The Secret of Great Travel Writing

Travelling is one of the great joys of life. But those peak moments of discovery and exploration, when we are elevated from the routines of our everyday lives, are fleeting and, if we’re not careful, soon forgotten.

Souvenirs and photographs help us remember. But, over time, the details fade: we see ourselves on the top of Table Mountain, in South Africa, but we forget what the wind felt like on our face, the way our heart beat through our chest with the exertion of the climb. We put the Moroccan tagine pot on our mantelpiece, but we can’t recall the old Berber man who gave it to us, the sip of sweet mint tea we shared. To keep the joy of travelling alive, nothing beats writing it down.


But good reading, is hard writing. What we imagine will work well, doesn’t always translate to the page. Our precious memories feel distorted, and distant, once we articulate them on paper. Many of us now are also sharing our travels through blogs and social media – we want our friends and family to experience those incredible, life-changing moments with us. Capturing the essence of a place, or a moment, in a few short paragraphs, whether for our own pleasure or for other’s eyes, has never been more pertinent.

The good news is there are a few simple tips that will improve your travel writing dramatically. Whether I’m working for a national newspaper, or just writing on my own personal blog, I use these three simple tricks everyday. They improve my writing, deepen my travelling experience and help me hold on to memories that I know will last a lifetime.

Please note this list is not exhaustive. The deeper you go into the art, and craft, of travel writing the more there is to discover and explore. If you want to find out more, drop me a line at my blog: The Blue Dot Perspective.


Capture the Essence, Nothing Else:
Alfred Hitchcock said “drama is life with the boring bits taken out.” Travel writing should be the same. Try to capture the essence of an experience, not explain every minute detail.

Think about this in two main ways:

  • The Passage of Time: Get straight to the action. Don’t waste space describing uneventful components of your trip. Maybe you’re on safari and you spend two hours driving around seeing nothing and then, suddenly, you come across a lioness stalking a baby gazelle. When you write about this later take us to the heart of the action straight away. Put us right beside the hunt, not bumping around in the back of the jeep waiting for something to happen.
  • The Heart of the Experience: What was the key moment? What was the major emotion you felt? Maybe it was the look in the lion’s eye, maybe it was the way her muscles tensed ready to pounce? Perhaps it was the unsettling thrill of watching the kill? Take time to reflect upon the experience, both during and afterwards, to get to the essence of it. Concentrate on describing those few things vividly and your writing will be punchy and well paced.

Zoom in, Zoom Out:
When describing a place, person or experience think of your writing like a movie camera. Wide shots show the reader the context, the overall situation and help establish a sense of place. But in order for that place to feel real you need to zoom in on the details. Details are what make travel writing come alive.

Maybe you want to describe a market scene. Begin with a wide shot: where is it, what is the landscape like, the weather – pick out the broad contexts that will set the scene for your reader. Now zoom in: maybe people are haggling, maybe a donkey is teetering through the alleyway. Now zoom in again: a boy looks up at you and smiles, you bite into a ripe peach and the juice drips down your chin.

Vary your perspective and your reader will feel as if they are absorbing every aspect of a scene, not just looking at it from far away. Add details that help to frame the essence of that place, person or experience and they will feel like they are there with you.

Create Imaginative Space:
The classic rule of writing is show, don’t tell. Writing should spark ideas and ignite emotions, not prescribe them. I call this the imaginative space. If a writer spells out every aspect of a scene, the imaginative space shrinks – there is no room for the reader to participate emotionally in the story.

For example, it’s enough to say “an old woman, dressed in rags and bent double at the hips, holds her empty hand to the street.” There’s no need to say – “It was sad”. Let the readers decide for themselves what that scene meant. Your job is to paint pictures with words in ways that steer people’s imagination towards the experience you’re hoping to convey. But what that end experience for the reader ultimately is, is up to them, not you. Have faith in their intellect and emotions, and they will reward you by caring about what you write.