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How to write for travel guides, The World Awaits, travel writing workshops Costa Rica
By: justin (justin) 2012.01.14

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Paul Otteson has published five books: The World Awaits - A Comprehensive Guide to Extended Backpack Travel, two guidebooks on Alaska, a guidebook covering Northern California, and a children's book on Central America. He's also the managing editor of We spoke recently about how to become a travel writer, and what the life of writing about the road is like.

SWT: How much travel do you actually do as a travel writer?

Paul Otteson: Not as much as people think I do. I find myself spending a lot more time on the phone and in front of the computer than I ever thought I would and I think that's part of the trouble of guidebook writing, there's so much research involved. Any time you do a subsequent edition of guidebook you have to check every fact, every phone number every hotel price, make sure restaurants are still in business as well as doing other kinds of updates. I still travel alot compared to most people I know. But often times travel tends to feel obligatory, it feels like work. You have to travel, and when you travel you have to pay attention to very specific things, you always have jobs or tasks to take care of.

SWT: Do you get a lot of perks for travel because of your job? What?

PO: They don't get handed to me, the discounts and freebies. Another thing that is kind of related is the backstage view. You're in a place, you say "I'm a travel writer" and they say, "Come with me, I'll show you the inner workings." Getting to see places that others don't get to see is a travel perk. There's a huge ethical question in travel writing, about selling out. If you get a free plane ticket, a free hotel room, or free meal, what is the person giving it to you expecting? Are you giving up your unbiased coverage? There are some writers who won't take anything for free and others who take press trips all the time. Sometimes they are selling out, sometimes they are hoodwinking the people who are giving them the freebies. I fight with that all the time because travel writing doesn't pay very well, especially considering how expensive the research is. You've got take a very expensive trip to make a couple of hundred bucks.

SWT: What's the biggest misconception about your job?

PO: That travel writers know more than other travelers.

SWT: What's the worst think about being a travel writer?

PO: It's making a job out of a love. Doing what you love to do, instead of just for fun.

SWT: But isn't that what people want, to do what they love for a living?

PO: It's an example of "Be careful of what you want, you might get it." It's easy to become jaded.

SWT: What's the best thing about being a travel writer?

PO: You get to travel, do what you love. It's a Catch-22. It's a very free life. Of course, the alternate side of travel is being away from home. If you don't mind giving up some of the benefits of establishment, it's nice.

SWT: So how did you became a travel writer?

PO: Well, my particular story has a lot to do with the kind of person I am. I'd traveled all around North America for all my life, and I know Western North America about as well as one could know it. But I took my first international trip when I was 30-some years old, and very deliberately wanted to make something of it. So I concieved this first book of mine as one about the very philosophical and somewhat spiritual aspects of what it means to travel. I wrote the book as I was traveling, and sold it right away. From that point on I fell into travel writing.

SWT: It sounds very easy to say, I traveled, I wanted to write, I published my book when I returned. How about some more practical advice for someone who wants to get into it?

PO: There definately is no easy answer. It's all the obvious answers, and they're all true. You need to be observant, you need to record as you go, keep a journal, try to write with an audience in mind, conceive a larger project like a book, see what else is out there now. Pick up a magazine and read a few of the issues to find their kind of stories... and try to write a piece that fits those paramaters. That kind of thinking is vital for trying to break in. It's almost secondary to be a decent writer, from a business perspective. You can find anything from brilliant writing to mediocre writing, but it all serves a purpose. To be a travel writer, understanding the business is as important as anything. I think the important thing to realize is to humanize your submission, to realize that at the other end of this submission is an editor, and you want to catch their attention. What will make yours stand out? That title, that first paragraph, that photo you send with it? For magazines, I think they'd rather just see the completed piece. Of course, have perfect typing, spelling, be grammatically correct.

SWT: What's your typical day "in the office"?

PO: There's nothing necessarily typical about my days. Everything is project oriented and in differerent phases. If I've a book to update, I've got an outline that's due, I've got to do some traveling, get on the phone or Web. Probably several small journeys, or one real intense journey. There's no typical day, just what are the demands of the project.

SWT: What about when you're in the "road office"? Let's say you're updating your book on Alaska, or writing a new piece for a magazine?

PO: Go where you need to go, see what you need to see, record what you need to record. For the most part it's conceived before you travel, especially because of the expense of travel, but you get really well prepared. That doesn't mean you can't follow inspiration if something comes up, but if I've got three weeks in Alaska, I'm flying all over the state, ducking into many hotels, checking museums out, talking to lots of people. I'm in and out of there as fast as can be, and I need to get really quick impressions of places in order to get the coverage I need. It's very intense.

SWT: Where was your last trip? Next?

PO: It was a very fast around the world trip. Took a train to Denver, flew to New York to see my wife's family. A couple days in Amsterdam, a couple days in Varanasi, took a trek in Nepal, a couple days on the beach in Thailand, and then Hawaii. So it was a very fast paced trip. The next one I'm going to be traveling extensively in Southern California for a new book about the whole state of California for John Muir Publications.

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