Strangely enough, I get a fair number of emails asking me “How can I be a travel blogger, too?” Or more commonly, “I’ve already started a blog. But how do make it NOT suck?” Why someone would approach ME with these questions is a mystery, but they do, so let’s see if I can offer some beginner-level advice for anyone who wants to be a travel blogger. Starting today, I’m going to be posting a three, four, five part series—who knows? I’ll keep it going for as long as it holds my attention.
Also, I’ll be making a couple of really cool announcements this week related to the topics of blogging, the travel industry, and how the two interact. I have been invited to two very prestigious events next month concerning tourism in Italy, and I’m really excited to share this news with everybody.
But for now, let’s get back to the nuts and bolts of travel blogging.
So you want to be a travel blogger?
Who wouldn’t want to be a travel blogger, right? You get paid to write about exotic locations, stay in luxurious hotels, and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. You wake up late and take your laptop and Campari cocktail to the pool to quickly dash off an article or two for the editors at Conde Nast, who are eagerly awaiting your next paragraph. Sounds about right?
Uhh…no. Not even close. If you want to know the truth, it’s a lot of hard work with very little promise of reward. Furthermore, there’s a lot that goes into writing a travel blog, much of which has surprisingly little to do with writing. To break it down for the sake of discussion, we could separate the overall activity (blogging) into three general parts.
In my mind, you need to know something about: 1) writing, of course; 2) technical/computer skills; 3) marketing/social media. Good travel bloggers possess all of these abilities, but usually they arrived at blogging from one of the three (and if you look closely at their blogs, you can usually tell which one). But of these three overlapping components, which one is the most crucial in terms of attracting readers to your website? Tough to say, because they are all important. Maybe the technical skills are less advantageous today than they were four or five years ago. Google has really tightened up their algorithm to weed out spammy sites. Still, if your site isn’t coded well and optimized for search engines, you’re going to have a tougher, slower road ahead of you.
I’ll try to touch on some of the technical stuff in the next post, but today let’s talk about the writing part.
Find your voice
The first thing you need to decide upon is your general theme—and then you should probably try to narrow it down as much as practically possible. Not too much, because you don’t want to run out of things to write about. But don’t be another generic “travel” blog, or even “Italy” blog, at least not in the beginning. There’s just too many out there and you’ll never gain any attention.
Instead, be the “Single mom travelling Italy with three kids” blog. Or focus on a specific area, and be the “Baroque Sicily” blog. Mine started as the “American teaching English in Rome” blog, but honestly that was WAY too niched down. So I gradually “niched out” to be the “snarky malcontent ruminating over culture idiosyncrasies” blog. But even this has been done, and done much better by the likes of my COSI friend, Elizabeth Evans of Surviving in Italy, for example.
A college kid backpacking across Thailand? Not so special, there are literally hundreds of those blogs. But how about a transgender couple living in an igloo above the Arctic Circle with their pet walrus? Now THAT’S a blog that I would follow. OK, you don’t have to be that unique, but you see what I mean.
This brings me to the most important element, at least from the writing side: finding a distinctive voice. Even if you’re talking about the same things as the 900 other Italy bloggers (like me), you must at least “sound” like you’re saying something different. And the only way to do that is to cultivate the written version of a consistent and identifiable personality. You don’t need to have a “big” personality, just a unique one.
If that’s the “who,” then let’s talk about the “what.” Of course, your topics will be dictated to a large degree by the theme of your blog, and you should try to stick to that as much as possible. You want to become an “authority” on something, whether it’s Umbrian hill towns, Sicilian cuisine, or the best camping sites in Northern Italy. That doesn’t mean that you can’t wander off topic occasionally, but try your best to find a tie-in to the overall theme of your blog.
Once you’ve become an authority, and you start getting a fair amount of traffic to your site, only then can you consider gradually zooming out. Again, using my blog as an example, it was originally a resource for folks wanting to teach English in Rome, and for expats who needed some advice on fighting their way through the dense jungle of Italian bureaucracy. “Permesso di Soggiorno” is still one my biggest Google search terms, even though I haven’t written anything about that subject in over a year and a half.
As I expanded my writing topics, people started finding my site by searching for the cultural idiosyncrasies like Italian superstitions, dating Italian women, and dressing like an Italian. Lately, in the last six months or so, my site is being noticed as a resource for travelers looking for vacations spots in Italy that are not part of the Rome-Florence-Venice itinerary.
But even from there I wander off topic occasionally. This past summer my family and I traveled outside of Italy, so I had to find a way to connect these trips back to my blog. It was easy in Switzerland, since we were in the Italian-speaking zone. I wrote a post comparing the lifestyle in Ticino, Switzerland to Sicily—two places that speak (sort of) the same language but with completely different social structures and cultural norms. Then we went to New York City, and I wrote about our day in “Little” Italy. Again, a very loose connection, but still it fits the current theme of my blog.
Tell your story
OK, we’ve got our “who” and “what,” so it’s time to figure out “how.” How do we relate our experiences to our audience in a way that feels personal to them? I have really come to dislike all the “lists” out there—“Top Ten Gelato Flavors,” or “Twelve Reasons to Visit Puglia.” This trend has created a cacophony of information on The Web, and practically removed the personality of the writer from the writing, making him/her an anonymous entity, not unlike an encyclopedia.
My first choice is always to tell a story.
But NOT the kind of story that reads like a twelve year-old’s diary: “I had pasta for lunch…it was SOOOO delicious!!! Then we saw Saint Peter’s…it was SOOOO incredibly beautiful!!!!”
It doesn’t matter how many exclamation points you use, punctuation can never replace genuine emotion. Sadly, we all use them too much, including me, especially in our social media updates. Just before you publish a blog post, go back through it and delete 90% of your exclamation points. A good rule: allow yourself ONE per 1,000 words. (I just made this rule up, but it sounds about right to me.) They’re OK in Twitter, I guess, but leave them out of your blog….for the love!!!!
Try to “zoom in” and focus on details. If you want to transport your readers to the place, you must activate their senses. However, avoid the trap of breaking out a thesaurus and merely listing adjectives, especially the hackneyed ones (beautiful, wonderful, incredible, and the undisputed king of all overused adjectives: amazing—if everything is “amazing” what’s left to be ordinary?). No, you have to try a little harder than that to convey emotion, and that’s what good storytelling will accomplish.
It’s also important to get into the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Blog posts are short and people’s attention spans are shorter still these days—don’t waste time with a lot of background.
One trick that I use occasionally is to introduce dialogue within the first few sentences. Now your reader feels like he/she is right there, eavesdropping in the middle of your conversation. And that’s another point: don’t start with the beginning of the conversation; drop in on the most interesting part of it. Here’s an example from my blog.
When telling a story, you must concede that it’s impossible to fully explain everything about a place within the space of a single blog post or article. Rather, your goal is to provide something more nuanced. If you can connect with the reader emotionally, you’ve given them a vicarious experience instead of another boring list of facts and information. And from there, it’s up to them to connect the dots with their own imagination. In the end, a blog post is like a picture: a single vivid snapshot that merely implies the full cultural panorama.
That’s all for today. In the next post I’ll make my first big announcement, and then we’ll go on to talk about some of the technical aspects of blogging.
Thanks for tips. I’ve read quite and few posts on “how to be a travel blogger” and your are actually helpful and not over generalized! 🙂
Nice advice here, Rick. I too am tiring of the list thing!!!!! And the exclamation marks, too. Someone once said it was like laughing at your own joke, another thing I’m guilty of. Keep it up!
Hey Hugh, thanks so much for stopping by my blog! Glad you liked the post. I think we’re on the same page–we’d like to go against the trend, but it’s too hard to resist!!!
It isn’t as easy to be a travel blogger as you may think. Try to leave your home for months and only with a backpack go across the word…! Not everyone can live in this way:)
Well, that one type of travel blogger, I suppose. But that’s not what I do. But being a travel blogger IS easy…supporting yourself this way is NOT!!
I live in Italy now. It can be also a way of travelling :). Without backpacks:)
I have to go back and read carefully point by point but everything you say and suggest is exactly what I teach to my food writing students: niche, voice, story, writing… and now that I have discovered your blog, well, I have a lot of catching up to do.
Thanks, Jamie! And you have a great blog…nice combo of visuals and writing….ciao!
Clicked on the link “dressing like an Italian” and laughed out loud. Hilarious. (no explamaton ponts)
Thanks, Rick. Have you had a similar experience with a wardrobe “malfunction” in Italy?
Love the tip abour exclamation marks!! It really rings true. Always a sure sign of a crazy person – that along with capitals, underlining, bold and hearts or circles instead of dotting an i. Looking forward to hearing more about your future projects!!
Ha, ha! Yes, right…although you say “crazy” person, I would say “lazy” person. Grazie!
Great points Rick! Thanks for writing your blog. You always have a fresh take on things I might have never noticed!
Hi Rick – Any aspiring blogger looking for an example on how to successfully navigate the blogosphere need only to read through your archives. As a long time fan of your blog and e-books I have a tremendous appreciation for not only how hard you work but how smartly you do it. Bravo. bravissimo. I also suggest that anyone hoping to take the plunge should first develop their chops on the social media platform of their choice. Committing to a weekly story on your Facebook page, for instance, will teach the diligence necessary for launching and maintaining a successful blog. Also, you have a built in audience with whom you can hone your voice. Nicole, a friend of mine followed this course and she now has a successful blog that might even make Elizabeth Evans blush. It is not a travel blog but it is entertaining: http://www.quickstripmom.com/
Wow, thanks so much for the kind words! And you give great advice regarding the FB Page. Really, FB is considered a micro-blogging platform, so I think it’s a fantastic idea to start there, get in the habit, and start to develop your voice. From there you could branch out to a blog, as well as other social media platforms.
Your friend Nicole’s blog is hilarious! Yes, I think that her and Elizabeth are kindred spirits…maybe they should team up!
Thanx Rick, some great tips for me for my blog. I enjoy your posts as you often say what I think. You seem to wear your heart on your sleeve which in your case I find quite refreshing. I have never really mastered the art of social media, not because I cannot but because I am really not interested. I see too many folks who are so addicted to it that they have lost (if they ever had it) the ability to communicate in person. I considered getting in to facebook to help market my blog site but decided that is not me. I enjoy what I write and thoroughly appreciate my followers comments. It may never be huge with lots of followers but I have fun and I am so happy to share my experiences with whoever is interested. I do know for a fact that some of my followers have used some of my suggestions successfully which makes me happy.
Lyn – You really should embrace Facebook as a way to expand the reach of your blog. Without Rick’s FB posts I’d probably miss quite a few of his new blog comments. Your most valuable audience – the one likely to comment and repost your links – is highly active on FB, Twitter, and Instagram. Don’t create a personal FB page, but rather just one for your blog. When you post a new comment announce it on FB. You’ll be amazed at the results. Auguri!
Thanx Earl. I certainly did not know about a FB for my blog. I shall take a look at it. I appreciate you taking the time to point this out. Lyn
Good suggestion, Earl, for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on social media. Having only a FB page for a blog really doesn’t take much time. In fact, WordPress can link them together so that your blog posts are automatically put on your FB Page.
I totally understand your perspective, Lyn. And I agree that social media can be an incredible time suck. Earl has a good suggestion in making a FB Page for your blog, rather than a personal profile. I have both, but mostly use my Page vs. my profile. That said, it all depends on your goals. If you enjoy the way things are not, stick with it!
Great post!!!!!! Lol sorry I just to add those. But seriously I really enjoyed reading this article. Although as a blogger myself the content is not new to me I still wanted to keep on reading because I enjoyed the clean and easy presentation. If nothing else it makes me want to read more of your blog regardless of what you’re talking about. That’s a good thing right?
Wow, thanks so much, Sarah! I just clicked over to your blog ( http://www.livedreamdiscover.com/ ) and was really impressed by both the visual design and the content. Great story you have, too!
I just want to be a travel podcaster and video blogger! 🙂 Good stuff Rick!
I would, too, if I had your radio voice, Travis! Loved your latest episode with my potty-mouth buddy from Florence…a really entertaining conversation.
A great post Rick and very useful to a new-ish blogger like me! I appreciate your niche-ing down advice too but how do you work out what will be popular or of interest?? Some of my posts get no readers at all whilst others get loads but I can’t for the life of me work out why?? I shall be following your series with great interest!!! Grazie come sempre! PS Is there a September COSI webinar planned??
Good question, Liz! It’s really hard to predict what readers will respond to. If you post something that is a useful resource for people (like my Permesso di Soggiorno posts), that will generate a lot of feedback and questions. Or else the topics that everybody likes to talk about dating, food, fashion,etc. One thing that I don’t do very well (but should) is to incorporate lots of good photos. Sometimes people come for the pictures, but stay for the discussion.
Great advice, thanks Rick!! I’m looking forward to following this series and trying some of your tips etc. Cheers!
Once again Rick, I find myself appreciating your insight…
Grazie! It’s one man’s opinions, but hopefully it adds something to the overall discussion. We are all still learning, right?
I was fortunate to be married to a beautiful Italian man. We went over to Italy every year until we retired in 1992. Our last trip was for 3 months in 1997. We never went below Amalfi/Naples. He was northern Italian. Most of our time was spent with friends or for his work in Milan, Florence & Genoa. But we did cover a lot of small towns. One particularly interesting was Capalbio. I believe it’s a 12th century walled city. The wall is lit at night. It’s about 5 miles in from the sea & we could see the beach from our window in the apt. our friends loaned us. I had “acqua cotta” the best soup I ever had in a restaurant there.
Another interesting town is Campo Ligure. This is called the city of Gold.
It’s where they make filigree jewelry. I watched artisans coil the silver threads into pins, earring,bracelets
& small boxes & then dip them in 18K gold. We made several trips to this unique small town in the mountains above Genoa. These were just 2 of the many small lovely towns we visited. I have many photos of all our Italian trips and many wonderful memories now that he is gone.
I love those small towns, and the fact that I’ve never heard of those two make them even more appealing to me. There are so many special places like that in Italy…and not enough time to discover them all!
Well written. You have found your voice. Thanks!
Thanks, Earl! Yes, for better or worse, I have found my voice.
I have been wanting to be a travel writer and have even started a blog, although it’s not about travel…yet. I love your post regarding blogging and I am looking forward to reading the rest. Any tips are really appreciated.
Thanks, Sheridan. And it’s great that you’ve started a blog. Beyond just the writing, blogging takes some practice and you have to learn how to make all the elements come together. I’ll be writing more about this over the next couple of weeks, and any input you have would be appreciated, too. Ciao!!
Have no such aspirations but wish there were more travel blogs like yours… we need one in beautiful CA. Many of them do just what you are telling them not to…
Thanks so much for your kind words, Sabine. So can I come explore CA and blog about it? Sounds like a good idea for my next blog tour!