The Messy Divides in Travel Writing

Departures board in airport
Helsinki departures board / Wikimedia Commons

Travel writing is where I cut my teeth as a blogger and how I found my way as a writer. An early adopter of blogging, I benefited directly from the shift to a focus on independent voices. I never quite made the leap to full on commercial blogger, though — my heart lies elsewhere and I figure we’ve all got enough marketing in our lives. That’s just the context behind why the wonky part of my brain loves this piece at Nieman Storyboard about what travel writing is:

It wasn’t until I discovered the notion of writing about “place” during my early years as an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Missouri that I realized that perhaps travel writing isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to travel, but I also want to tell stories. I want to get to know people – what brought them to their spot on the map, how they shaped that spot and were shaped by it.

What makes a work a piece of “travel writing”? Where do we draw the line between writing about “travel” and writing about “place”? I turned to a few writers who have straddled this line to find an answer.

Ten-plus years in the field makes me think there’s:

  • Marketing: projects underwritten by travel brands who what to promote themselves via content.
  • Vacation writing: Guide books and how-to articles that help travelers plan.
  • Travel narrative: Stories that aren’t just “What I did on my summer vacation” style reporting.
  • Journalism: Reporting and deep dives about place, regional food, history, culture… the definer “travel” is optional here.

The writers interviewed here — Lauren Quinn, Paul Salopek, and the new to me Mark Johanson — don’t need “travel” appended to their work to make it sing of places that are not home. That’s the stuff I like best.

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