As I wrote in a previous article, a travelogue is a truthful account of an individual’s experiences traveling, usually told in the past tense and in the first person. In that article, I focused on how travelogues compared to modern travel books. In this article, I will offer tips on how to write a captivating travelogue. You will learn how to avoid writing a traditional (and boring) “Dear Diary” travelogue and craft a compelling travel story.
What does a travelogue contain?
A travelogue contains vivid descriptions of the place you’re traveling in, descriptions of the subjective experiences of visiting a place (your thoughts, blunders, fears), informed commentary about a place (its history and culture), and accounts of your interactions with local people. Above all, a travelogue must tell a story.
A travelogue is not academic writing, so you need not make a formal argument and present evidence—keep formal language at bay. A travelogue is not a write-up for a tourism board or a marketing agency, so don’t try to “sell” the destination to your readers. A travelogue is not a guidebook or a blog post, so you need not be helpful, list “the top 10 best restaurants,” or offer practical travel tips or suggestions.
Rather, a travelogue is a creative narrative of your experiences traveling.
Tell one specific story
Traditionally, travelogues were mundane accounts of what a person saw, did, and ate while traveling. But try to avoid giving a “Dear Diary” account of your travels. You will bore your readers if you write a step-by-step report of what you did, ate, and saw.
Instead, a travelogue will be more effective if it focuses on one interesting story from your travels.
Now that you’ve returned from your travels and want to write an essay or an article about your trip, review your notes and reflect on your experiences. Does a particular story stand out? Is there an experience that you can’t stop telling people about? Did you have a haunting, transformative, or enlightening experience? Did something bad or unexpected happen? If so, it might be a good candidate to write about.
Now that you have your travel story in mind, think about the setting.
Details and descriptions are essential in travel writing. They will make your writing and story more vivid. What sounds, scents, tastes, and textures did you experience?
Give your readers a sense of what it is like to be there. Transport your reader to that specific time and place.
A travelogue is special because it gives us a glimpse of a foreign place, but it does so through the lens of the writer. We want to know your specific take on things.
We are all human. We all think, have opinions, and get scared. What did you feel? Did your experience stir up old memories? Were you frightened? Did you embarrass yourself? Was there a misunderstanding? What did you learn?
Be honest with your own flaws, biases, and assumptions. Give your reader subjective and emotional insight.
We travel (and read travel stories) to engage with and learn about other cultures. And our best travel stories almost always involve interactions with local people you’ve met.
So, while it is good that your reader gets a glimpse into the subjective world of the author, we will want to hear other voices in your story too.
What conversations did you have with the locals? Did anyone tell you something interesting, alarming, or enlightening? Who did you meet? Who were they? What did they look like? Did they have a particular manner of speaking? A distinctive feature?
The point of a travelogue is to entertain, but sometimes it is good to inform. Sprinkle relevant information into your story.
Is there historical or cultural details that will help your reader understand why something is so? Did a local person reveal something interesting about the politics or history of a place?
How do you start a travelogue?
If a travelogue is a narrative account of your travels, then consider starting the travelogue with an inciting incident. Begin your travel story with something that will draw your reader in. Highlight a problem, conflict, struggle, or tension that will propel your story along.
As Seth Kugel says, the best travels stories are when things go wrong.
For example, you can begin your travelogue by stating your quest or mission, and then complicating that with an obstacle that gets in the way. Or, you can start with an intrigue, curious statement, declaration, or observation. You can start in media res, and then fill in the story later.
The trick is to hook your reader.
How do you end a travelogue?
Like any story, a memorable travelogue will offer a resolution. Consider ending your story with a transformation or a resolution, a return to the beginning, a moral, a message, or a revelation.
You want to give your reader a sense of closure, that the specific story has ended.
Tips to write a better travelogue
- Tell a specific story
- Describe the outer world using vivid descriptions
- Reveal the inner world (your thoughts, mistakes, missteps, blunders, excitements, etc.)
- Provide informed commentary (historical, political, cultural, etc.)
- Talk to locals and describe your interactions with them
- Use conversational language; avoid marketing jargon and guidebook speak
- Begin with an intrigue, something going wrong, a compelling or captivating moment
- End with a resolution, a moral, a message, a revelation
Do you have any other tips on how to write a better travelogue?
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