What is it that separates good travel writing from the bad travel writing?
We can start, at least, by considering six essential elements for travel writing: history, sharing a journey’s characters, imagination, insight, humour and dialogue; many of these elements are also found to be essential for quality fiction writing (Granville, 1990). There are other elements but lets begin with these. At the end of this document you’ll also find useful references to assist with your travel writing. So, along with my advice please take time to study the travel writing referenced.
Too much travel writing fails to address essential writing elements and are saturated with positive, sweetened journalism, written by people who’ve received an incentive for their thoughts. This has resulted in a tarnished image for travel writers: freeloaders who’ve found a cheap way to travel.
I think it’s important to read travel writing to understand what works and what doesn’t. Three writers who will assist your travel writing journey are: Bruce Chatwin, Peter Davis and Ryszard Kapuscinski. These writers utilise a broad range of the six elements I’ve mentioned during travel writing, although each have a slightly different approach to their travel writing.
Bruce Chatwin provides travel writing with a strong, non-patronising voice and is able to do this from different writing points of view. He writes about journeys, which are not your every day travel journeys. Chatwin constructs compact sentences, which pack a punch, with each compact sentence building onto the last.
In Patagonia (Chatwin, 2003) and A Coup (Chatwin, 1991) are both examples of Chatwin’s travel writing, which provide history, character development, scene development and insight into Chatwin’s journeys. Chatwin strategically utilises dialogue to create scenes with characters and also gives insight into his travel location. He provides his dialogue carefully, in short progressive doses of information, by characters he meets during his travels giving insight and allowing readers to further connect with his writing. At times during In Patagonia, Chatwin uses Spanish language and foreign accents with the occasional broken English in his dialogue. This advances the story by developing characters and often has hidden subtext. His dialogue is also blended in amongst text to maintain the story’s rhythm: “In Gaiman the schoolmaster’s wife introduced me to the pianist. He was a thin nervous boy with a drained face and eyes that water in the wind. His hands were strong and red. The ladies in the Welsh Choir had adopted him (Chatwin, 1994).” After giving this scene development and introducing the “pianist,” Chatwin then goes on to connect the reader with the character with the pianist’s dialogue: “And now I play the Pathétique. Yes?” This writing uses dialogue, insight, and character development and also offers a pleasant voice for its readers in amongst Chatwin’s other text.
Chatwin also pays particular attention to providing history during his writing, although he also does this in a fashion that does not jolt or disrupt the beat of the story.
In Patagonia and A Coup are both examples of Chatwin’s travel writing which utilise elements of fiction writing (Grenville, 1990) during nonfiction work. Chatwin’s writing almost ticks all six essential travel writing boxes, although unfortunately, lacks the sixth element: humour.
Peter Davis is a travel writer who writes similarly to Chatwin, though he incorporates mild humour into his stories. Davis also presents scene development, character development, insight, dialogue and history into his writing. Over all, he has an even balance of the six travel writing elements without lacking humour.
Peter Davis utilises humour in his essay Bollywood blockbuster (Davis, 2001) in the opening paragraph: “I don’t usually allow a complete stranger to remove my trousers.” This creates a potentially humorous scene and also that extra curiosity from readers to further explore the sentences that follow.
During Bollywood blockbuster Davis introduces a character with the use of dialogue: “My name is Arjun,” which tunes his readers into wanting more information about this character. “I’m a film producer and I’ve been watching you … would like to do a film with me?” Davis then writes. He afterwards goes on to provide insight, related to this character and about the travel story’s location: “in India no request is what is seems” and “perhaps he was after my camera?” Immediately, hands-on experience is sensed from Davis giving the reader the impression Davis is street-smart in the ways of India. This comforts readers to trust his insight into India’s darker side and engages readers to want more information from Davis’ experiences in India. Once readers open their guard up to Davis he then goes on to give his knockout sentence: “Worse, he might have wanted my kidneys for a transplant,” which gives a shock effect for readers as Davis gives the chilling reality of the third world.
Davis also strategically inserts historical information into his text: “The massive bell from the 15th-century Metropolitan Cathedral announces the hour (Davis, 2002).” This sentence alone has been constructed with history, scene and insight. Davis cleverly structures sentences in a similar fashion throughout his writing to not disrupt sentence rhythm during his stories.
The other writer who has a high standard of travel writing is Ryszard Kapuscinski. This writer uses many anecdotes in the midst of his non-patronizing voice. Kapuscinski generally writes from a first person narrative, which puts his opinion in the firing line for readers. A typical example of his writing is: “Where ever one goes in this word, one will boast about how far their ancestors had come or reached (Kapuscinski, 1994).” Kapuscinski then goes onto to give his personal point of view: “People need this awareness.” This opinion by Kapuscinski runs the risk of loosing readers, at least if they don’t agree with his travel writing.
Kapuscinski almost uses all of Swick’s “essential elements,” although he uses these elements with a different commitment to Chatwin and Davis. Kapuscinski tends to provide a larger dedication to history and education for his readers. This is fine, although an issue with Kapuscinski’s travel writing is it also lacks humour. This leaves his writing often flat. Another issue with Kapuscinski’s writing is he tends to tell his readers about his journeys rather than show them. The following paragraph is an example of this:
“…in the Susamyr Valley, two hundred kilometres from Funze, Dzhumal herds the sheep of the Panfilov kolkoz, and because he distinguished himself in this work, he was awarded by government decree the title of Outstanding Shephard of the Kirghiz Soveit Socialist Republic (Kapuscinski, 1994).”
Davis, on the other hand, shows his readers with scene development, characters, insight and more:
“…in the late afternoon, in another corner of the square, Aztec dancers pound their drums with such vigour that the church bells are almost silenced. Else where in the square rap dancers, political demonstrators, tradesmen, shoeshiners and entrepreneurs congregate and push their causes (Davis, 2002).”
On top of telling his story, rather than showing it, Kapuscinski also neglects dialogue; when he does use dialogue it’s provided in large blocks of conversation. These blocks of dialogue could do better if broken down into smaller dialogue additions (Grenville, 1990). Scene development is also lacking in Kapuscinski’s writing, as shown in his above paragraph. At times Kapuscinski substitutes this lack of scene development with dramatic nonfiction inclusions such as, “During the blasting of a block a coal had fallen and killed workers. They managed to dig out the body, but he had died instantly (Kapuscinski, 1991).” For me, this writing lacks scene development, character development, insight, humour, and is running the risk of being “boring”. Kapuscinski needs take a leaf out of Davis’ ad Chatwin’s stories and balance the elements of travel writing.
The following attempt by Kapuscinski has a little more creativeness than his past paragraph, although once again, he’s telling his readers rather than showing them.
“The truck is racing through the dusk, its headlamps, like pupils searching for the finish line. It’s close: Jeziorany, twenty kilometres. Another half hour, and we’ll be there. The truck is pushing hard, but it’s touch and go. They old machine wasn’t meant for such a haul (Kapuscinski, 1991).”
Bruce Chatwin, Peter Davis and Ryszard Kapuscinski are three writers with great examples of travel writing. They help to get travel writers out of the ditch as being known as freeloaders who’ve found a cheap way to travel. The six essential elements are a good guide for getting travel writing off the ground. The elements are also handy to consider while analysing the travel writing of decent travel writers, such as the three travel writers discussed. The balance of the six elements can be played with to create different stories for different readers. Too much of one element, then not enough of another, may bring a story crashing down; failure to include any of these elements may associate your travel writing with the everyday travel journalism – the often bad travel writing – we’re fed too often in the tourism section of the local rag.
Chatwin, B 1991, ‘ A Coup’, in B Buford (ed.), The Best of Granta travel, Granta Books, UK, pp. 72-89.
This story is an example of nonfiction travel writing which has been created to read like a work of fiction. The story has been told with imagination and creativeness to give exciting travel writing.
This piece of writing has been provided with tension, conflict, subtext, character development, scene development and plot pace that keeps the story moving quickly. There are great examples of using dialogue to bind readers to a story in this piece of travel writing.
Chatwin, B 2003, In Patagonia, Penguin, London.
This writing is an extended piece of travel writing exploring South America’s region known as “Patagonia”. The writing is the work of nonfiction, although incorporates many techniques of fiction writing to provide a well structured story.
The author writes the story as a first person narrative, although there are chapters where the author has more focus on the story’s characters, then the story is told as a third person narrative. During the story, characters, history, insight, and scene development are given to bind readers to the story. This writing is an excellent example of travel writing with much to show and tell.
Davis, P 2002, ‘Mexico City’, Eureka Street, vol. 12, no. 7, September, pp. 24-6.
This is a short piece of travel writing providing an insightful visit to Mexico City. The author provides a style of writing which incorporates his readers and attempts to include them in the story.
This piece has many elements of fiction writing mixed with realism. There are useful tips for those visiting Mexico City, history on the location, character introduction and development, dialogue and the story is delivered with an enthusiastic pace. This writer has many tips for travel writers wishing to develop their skills for travel stories.
Davis, P 1998, ‘Bollywood blockbuster’, The Age, 6 June, p. 130.
A short piece of travel writing is about the writer’s journey to India and his experience with the film industry there.
In this writing the author provides a first person narrative about his adventure and accidental stumbling upon India’s film industry. The writer provides humorous characters and education about India’s film industry. Although, this education is not in depth, the reading is set with a fast, entertaining pace and provides an interesting read for those wishing to spark up their travel writing.
Grenville, K 1990, ‘Getting Started’, The writing book: a workbook for fiction writers, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 16-38.
This is a textbook for fiction writers who are starting or who wish to improve their fiction writing skills.
The author addresses many variables which separate readers and fiction writing. In doing this she provides many different elements of writing such as, character, point of view, voice, dialogue, scene, just to name a few, to attempt to bring fiction writer’s attention to these elements to improve the connection between their writing and their readers. The book is a great text for those wishing to produce quality fiction writing then applying those skills to their travel writing.
Grenville, K 1990, ‘Dialogue’, The writing book: a workbook for fiction writers, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 101-23.
This writing extract by Kate Grenville focuses on dialogue in fiction writing. Grenville provides suggestions for creating efficient dialogue and mentions flawed dialogue can separate a reader from a story.
The author defines dialogue as: ‘an artificial expression designed to live on the page’. Grenville writes dialogue is not the same as conversation and highlights the use of punctuation to perfect dialogue. Grenville also labels dialogue as: ‘an optional extra’. She indicates writers need to be selective with what they consider to be that ‘optional extra’. Helpful tips are given which are useful for travel writing.
Kapuscinski, R 1994, Imperium, Granta Books, London.
An extended work providing history and education of the countries which make up Central Asia during the times of the “Imperium”.
The writer provides a large amount of information in the form of personal anecdotes. This writing is given as a first person narrative and provides many writing techniques similar to those of fiction writing. The story gives an example of a writer who tells his readers rather than shows them. There is dialogue and character throughout the story, although there is a larger dedication to history and education for readers. Over all, it’s not a bad book for travel writers looking to move their travel writing forward.
Kapuscinski, R 1991, ‘Stiff’, in B Buford (ed.), The Best of Granta travel, Granta Books, London, pp. 192-9.
This travel writing piece is a first person narrative. The writer gives a good example of travel writing, although it lacks humour. With this lack of humour aside, there are still many things to take from this piece for the emerging travel writer.
The author provides information throughout the journey which attempts to give mild shock to his readers. There is a fast pace to the story and plenty of insight.
If you found this writing interesting, or helpful, please support Gaston’s travel and writing with a Facebook “like”.
Thanks for the recent like on one of my posts Gaston. Although I’ve written short blog posts for years I’ve never considered the art/science behind writing. Found this post rather interesting. Pleased to see that I actually do some of the above though randomly and not necessarily intentionally. A bit like the famous Eric Morecambe comedy line regarding his eccentric piano playing…
“I’m playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order.”
Cool mate, no problem. Yes, writing isn’t rocket science. I think it just needs time and patience. I’d say the patience is to recognize some of the variables I’ve mentioned here.
Thanks for returning the read. I got addicted to travel then I got addicted to sharing my stories. I’m often scanning for travel writing. I’m here if ever you need help with your travel writing. I’m usually happy to read 500 words of a draft then provide feedback.
Thanks for the offer of help Gaston…greatly appreciated. I definitely get the time and patience bit. As the years have gone on I find it takes me longer and longer to write a paragraph such is my constant editing.
Recently I’ve been limiting my writing to relatively short introductions to photo galleries but I am tempted to produce longer pieces…as long as my attention span will allow!
Meant to ask where you discovered my blog Gaston. I’m guessing it was to do with tags? Curious to know as I had just set tags today (never having done so before in 5 years of blogging, I’m embarrassed to admit).
The “time” can mean a lot of things. I can bust out 3,000 words of ramble in a flash – less than an hour – but with the finely tuned stuff this can be 250 words per hour. I even have times when I’m fiddling with 250 words all day; that’s not me being lazy or having a block – I’ve never had one of those – it’s me being fussy. I recently discovered that journalist can be expected to complete three 500 word articles per day plus do their research. There’s little patience there.
Re: “where you discovered my blog”; I have “travel” programmed into my WordPress reader so you must have tagged it as “travel” or something similar.
Thanks Gaston…had a few new visitors today…probably tagging as well.
Looking forward to reading more of your posts.
Very very true. I absolutely love In Patagonia, and just can’t get my head around Chatwin’s genius – so compact and powerful. I wonder if you’ve read ‘The Elements of Style’ – Strunk and White? I recommend it, it’s full of warnings, rules and advice that is proving invaluable. Hopefully one day I won’t look at my own writing and grimace!
Thank you for reading my work. I’m happy you’ve recommended ‘The Elements of Style (Strunk and White)’. It’s a helpful book to get the rules of writing in place but I’m not sure it’ll help writers give their work a creative edge. I often ramble with my writing and occasionally don’t cross my Ts. I think the book you’ve mentioned is definitely a good book to help sort out grammatically sound writing. Although, I do think that often all of these writing rules – as mentioned in ‘The Elements of Style’ – can be what gets in the way of a well written travel story. I think many people who have stories to tell don’t go through with them – possibly they’re intimidated by the rules of grammar. Of all the travelers out there roaming the world I’d just love it if more of them could learn to get their writing 3D and worry about sorting the grammar out later; this would get more nice travel writing out in the air. Once the 3D arrives, or the travel writing with a creative nonfiction edge, then I think your recommendation is spot on for writers.