiculous, foreign process I could never understand. It felt like that step-by-step, this-is-how-you-do-it guide that I needed to understand what "pitching" really meant.
And, no, I'm not being paid by either Matador or MediaBistro to say this. I wish.
5. Work on your social media presence.
Mine sucks. I suck at social media. At my core, I kind of can't stand it. But it's required, and you'll be way better off than me if you're tweeting, instagramming, blogging, and tumblring all the time. Ugh. Best of luck to you. That's what people want, and I abhorr the fact that I'm not good at it. I would rather retreat to the mountainside and, you know, make real conversations with people, but it is what it is. However you roll, just start now. Start now and be better at it than I am.
6. Pitch your little heart out.
Come up with an idea you like, that you know other people would want to read, and pitch it. Research publications that you respect, whose voice could accommodate yours, and email the person you need to email (that's what MediaBistro is for). While you're doing that, read up on "how NOT to pitch," and you'll find a whole bunch of stories about people being idiots, and it'll make you feel infinitely better. As long as your pitch isn't as bad as theirs (it won't be), you're winning.
Oh, and don't worry about pictures. Real publications have their own actual photographers. They don't need your help in that domain, by and large.
7. Even if you think the answer is going to be "no," ask anyway.
You've starting pitching things, you're in a program, you're talking to people — now ask for what it is you want. Do you have an idea that's kind of crazy but could be really neat? Ask. Do you want an extension on that press trip so you never have to go home? Ask. There's no harm in asking, and you're going to get more "okays" than you think.
And, for the record, I got my press trip to Germany doubled in duration AND largely paid for. I've known people that have asked for way more than that, and gotten it. You're press now, baby. They want to make you happy. As long as you're polite, you have a good chance of at least getting a little somethin' somethin'.
8. Stick to your guns and to your voice.
"The only thing you can do better than everyone else is be yourself." Seriously. If you try to imitate someone else's voice, your writing won't be as good. If you try to fit into the box you think somebody wants, you're going to lose your flavor. You're going to lose what you do best.
This has been something I've really struggled with. I tend to be pretty sarcastic, dry, and I like to think witty, and that's scared a few editors before. I'm sure it's lost me a few fans. But I've also gotten more fans in my corner for doing a unique thing that not everyone does — writing truthfully. My boss had to sit me down and tell me, "You're going to get people who SPECIFICALLY ASK for your writing because of it." And you know what? She's a smart lady, and I'm inclined to believe her. She's been right so far. So if you don't believe me, believe her, 'kay?
9. Don't shy away from promoting yourself.
I dunno if it's because I'm from the Midwest or what, but selling myself feels like, I dunno, proselytizing in the name of Jesus at a Satanist convention. I hate it. It makes me nauseated. It feels like unnecessarily off-putting braggadocio, and BLARGH. But I do it anyway, otherwise people will think I'm a loser...right? I still don't know why it's important. I guess you have to convince people you don't suck. Maybe it's to convince yourself you don't suck. I don't know. But do it anyway, because people — including yourself — will be reminded that you're awesome, and then good things come. Put yourself out there and put your accomplishments out there, otherwise no one will know about them. If no one knows about them, no one can give you the kudos you deserve.
10. Surround yourself with interesting people.
In case you haven't caught on, I have a serious self-doubt complex. It helps reading about other writers who are plagued by the same thing (I think we writers tend to have that in common, if not humans at large), but it's still a nasty monster that raises its head all too often. If you have anything like this or just aren't filled with 120% inspiration all day every day, interesting people will help. Not only do they get you to believe in yourself, but they give you a different, more complex way of looking at life and they often give you things to write about, too. If you find one or two, keep them around.
You don't have to like them, for the record. They just have to be interesting. But if they're interesting, you'll probably like them.
11. Take every fucking opportunity that comes your way.
This is rule #1. If I ever write a set of rules on travel writing, this is the golden one. Does an editor want you to write X? Sure. Has a press trip come available that your schedule would allow? Apply. Is your fifth-favorite publication looking for content? Submit button, hello. It gets you out there, it gets you doing it, and it gets you finding out what you do and do not want to be doing with your all too precious time. Saying "no" should rarely be in your travel writer's vocabulary. (It's fine in others, for the record. Consent is important.)
12. Order pizza.
Because you're fucking doing it. Celebrate a little. Maybe even have a cookie because LOOK. AT. YOU. GO.
And the rest? History.