Interview with Travel Writer Jerome Shaw

A few months ago I was contacted by a college student, who asked if she could interview me about travel writing. Each month on Twitter and Facebook I receive questions from people wanting to break into travel writing, so I am publishing the Q&A in hopes that it will answer a few of the most common questions that those starting out in travel writing commonly ask.

Travel Writing & Photography Workshop and Tour 
Santa Fe, NM  December 11th - 14th, 2014

Interview with Travel Writer Jerome Shaw

How did you start off your career as a travel writer? 

Oddly, I began my career in travel writing as a photographer.  I worked as the photographer as part of a team with travel writers.  I often traveled with the writers and photographed the places and experiences that they would eventually write about.  As budgets became more restricted many publications began sending only one person on the assignments and it wasn’t the photographer. Having worked with writers on travel stories over the years I saw how they worked on location and then read their finished articles.  This insider look at their processes gave me excellent training in travel writing. I began to both photograph and write on many assignments. 

Why did you decide to pursue travel writing?

I enjoyed traveling and found the creative process involved in writing very satisfying.  To some degree it was an economic decision to combine travel writing with travel photography because of changes in the publishing industry. 

What obstacles did you face breaking into the industry?

I met with some resistance having been a photographer for so many years. Some publications refused to accept me as a writer.  Travel writing is a very competitive field, especially for the well paid assignments for high circulation publications.  The move from print to electronic media has changed the landscape of travel writing greatly.  It is now easier than ever to be published but more difficult than ever to get paid well for being published.  If this trend continues the best talent young will naturally migrate away from the industry.

What’s the best way to establish yourself if you’re starting off freelancing?

Create an excellent product, on time.  You will likely have to finance your own travel in the beginning or concentrate on local destinations.  You may also have to also accept low or no pay but I recommend you do as little of this as possible.  And never with the expectation that once you get your foot in the door with a publication by writing for free, that they will eventually hire you as a paid writer. This rarely happens.  Once you establish that you work for free or low rates it is very difficult to break out of that mold as far as an individual publication is concerned.  You’ll always be their low-cost option and the better paying assignments will go to writers that established early that they expected to be paid. Though, in the beginning you may have to allow some of your work to be published for little or no money to gain clips/samples to build your resume, chose these instances wisely.  

What advice would you give to new travel writers?

Think about the place where you live as travel destination and produce travel pieces featuring your hometown.  This is a good way to produce low cost material that won’t break the bank if you don’t get top dollar for publication.

What are common mistake travel writers make in their copy?

The mistake I make most often is to tell my readers how wonderful or terrible the travel experience was rather than show them what the experience was like.  

How did you first get published?  

As a photographer I broke in with a Aspen Magazine in Aspen, Colorado illustrating features.  My first writing publication came early in my career when I was asked by Windsurfing Magazine to write 600-800 words to accompany my photographs of boardsailing in the spring in the Rocky Mountains.  It was a laborious, time consuming process for me to write that article.  For the time spent writing I would have made much better money shooting photographs. For the next fifteen years I declined writing assignments or passed them on to my writer friends.  

My first travel article publications were for an independent small market newspaper.  They were creating a new travel section and needed a reliable source of content.  I had a backlog of content from years of traveling as photographer and had seen the necessity to do add writing to my skill set.  We were a great fit.  

Do you think it is necessary to have an agent?

While it may not be the best situation for travel
journalists the reality is most have to hone 
their skills in both writing and photography. We 
are re-entering the era of the "one man band" travel
journalist.  Soon we'll all have to add video
production to our skill set too.  

Do you think travel writers should do their own photography? Why?

Funny you should ask.  I actually do not think they should but the reality is that they must in many cases do their own photos.  Especially in the early part of their career.  I still enjoy getting an assignment to do only the photography.  It allows me to focus one thing and do it well while the writer can concentrate on getting the details right and developing a complex story.  However, many publications simply do not have the budgets necessary to support two people traveling to a location and time necessary for them to create the article as a team.  

As a fledgling travel writer, especially working for on line publications, you will certainly be asked to create or provide photography to accompany your story. Becoming passable as a photographer is the least you should do.  If you really want to put yourself in a position to be in demand you should learn basic video production skills.

Do you do any other writing besides for travel?

Yes.  I write social media and marketing copy.  I write promotional copy for brochures and website.  These are often for travel industry clients but not always.  

I write a lot of photo captions. I also write how-to photography articles.  I have in the past written for film and television projects.

What is ‘good’ travel writing?

Writing that brings the location to life and draws the reader into the story being told while providing useful information is good travel writing.  The best travel writing shows, rather than tells the reader what the travel experience was like.  Everyone thinks that they can write travel even if they can’t write a business letter or a decent short story.  The best travel writing is personal without becoming a “what I did on my summer vacation” style of writing.  Good travel writing is just good writing.

What is ‘bad’ travel writing?

Conversely, bad travel writing is just bad writing.  Two issues that are often part of bad travel writing are the use of cliched descriptions and overuse of adjectives, especially superlatives.  

What are the benefits of being a travel writer?

Travel. More specifically travel with a purpose built in.  When traveling as a journalist you get access to people and situations that the average tourist or traveler does not get.  The satisfaction of being creative is also one of the benefits of being a travel writer. For me personally, meeting new people is one of the greatest benefits of my having become a travel journalist.

What are the negative sides to being a travel writer?

Low pay and high competition are two definite drawbacks to being a travel writer. Travel writing is not a a high paying field except for a few elite writers. 

People also often equate travel with vacations. Traveling as a journalist has very little in common with vacation travel and much more in common with business travel.  It is a bit like living in resort town where most of the people visiting are there for a holiday but you have to get up and go to work while they play.  

Anything else you want to add?

If you love to travel — get rich.  If you love to write — become a traveler. ~ Jerome Shaw

Links to other interviews with Jerome Shaw: 

Mode-Moderne Journal - Travel Photographer: Jerome Shaw  Seeing The World Through a Lens  
Job Shadow - Interview with a Travel Writer/Photographer 

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