Freelance Journalism: How I became a travel writer – Part 2

This is a continuation of How I became a travel writer – part 1. If you haven’t yet read the first part, you can find it here.

How I became a travel writer

Part 2

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Building PR contacts in food and travel PR

Alongside my feature writing, my editor at the Salford Advertiser decided to give me an additional responsibility to look after the competition copy for the newspaper. Every week our readers could enter our competition of the week, which covered everything from a meal for two in a local restaurant, to a couple of theatre tickets or weekend away with Butlins.

I’d dealt with in-house PR and marketing teams before across charities, the police and fire departments, the NHS and schools. Yet this was the beginning of my networking with PR agencies for products, restaurants and even hotels and tourist boards which would later become an integral part of becoming a successful travel writer. As I produced competition copy on their behalf, I developed a little black book of some great contacts in food and travel PR.

Dipping my toe into restaurant reviews

Before I really began to dip my toe into travel writing, I also began writing restaurant reviews for the newspaper. When our editor announced that we could liaise with PRs to visit a restaurant and write it up for the paper, it felt like such a perk. An all-expenses paid meal in return for 500 words? The dream! Even if it was in the local carvery…

My first hotel review as a travel writer

As the newspaper began to diversify with its lifestyle content, they progressed from including the occasional restaurant write-up to full-page travel features. One of the first travel features I wrote was a hotel review of the beautiful Devonshire Arms in North Yorkshire which followed by a solo trip to Barbados with Virgin Holidays. It was my first experience of the Caribbean and my piece was published in a weekend supplement of the daily paper, the Manchester Evening News. During this time, I’d popped down to London to take a travel writing course with Peter Carty from the Guardian (which I believe he still runs) and I made it my mission to apply everything I’d learned to the travel features I covered for the paper.

During my time at the papers, I had several other hotel and travel features published, including a piece on New York where I stayed on the 37th floor of a five-star hotel overlooking Central Park. Had I made it as a travel writer? Not quite. But I was definitely getting a taste of what the life of a travel writer could be like.

Hoxton Hotel Shoreditch

Moving to London

After a few years in newspapers, I knew I wanted to move onto bigger things. I had ideas of travelling or moving to New York to work on a magazine, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I got myself a job in the communications department for North Yorkshire Police while I lived at home with my parents and had some thinking time. With no rent to pay, it meant I could save as much money as possible. I lasted about six months – I was eager to get out of the countryside and take on my next big challenge. New York wasn’t going to happen and I didn’t have the finances to go travelling, so I took a leap of faith and moved to London with the goal of finally getting some feature writing work in a newspaper or magazine.

My first knock-back in the travel writing industry

After initially couch-surfing for a bit, I finally got myself a flatshare in North London in 2010. I can’t remember in what order everything happened but one of the first things I did when I got to London was take a week’s internship at a well-known travel magazine. I was so excited to be working on a national publication and I got some much-needed insight on how a travel magazine was run. I even got one or two bylines which was all adding to my travel writing portfolio.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to apply for a staff role they had advertised and during the selection process, I had to complete subbing tasks and carry out a formal interview.

I’m not sure if I didn’t have enough travel experience or my subbing skills didn’t meet the standard of the other candidates, (probably a bit of both) but it was then, the editor said: ‘I think perhaps the best route for you would be women’s magazines.’ Talk about killing someone’s dreams!

I felt deflated and a bit annoyed, because let’s be honest, it was a tad patronising, don’t you think? Eight years on, I’ve realised that so many people landed jobs on travel magazines with little or no experience in the subject of travel back then (although of course, it helps). Showing you were passionate and had the editorial skills was often enough, because in travel, you learn a lot on the job.

And if I could offer advice to anyone in this situation, it would be to pursue your goals, whatever anyone says to you, be it the editor of a national travel magazine or not. Looking back, I wish I could have shaken myself and told myself to toughen up because it probably knocked my confidence a bit and certainly put me off travel writing for a while..

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From travel writing to real-life features

We all know you can’t live in London on nothing, so as the pressure to earn some cash started to kick in, I put the travel writing on the back-burner and ended up taking a role with a press agency, writing and selling real life features. A few months later, I did some shifts on a well-known rather narrow-minded national newspaper (never again) before moving into freelance shifting across women’s magazines.

My experience on the press agency and across real life magazines opened my eyes to a whole new side to journalism. It was a side I soon realised I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with.

In some cases, I was writing stories that raised awareness of important issues such as health conditions and campaigning for changes in the law. Other times, it involved paying (sometimes very naïve) people to share some very disturbing life experiences while putting a rather extreme slant on things in a bid to up the magazine sales.

It didn’t sit right with me and I also got a very tough lesson in what it’s like to work with magazine editors. I though news editors on local newspapers could be mean, but it was a whole new level with women’s magazines.

But it was hard to leave this part of the industry as it presented some amazing opportunities. I landed a long-term freelance gig for well over a year on a women’s weekly and I was getting my name in print every week, attending some lavish PR events and it was a time in journalism when you’d receive lots of free stuff (which I’m not ashamed to say, also kept me interested). I was also building on my existing writing and interviewing skills but eventually I realised, I was still pining for a job in lifestyle and travel writing and my colleagues knew this. It was time to move on.

The freelance years

If anyone asked me today what’s it’s like to go fully freelance, I’d give them the honest answer – when times are good, they’re really good, when times are tough, it can crush you.

This is what I experienced when I went ‘properly’ freelance in 2012. Add in the fact that we were in the middle of a recession and the freelance industry was getting tougher and tougher. After another six months or so, I realised that I wasn’t going to make an honest living from freelance writing from home just yet. It was time for plan b.

Luckily, I’d been building up my portfolio of lifestyle and travel writing by writing for a couple of lifestyle websites while I shifted on the women’s magazines. I wrote fitness and beauty pieces, restaurant reviews and travel features. I got paid very little and (shamefully) sometimes wrote for free, but I got to visit some amazing restaurants and experienced some fantastic hotel stays and trips abroad, which made everything seem worth it. Above all, I was passionate about writing and that’s what kept me going.

Ready to work: coffee and laptop on marble table at Martello Hall

Becoming a brand journalist – another step towards travel writing

With my – now impressive – portfolio of writing, I was in a great position to land myself an editorial job in the travel industry. And that’s what I did when I was offered the role of Brand Journalist at Virgin Holidays.

Working within the busy marketing department, the role was incredibly varied and multi-layered. It was also fast-paced and involved everything from producing marketing collateral (customer letters, brochure copy and website content) to producing blogs, advertorials for national newspapers and helping edit the company’s iPad magazine. I even got to interview Ben Fogle and write his blogs! I travelled quite a bit too, racking up quite a few air miles to the Caribbean but above all, I gained a deeper understanding of the travel industry and learned a huge amount about different types of holidays and destinations I’d never been to. It was another string to my bow. And after nearly two years, I felt I had the ammunition to tackle the freelance travel writing industry once again.

I can finally call myself a travel writer

With the further contacts I’d made at Virgin and the knowledge I’d gleaned on worldwide destinations and the travel industry, I finally felt like my leap back into the freelance journalism world was going to be a success. By 2014, I’d began meeting more travel editors, attending travel conferences and felt like I was in a great place to pitch to national publications. I’d even had a ‘secret’ blog going which I called Oh So London (which later became The Travel Journo) and I now realise, has played a great part in developing my travel writing career. By the time I’d launched into the freelance world a second-time round, I had added all sorts of strings to my bow. And I began to build up a great portfolio of travel writing across websites and magazines. I could finally call myself a travel writer!

By 2015, I was accepted as a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers which introduced me to a fantastic network of travel writers and I was actually starting to make a reasonable living as a freelancer. BC and I even took a three month trip through Africa where I used the chance to sell a variety of travel features to UK publications.

Travel writer Lucy McGuire at Kazuri bead factory, Kenya

Interviewing and filming a member of staff at the Kazuri Bead Factory in Kenya

I realised that I had to diversify (and still do) by combining my travel writing with content writing, copywriting and other types of journalism. I’ve even gone back to the occasional bit of shifting on travel publications to balance out those ‘quiet periods’. But as the travel industry gets increasingly competitive and travel writing fees continue to be squeezed, this is the reality for most writers in the travel industry today.

Have I taken the quickest route to becoming a travel writer? No. Have I met some challenges along the way? Absolutely. And would I have got into travel writing far quicker if I hadn’t taken the advice of that critical editor? Possibly.

But would I change anything I’ve done to get where I am today? Absolutely not! I live by the motto that you should live with no regret and while I took a few diversions and had a few ‘character building’ experiences along the way, I’m proud of the route I’ve taken.

And while I still face regular challenges in the competitive travel writing world, I love my job, I love the opportunities it has brought me and I am proud of my achievements.

As I said in this post, I receive all sorts of emails asking me the million-dollar question ‘how do you break into the travel writing industry’. As you can see, it’s not easy! But it’s possible.

If I had to offer advice on how you would do this in 2018, it would be very different to the route I’ve taken.

But that’s a post for another day.

Have you found my posts on my journalism and travel writing career interesting and would you be interested in further posts which offer advice and tips on becoming a travel writer? Please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below.

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6 Comments

  1. 17th January 2018 / 10:52 am

    This was really interesting to read as I have booked a course with Peter Carty!

  2. 19th January 2018 / 6:54 am

    Very very interesting.
    I took a different route when I started my blog in 2010 (because I’d had a lot of travel experience and wanted a place to write about it), grew my blog, was living abroad then was offered the opportunity to co-author a guidebook, and it grew from there.
    Blogs do act like an online CV, or mine has.
    I then spent a long time penning my travel novel, based on my life abroad, and this helped too.
    It is hard work, but so worth it. I think people who expect things to change be easy to them don’t always deserve it.

    • 19th January 2018 / 9:24 am

      Thanks Rebecca. It’s amazing how a blog can act as a platform to your career. As you say, it is like an online CV and you’ve proven that it can pay off. I love hearing how other people made their break into travel writing. No story ever seems to be the same and as you say, it can look easy on the outside but more often than not, it involves a lot of hard graft!

  3. 10th February 2018 / 5:41 am

    I have a successful business in tourism and have been hungry to build my blog and therefore a new side job and income stream as blogger and/or travel writer. Just another goal in life.

    • 12th February 2018 / 2:11 pm

      With your experience in tourism, you’re in a great position to build a successful travel blog. I guess it takes time and (a lot of) perseverance! Good luck with it all and thanks again for reading x