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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Nine Gnomes About Travel Writing...

...and no, I am not referring to the Travelocity troll. Look it up.

Meantime, a summer of ennui, spent mainly in the confines of swampy Washington, DC, has left me at a loss for words. That is why, dear reader, you note a paucity of posts penned in August. But this week, I have a mission. For I must lecture a group of wannabe travel writers on the ins and outs of the trade. As the class is taking place at the USDA (as in the U.S. Department of Agriculture) grad school, perhaps I should first have the flock read my novella on the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Idaho. Or perhaps my students will enjoy this homage to the Idaho potato. Or perhaps my students at this point are thinking, "If trips to Idaho are all I can expect from a career in travel writing, why bother?" Now, as anyone who knows me and who knows my inexplicable love for that state knows, I would say that even if trips to Idaho are all you get, some might consider you one lucky spud. But alas, I have taken my eye of the ball....which is not to praise Idaho, but to teach my fledgling scribes something about travel writing. Selfishly, I am also trying to type my way out of a profound case of writer's block.

So, how about a lesson in the Top 9 Travel Writing Taboos? It floats my boat. So, to wit, let's start.

#1: Avoid cliches like the plague. The Danish in Copenhagen isn't the best thing since sliced bread (since when is sliced bread so great, anyway?) Since when did you actually feel like a kid in the candy store, even if you are an art historian and you were hanging at the Louvre (actually, if you were hanging at the Louvre, you might be a masterpiece). And unless you were trying out a carousel, you don't give things a whirl.

#2: Avoid words you never use when talking. I'm talking iconic, quaint, and rustic. 

#3: Okay, just to show that I am not overly persnickety, I'll allow one quaint or iconic per article. But never, ever use luxe or azure. Just don't.

#4: That the grass is green is not newsworthy. That the beach is sandy is not newsworthy. Don't include useless and/or redundant adjectives. Keep it pithy, people.

#5: Can a city boast? Apparently, it can, as "Chicago boasts the best deep-dish pizza in the world" and "Honolulu boasts grand luxe hotels, sandy beaches, and azure skies."  But IMHO, a place cannot boast.

#6: Is Albania the next Italy? I don't think so. But some travel writers do. "The next..." is not merely cliched writing; it is also somewhat pejorative if you think about it (i.e.--the next best thing to sliced bread....but it ain't no slice of bread).

#7: Don't trash the locals or local customs just for the heck of it. If you do, as in this piece I did for National Geographic Traveler on trash in Albania (seriously), provide context and balance.

#8: Maybe it's me, because I simply abhor chick-lit. But articles about your journey of self-discovery are usually a yawn, even to your closest friends. Sure, an Elizabeth Gilbert or a Frances Mayes may hit the jackpot with prosaic poppycock. But my best advice is to circumvent this form of literary litany.
An aside--why is it that 99 out of 100 of these self-confessional, self-delusional pieces are written by women?

#9: Never, never, never use the term "something for everyone" in your writing. It's lazy, it's annoying (to me, anyway) and it's simply not true. Don't you be telling me Des Moines has something for everyone. For example, if you are a surfer, where's the beach? New York City doesn't have something for everyone. For example, if you are a climber, try finding a mountain to scale in Manhattan (skyscrapers don't count). Heck, even Sydney, the best city in the world (again, IMHO), doesn't have something for everyone. For example, if you are an astronomer, you can't see the Big Dipper and vast parts of Ursa Major in the Australian night sky.
But you can pet a koala.

Which brings me to one more somewhat non-related point. You can pet a koala, but you can't pet a koala bear. Koalas are marsupials, not bears. Put that in your pouch and ponder. Oh, one more point--if you do want to pet a koala, don't do so by awakening it from a eucalyptus-induced sloom. I can tell you from experience...not a good idea. They are vicious, vicious I tell you. But that's a story for another post.

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