On She Goes

So You Want to Be a Travel Writer?

It’s not all glamour & sunset pics for the ‘gram—but it’s worth it.

Clarissa Wei
Clarissa Wei
January 23, 2018
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The life of a full-time travel writer is not all that glamorous. I live out of my backpack, I stay at cheap hostels, I sleep in my car when I’m traveling throughout the States, and I do work trades on farms. Sometimes I work while the rest of my hostel dorm buddies are out partying, because I have a deadline the next day. Right now, I’m the only Westerner in an indigenous village in a subtropical region and I’m being bitten alive by mosquitos.

From a mental health perspective, a lot of anxiety is involved in being a freelance writer. It requires initiative, it requires being rejected constantly, it requires entrepreneurship, it requires self-discipline. I struggle often with loneliness. While I now have friends from all over the world and am never technically alone, constant travel means that the face-to-face time with my new friends is short. Romances are particularly difficult; my life is admittedly a bit complicated to keep up with. The connections can be deep, but they are mostly fleeting.

Hiking Volcano Telica in Nicaragua.
photo by Clarissa Wei

Truth be told, I do not envision myself being on the road forever. But at 26 years of age, I am thankful to be living this life as a nomadic writer, jumping to wherever my heart desires whenever I want. From my first high school internship at a small media company in Los Angeles to studying journalism and working at the student newspaper in New York City—and so many small internships and side gigs in between—I had devoted much of my education to writing and the media world. Since I made the decision to fully invest myself in travel writing three years ago, there are certain things I have fallen in love with on the road; mainly, tropical weather, permaculture, indigenous plant knowledge, and the ocean. I’d like to imagine that eventually I will find a place to put down roots with people that I love.

In the meantime, I’m focused on my work and seeing the world while I’m at it. And one of the constants over the years is my love for writing as a means of expression. What pointers do I have for becoming a professional traveler? What advice would I give to an aspiring writer? Here are my top tips:

Rejection is inevitable; embrace it
In college, I would apply for 30 internships at a time. Early in my professional writing career, I would pitch the same story to at least a dozen publications. There will always be people who do not like my work. The trolls will always be there. My work will be declined over and over again for the rest of my life. Writing, like any form of expression, is subjective. The key is to embrace rejection as a reality of life. Endure enough of it and eventually someone will bite.

Find a niche
For the longest time, I occupied (and still do to an extent) a niche writing about Chinese food in Los Angeles. The only reason why I started writing about Chinese food was because I felt there wasn’t enough coverage of Chinese cuisines in LA. Being fluent in Chinese helped me get unprecedented access to these restaurants and provide contextual background into regional Chinese cuisine. By filling this very small niche, I quickly rose up the ranks and became a well-enough-known food writer that television shows and corporations started hiring me for my expertise. This helped propel my career faster than if I had stayed a generalist, because I got a byline in many prominent publications solely because of my specialization. Do you have something that you can do that no one else is doing? What unique skills or set of knowledge do you have that can help you carve your own niche space? Being a travel writer means that there’s a tendency to be pegged as a generalist, but specializing in universal topics like food, hotels, or the great outdoors could up your chances of scoring a gig.

Recognize white dominance
Recognizing white dominance in the media world is the first step to conquering it. It is no secret that mainstream media is heavily male and white—especially in the travel media world. Even if they aren’t the actual commissioning editor, chances are, their perspective is what is funding the publications. Acknowledging whiteness as the reality of my industry helped me realize how much harder I would have to work to get my voice out there and how to reframe my perspective to satisfy a mostly white audience. It’s an uphill battle for people of color, which makes the effort all the more worthwhile. The exclusion of non-white voices is a systemic issue that is perpetuated through every level of society. With that said, it is equally important to realize that there are people out there fighting for the inclusion of more diverse voices. Editors and publications exist who target the non-white perspective—such as this one. There are fantastic platforms conscious about shifting perspectives and changing what it means to be a travel writer; it’s just a matter of finding the publication that’s the right fit for your voice.

Scuba diving in Cancun.
photo by Clarissa Wei

Be curious
My stories about nomads in Tibet, tamales in Nicaragua, and food forests in the Amazon rainforest have inspired questions like, “How did you even find these people to interview?” Simple. Someone told me about the topic and connected me to the appropriate people. I’m constantly asking questions both on and off social media, which has prompted friends and strangers to connect me to bizarre and wonderful stories. Curiosity about certain cultures and topics has led me to some of the most remote places in the world.

 Learn languages
I know Chinese and can speak a little Spanish, which has gotten me far enough to write articles in both Latin America and Asia. I enrolled myself in formal courses to learn both languages in the last two years. As a travel writer, I value being able to communicate with people in their native language. It creates a sense of closeness and an invaluable connection that cannot be obtained through translation. Podcasts and apps like Duolingo are helpful to get a fundamental grasp on a language, but personally speaking, forced immersion is the best way to learn a language fast and get cultural context.

In front of a monastery in Tibet.
photo by Clarissa Wei

Give yourself a break

I credit moving to Nicaragua for three months as the major turning point in my career. It was the first time I let myself relax and thoroughly enjoy life without the pressure of pitching and writing articles. Ironically, giving myself that breathing room allowed me to write some of the greatest stories in my career (like this one for Vice). Even today, I abide by that same philosophy. I will often travel to a place without the expectation of writing a story or making money. Almost always, those trips are the ones where I find the best stories. Creativity is one of the magical forces that comes easiest with minimal stress.

Stop analyzing and start pitching
The truth about the media industry is that it’s constantly changing and adapting to new technologies. Prominent publications fold and pop up every single year. Editorial visions are constantly morphing. The formula to success is simple: obtain clips, make a portfolio website, start cold-emailing editors. For travel media, it is important to pitch early (before your trip) or allocate enough time during the trip to allow editors to respond to your pitches. Keep your pitch emails short and make sure to include a brief paragraph about your background. The only way to make it as a writer is to put yourself out there. Analyzing the media landscape and whether or not you’re good enough will only cause crippling anxiety. Write that email.