“The story is what creates beautiful writing…not the other way around.” Lisa Cron
Writing and pitching – what do editors want?
What do editors want? – It may sound simple, but in my opinion, editors want the same thing – a great story. The human brain craves story, in fact, we are wired for story. Read the book by Lisa Cron called Wired for story: The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. It explains the science behind this, and how story has been necessary for human survival for thousands of years.
Days after the December 26 2004 tsunami, members of the ancient Jarawa tribe living in the Andaman islands emerged unscathed from their forest habitat. Drawing on 60, 000 years of culture, handed down through generations of storytellers, they knew how to react when the “sea monster” came. The take-home lesson is that storytelling is crucial to our evolution, not just for pleasure (that’s the sweetener) but for survival. The key is that the story must be irresistible.
Five steps to creating irresistible stories
1- Research like a pro
It all starts with an idea, something I’m curious about, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead. I figure if I want to know more, perhaps my readers and editors might be interested as well. I then ask myself three questions. Where is the BEST place to see the festival? Can it be done alone or do I need to go with a tour group? Who offers the BEST tour, which will match my ethics and interests?
2- Do the maths
Your editor needs fresh, timely and dynamic ideas, your PRs appreciate multiple returns on their investment, and you need to make a good living. By applying these three variables I’ve come up with the magic ratio of 1:2. That is, I need one story for every two days I’m on the road (or seven stories for 14 days on the road). I’m not being arrogant or over ambitious, it’s what I need to make the dollars add up over a year of travel writing.
3- Build your babushka
Continuing with my Oaxaca example, once I had my dates locked in I built everything else around it. I asked: Are there any new flights to the US? Yes, United Airlines was set to launch a Sydney to Houston leg. Are there any major events happening in Houston? Yes, the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing. A chat with the PR for Texas gave me Mafa in favour of Austin, San Antonio in favour of Dallas, and Big Bend National Park, because heck, who’s been there? The PR for Amtrak told me about the Sunset Limited train from Los Angeles to Houston, a speed-dating event at the Cape Town AGM added a Tequila twist (the town and the drink), and Trump, with his ludicrous plans for a wall, brought me to numerous border towns. Eventually, I worked with seven PRs to bring home more than a dozen stories. I could not have done this without their support.
4- Get to the point
When it comes to pitching, if you can’t explain your point in one sentence, you don’t have one. Travelling to Poland and visiting the Auschwitz Memorial is not a story, it’s just a series of events. Answering the question – Why I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp? – provided the angle I was looking for. If you’re struggling to find your focus have a go at writing the standfirst for your story, then use that in your pitch.
5- Make it personal
You may not be the first person to swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef (insert any wild creature in a remote location) yet, just because it’s been written about doesn’t mean you can’t bring something new to the experience. I brought science to my story, spending days in the water with a researcher, others have tied in new accommodation, or focused on other species such as manta rays or whales. The trick is to draw on your strengths and bring something of yourself to the encounter (but there is a Catch 22 – don’t mistake your interests with the interests of your reader).
Three of the most original stories I’ve read lately include a self-drive trip through southern Japan in a tiny “camping car”, a horse riding safari through Patagonia and tackling the Trans-Siberian railway in WINTER (bonus points if you can match these stories to their writers).
Whatever you choose, know your editor wants you to mine your experience for gold. Nothing less.
I’ll finish with a quote by Lisa Cron – “The more meaning you have to convey, the more beautiful the writing becomes.”
My mottos are:
Write the story that only I can write.
Make the editor’s job easy (source/provide images, ensure accuracy, meet deadlines).
Ask myself – Does this story serve the reader?
Keep up to date with travel trends.
Be generous – pass on trips you can’t do, share and brainstorm ideas with others.
Be grateful. A bad day in the travel industry is still a better day than many others are having.
And finally, recognise that editors want their writers to succeed. Yes, they really do.
* This is a summary of my contribution to the panel talk at the 2018 Bangkok AGM
Kerry van der Jagt is a multi award-winning freelance travel writer and photographer based in Sydney. Specialising in nature-based, adventure and indigenous travel, Kerry’s work focuses on promoting tourism that encourages others to explore the planet in a sustainable and responsible way.