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December 13th, 2012

The Rules of the Road for Pitching Travel Writing

So you want to get paid to travel and write about it? The line forms in the lobby, and it’s a long one.

At least, that was the case at Contently’s New York headquarters during Wednesday’s session of the Freelance Writers Meetup on travel writing.

The speakers were Dan Saltzstein, a travel editor for The New York Times, and Matt Stabile, founder and editor-in-chief of The Expeditioner.

The room was packed with dozens of journalists — some seasoned, some hoping to be — who wanted to hear about travel-story pitches, travel reporting, and the editors who help make it happen.

Contently’s John Hazard talks with Matt Stabile of The Expeditioner and Dan Saltzstein, a travel editor for The New York Times.

Pitching Travel

A key to the travel-story pitch, both editors agreed, is to find parts of the world that every other journalist is not already covering. They emphasized the importance of reading what the outlet to which you want to pitch runs — figure out where there may be gaps and develop stories that you think can fill them.

“This will not come as a shock to anybody, but we have far more Europe and Asia stuff than we do anything else,” Saltzstein said of the travel desk at the New York Times. So if your idea concerns those geographies, a successful pitch may require a fresh approach.

“There’s always the appeal of the counterintuitive,” he said.

Counterintuitive and off-the beaten path are the raison d’etre at the The Expeditoner.

“Nothing against Rome,” Stabile said of what he suggested to be typical pitches, when it comes to traveling Italy, “but go to some smaller towns, see what else is out there.”

That is, find a personal story in the places that you go, he said, and tell The Expeditioner what makes yours a travel piece different from what any other writer could create.

“I mean, it’s great that you went to a city,” he said, “but I think to myself: oh, you spent a week there and that’s all you did? You’re talking about these museums and a couple of restaurants you went to. I think some of the best pieces tend to be personal experiences. What experience did you have there that changed you?”

Got one? Then put it in a three or four paragraph e-mail and send it to a publication that you’ve researched in advance. Don’t pitch blind. These editors can tell, and they both said that a poorly suited pitch reflects poorly upon the pitcher.

The Realities of the Freelance Travel Writer

Still, even with the preceding points in mind, be prepared for the realities that comes with the coveted time and space that travel editors have to offer. You can come up with the perfect pitch — right in every way — and something outside of your control can still deep-six the idea.

“We could be closing a story that day on that particular destination,” said Saltzstein, but he added some advice about how to turn that frustration into a dialogue. “Be flexible. If the editor comes back to you with: well, this is a little bit too similar to this thing — be able to pivot off of it. You may or may not get anywhere, but that sort of flexibility will allow you to — potentially, at least — give the editor a sense that you’re flexible.”

The wake-up call for freelance writers also comes with the financials. (Of course it does, you groan.) Here’s the rundown of some things not to expect.

  • If your freelancing fantasy is that you’re going to get plane tickets picked up by the paper, think again. Not going to happen at the New York Times, said Saltzstein. (And that’s a paper with a travel budget).
  • Plane tickets aside, and while you may not be able to negotiate your fee, you might have a shot at creating a decent package for expenses.
  • Be careful about taking free anything from the destination. Saltzstein said that freelancers who have accepted gifts or gone on a junket can’t write for the Times for at least three years.

It’s not just the financials to consider. Stabile said that the wanted reporter’s skill-set is changing.

“Looking to the future, you have to take your free time and build up your other skills,” he said. “If you don’t know it already, learn HTML. Learn WordPress or Joomla. Learn the platforms used to produce the sites. Learn Photoshop and learn some video-editing skills. Audio even. Even presentation skills.”

Last tip, jointly from Saltzstein and Stabile: journal all the time when you’re in the field. Because when the editor comes back to you, post delivery, seeking that one more thing that your story doesn’t have, your day-to-day notes can save your skin.

“You can’t just fly back to Guatemala and figure out, oh what did I eat that day,” Stabile said. “You have to be very strict with yourself in terms of keeping notes. Keep very detailed notes about your experience. You only have one shot at it.”

Images courtesy of Erica Swallow

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