A College Student’s Guide to Travel Writing 

Applied Mathematics and English Professional Writing major Ashley Conway ’23 attended the Regional Writers of England May-Term Faculty Led Experience in May 2022. She created this piece as a part of her Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts, and Research Project (SCARP) titled Travel Writing: Capturing British Culture through Prose and Image.

A girl stands with her arms outstretched in front of the Royal Crescent in England.

Traveling is one of the most fun experiences you can undertake during college. Just going on a trip or studying abroad is cool in its own right. But for students with a creative side, travel writing can offer a chance to weave passion with art, creating a comprehensive story of your travels to share.

If the idea of travel writing intrigues you, here are a few pointers to guide you throughout the process, from one student travel writer to another.

Research before you go

Before you get to your destination, you’ll want to gain familiarity with it. Of course, it’s impossible to know everything before you arrive, but you should strive to gain a basic understanding of the location and any activities in which you’ll partake. 

Say you’re taking a tour of a city. You don’t want to hog the guide’s attention with questions that could’ve been Googled. It will be a more beneficial experience for you—and the other attendees—if you take care of the basics at home, leaving time for more meaningful questions and deeper exploration during the tour. 

The same goes for other activities. Not every place you visit will have a dedicated guide to lead you through it, so knowing the history—even just the Sparknotes version—can help you have a more insightful experience.  It will also leave room for you to engage more personally, as you won’t be bogged down by trying to absorb excess historical information as well as sort through your own feelings. 

The goal in doing this is to help you craft an interesting story, rather than one that reads like a statement of facts. A good travel writing story has a healthy dose of information woven throughout, but what draws people in is your unique experience. So, by taking care of at least some of the learning before you go, you’ll be able to prioritize the processing and creation of your own story—not the one told by tour guides and exhibit descriptions. 

Take mindful notes

A girl sits on a men in front of the graveyard at Trinity Church in England.
I brought my notebook to Trinity Church to capture my feelings there.

The notes you take on your trip should reflect this idea of blending fact and feeling into your story. 

Be sure to jot down the new ideas and history you learn that extends the general knowledge base you’ve already built. This could also include taking pictures of informational displays for future reference. Don’t worry about capturing every single word a guide says—your pre-trip research should cover at least the basics, and you’ll be less present if you feel the need to replicate their entire spiel. 

Instead, take down the highlights, noting ideas you want to research more later. But do keep in mind that outside voices can add credibility and interest to your story, so if you hear an interesting quote—either from a guide, friend, or stranger—be sure to jot it down. 

You’ll also want to take note of your personal feelings. Sensory descriptions like sound, sight, and smell can help you once you start actually writing your story. Take a moment to write everything you’re feeling around you, keeping in mind that you’ll be working to replicate the setting for your readers. 

Also, think about how you are personally affected by the experience. How does this location make you feel? Does it remind you of anything? Are you enjoying the experience? Do you have any reservations? A healthy amount of introspection can help you develop a theme for your story when the time comes. 

A girl stands in front of a sign that commemorates the site of the original Globe Theatre in London, England.
This sign commemorates the site of the original Globe Theatre in London.

Stay in the moment

As important as your notes will be, don’t let taking them detract from your experience. 

In the book How to Be a Travel Writer, author Don George says, “As you travel, stay alive to the world around you. Cultivate encounters. Ask questions. Gather brochures and other printed information. If something catches your fancy, follow it. When you can, let serendipity be your guide.” These in-the-moment experiences are what will differentiate your story from countless others. 

When I was in England, one of the coolest places I came across was by accident. While wandering along the streets in London, chowing down on some gelato, I happened upon the site of the original Globe Theatre. I had researched the history of the Globe Theatre but got caught up in the hubbub of the replica that stands in London today. Then, by chance, I got to stand in the place where it all began. 

So, don’t be scared to let go of the reins a little bit—the spontaneous and even accidental encounters can be the most meaningful. 

Snap the pics

A man in a blue shirt pours a cup of tea for a woman, who is holding the tea cup.
Ally Bonicker captured my friend helping me pour a cup of tea.

It seems like nowadays, we take pictures of everything we encounter. This will probably be true on your trip, too, as you’ll want to be able to share the experience with your friends and family once you return. 

But when you know that you’ll be completing travel writing about your trip, your photography strategy may change a bit. You’ll want to keep in mind that of the pictures you take, some of them will be used in accompaniment to your story. Thus, you’ll want them to be well-lit, clear, and framed appropriately. A good subject and the rule of thirds can help even a rookie photographer take pictures like a pro. 

Also, try to think about what exactly you’ll want to write about and try and take pictures of those subjects specifically. But if worse comes to worse, just try to capture quality pictures of as much as you can—particularly those that strike your interest. 

Photos on travel blogs and sites vary, but many feature the focal object clearly and without too many distractions. Don’t be scared to get in the picture, either. Ask a friend—or a stranger—to grab a photo of you on your travels. Candid pictures can add a layer of personality and authenticity, too. 

Keep an eye on your phone storage, though! You may want to look into uploading your pictures to Google Drive, Snapfish, or a similar site to free up some space either before or during your trip. 

Reflect promptly

One thing I didn’t do as well as I would’ve liked was reflect on my experiences soon after they occurred. Even if it’s just a quick two paragraph summary of the day, how it made you feel, and any themes you see developing throughout your travels, it can make your travel writing go much smoother later.

These immediate reflections, which can just be more coherent versions of the notes you took, will be the best reminder of the experience once you go to write about it. Your stories should ideally recreate your travels to your readers, so the more clearly you remember them, the easier it will be. Your writing is dependent on your memory, and no matter how much we think we can remember everything, it’s just not possible. So, try and collect your thoughts during your trip. You’ll thank yourself when you get to the writing stage. 

Write the story

Once you get home, armed with your research, notes, and reflections, it will finally be time to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard. 

Before writing, it may be helpful to create a story plan. This can just be a brief outline of the main points and ideas you want to cover. Also, try to think of overarching themes you want to convey through the story. Did something on the trip really stick with you? Were there similarities—or shocking differences—in the places you went? A common theme can tie together experiences at several sites in a cohesive story. 

It can also help to read some sample pieces. If you’re interested in longform travel writing that really focuses on personal experiences, check out The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 12: True Stories from Around the World. I really like the stories “Why I Took My Daughter to Auschwitz” by Peggy Orenstein and “Half Dome” by Alison Singh Gee. Or if you’re more into blog posts and shorter pieces, check out The Culture Map or Oneika the TravellerOneika’s Instagram is also a great example if you’re more into the social media aspect of travel documentation. 

The writing should be the fun part. Where traveling took you out of your comfort zone, the writing is something with which you are familiar. Show off your expertise and create something you’re proud to call your own. 

Your story can be ultra-personal, informative, or even just fun. Don’t limit yourself. However, you feel most accurately represents your experiences on the trip, run with it. Draft and edit, then draft and edit some more. It won’t be perfect the first time, so feel free to take risks! Some may work, and more probably won’t—but that’s fine. Your final product will be a mixture of those that worked the best. 

Share your experience

Once you finish writing the story, that can be it—if you want. But if you’re particularly proud of your piece or have something you want to say to a larger audience, there are a plethora of publication outlets to explore. 

The Write Life published a list of 36 of these avenues that accept works from freelance writers (that’s you). If those seem a bit intense, reach out to your college—their study abroad office would probably love to have some well-written student perspectives. Otherwise, you can create your own site to house your work. WordPress and Wix are super beginner-friendly and with your own website portfolio, you’ll have an accessible place to show off your writing.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: