As a child, I always dreamt of being a writer. While my friends fantasized about being astronauts and detectives, I wished I could weave stories that would give wings to the imaginations of those who read them. I wrote often, but mostly for myself or on the many blogs I started before this one. It was only after I quit my job and moved back to India in 2011 that the dream of seeing my words in print revisited me.
At that point, I only knew that I wanted to write for travel magazines and newspapers; it wasn’t about the money, and I wasn’t looking at options for bank accounts to calculate my earnings from travel writing. I had no contacts in the publishing industry, knew no editors personally, and had no friends who were freelance travel writers. I was starting with a blank slate.
Fast forward almost two years, and my travel stories have appeared on BBC Travel, Lonely Planet, National Geographic Traveller, and India’s top three dailies. I’m a Forbes Travel Guide Correspondent for Delhi and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. And here are 6 things that worked for me:
1) Start small.
In the first few months, I primarily wrote online, and for anyone and everyone who accepted my pitch; it didn’t matter if they paid me or if it was a well-known publication. It helped me build both, my portfolio and my confidence. And when I was finally ready to pitch to bigger publications, I had enough writing samples to share, and the heart to accept rejections.
So don’t go after the big fish right away. Experiment with the smaller ones, perfect your style of pitching, build a rapport with editors who are more open to newbies, and gradually build your writing portfolio.
2) Know who you’re writing for.
I’ll be lying if I said I read every publication from cover to cover before I pitched for it, or that I’m not guilty of sending irrelevant pitches in my early days as a travel writer. It was only when I began receiving pitches for guest posts on my travel blog that I realized how important it was to demonstrate that you understand the publication, the kind of stories it carries, and its target audience.
So while its exciting to email your story ideas soon as you think of them, take the time to see if it matches the nature of the publication you’re pitching to, and if something similar has already been covered in the recent past.
3) Offer something different.
While a lot of tips on how to become a freelance travel writer focus on crafting a good pitch, I’ve found that what mattered more was offering a good story. My niche was travelogues from roads less travelled, and it occurred to me quite naturally, because that’s the kind of traveling I enjoy most. My story ideas sprang from my travels; I undertook none to specifically look for a story, and that’s how it should be in both travel blogging and freelance writing – ask yourself if you would seek a certain travel experience even if you were never to write about it.
If you’re a good writer, surely you can condense your story idea into a paragraph or two. And if editors like your pitch, they can always ask you questions about it. What everyone’s after is a unique storyline, and if you can offer one that hasn’t been done to death, you’ve won half the battle.
4) Build your online presence.
Gone are the days when freelancing was a one-way game. I’ve been contacted by editors several times for stories from places I’ve travelled in, and that’s not because I actively update them each time I travel. It’s because I’m extremely active online, and if you read my blog or follow me on any of my social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), you’ll know not only where I’m travelling, but also what I’ve been writing about, places I’ve been published, and my progression as a writer. In a world where thousands of people are vying that freelance writing assignment, your online profile is what differentiates you and adds to your credibility.
Starting a travel blog (Read: Tips on How to Start a Travel Blog) is an excellent way of building a professional presence, brushing up your writing and photography skills, seeking feedback, and collecting your writing samples. Facebook and Twitter are the best channels for networking with fellow bloggers, freelance writers, and potential editors.
5) Find and follow up with the right editors.
Obvious as this might sound, a large part of the battle is finding the right editor to pitch your story. I’ve spent hours, days even, waiting for editors to reply, only to realize that to excel in this field, following up is crucial. If you’re confident that your pitch is both relevant and interesting to the publication you’re pitching, pick up the phone and try to connect with the editor, tap your social networks to build a rapport with the editor over Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, and send a couple of gentle reminders over email a week apart. If none of that works, you may as well assume that your pitch wasn’t good enough and start from scratch.
6) Know when to stop working for free.
This is a major milestone in the life of a freelance travel writer, and one that I have to confess I’m still struggling with. This is the moment when you tell yourself that no matter how well known the publication or who’s asking for the favour, you will not work for free. After freelancing for two years and building what I think is a pretty solid writing portfolio, I am still asked for free content (with some even shamelessly stating how big a marketing budget they have to promote it!). I found a great deal of inspiration at TBEX and in Mridu Khullar’s blog, and have slowly started to realize that if I don’t value my work, I can’t expect anyone else to.
It’s okay to accept unpaid assignments to build your portfolio, traffic, following, credibility and confidence, but once you’ve amassed enough of each, you’ve got to learn to say no.