John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 27, 2007


If there’s one things that infuriates professional travel writers, it’s the thought of anybody else entering an already overcrowded profession. After all everybody travels and almost everybody writes and I doubt if there’s a newspaper or magazine in this country or England that isn’t inundated with travel pieces every day of the week. It’s a field day for editors who not only have an inexhaustible supply of material but often aren’t expected to pay for it. Of course the bigger papers just junk the whole slush pile and use only pieces they’ve asked for — usually from their own staff or regulars.

The advantage of getting into print is obvious. A writer who can produce something that he or she wrote is much more likely to get an assignment or— more common — parlay it into a free press trip. These go on all the time with virtually every tourist agency — state, national, or regional — seeking writers to take so-called FAM trips (familiarization tours) around their particular area and hopefully get something into print about it. The travel-writing profession is very crowded. The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) alone has 2,000 members although many of them are PR people whose presence I often protested and is one of the reasons I got kicked out.

Despite all this, however, we all of us are constantly teaching other people how to be travel writers. In the course of my 40 years as a travel writer, during which I have written 30 plus books, I must have trained a score of different people, usually by taking them along and have them collect the basic stuff such as hotel prices, restaurant menus, transportation information — all the essential back-of-the-book information that we eventually graduate from in favor of actually writing stuff.

For my assistant, I offer two basic lessons. In the first example, I say ‘take a Greyhound bus trip across America. It’s exhausting, gritty, grubby, banal. Boring with lousy food and constant discomfort, but’, I say, “it grinds you down to the state when any diversion comes as a welcome relief from the hours of nothing happening.” At one stop, for example, a guy gets on the bus, stumbles and oranges spill from his bag and run down the aisle. It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened all day, and the point is that it allows you to become aware of the drama of everyday life which happens all the time but without us noticing it.

It’s very important for a travel writer to notice the little things — the oddly shaped windows on a house… the woman selling flowers at the corner of the street… the wonderful aroma as you pass the bakery. These little things are so commonplace to the people who live there that they no longer notice them which is why travel writing is best done by people who’ve never seen the place before they write about.

The second lesson I teach my assistant is to take a bicycle-powered rickshaw ride down any Indian street. These is no such thing as a boring Indian street. “Take a tape recorder” I say, “and record into it everything you see: the kids pulling the cow’s tail, the woman cooking dinner in a car’s hubcap, the disheveled guys fixing a 1950s Chevy, the glowing pile of charcoal over which that flat Indian bread is being baked. And then go back to your hotel and transcribe the tape, adding to it the minimum of words so that it is no longer just a list. The best travel writing, in my opinion, is genuine street reporting. Tell people exactly what you see; opinions come secondarily.

There’s an old adage for fledgling television producers which goes: “Tell ’em what you’re going to show them; show them; then tell them what you’ve shown them.” It works well for television because images pass by so fast. But unfortunately too many writers follow the same injunction and in my job as editor I sometimes have to cut out 20 or 25% from the books I am updating or rewriting because they’re too full of flowery language about something before and after describing what the something is. More than in most writing, space is at a premium: a travel guide should give you as much information as possible and the writer’s flowery prose is sometimes an impediment. Not that elegant writing is not wanted but basically there are two distinct kinds of travel writers: the silky essayists who are usually big names and in $5-a-word prose inject their thoughts and the invaluable hacks such as myself who try to collect and dispense all the facts you might possibly need.

When I worked at The New York Times  there was a fine writer named Herbert Mitgang who once gave me a tip I’ve never forgotten. “I always try to get motion into my stories,” he said, “to keep things moving.” Which sits in my mind beside the advice offered by my first news editor. I took him a story I’d written and he read it and began to ask questions — which I couldn’t answer.

“Never raise questions in a story that you can’t answer” he said, handing back the story.

Rules for traveling. Never take more bags than you can carry yourself for at least three blocks. If you get to a town that you know you’re going to explore for the next day or two find the nearest acceptable hotel and check in, leaving yourself unburdened to find a better place if necessary as you check out the town.

Always carry a Swiss army knife (can opener, bottle opener, corkscrew); Tiger Balm, a small flashlight. envelopes in which to keep your notes separate from each other (those transparent plastic covers that come around your magazine subscription are best) and a 100watt bulb (which you’ll probably have to buy in the nearest supermarket) to substitute for the usually inadequate reading lamp beside the bed.

And always carry food, some sort of iron rations such as cookies, canned sardines, packaged cheese. One day in Japan I had been traveling for about eight hours by train and when I arrived in this small town late at night and with difficulty found a ryokan — I don’t speak any languages — they settled me in and brought me a meal of raw egg and seaweed. I was so grateful I had some cheese and foil-wrapped pumpernickel in my bag.

I’m a big believer in the rule of three which states that three examples of something are subtly convincing because three is the first number past coincidence. So I give three examples for something I want to “prove”.

Repeated consistently, the Rule of Three sets up a subconscious acceptance in the mind of the lazy reader that if the writer thinks that’s enough evidence, it’s good enough for him.