The Travel Blogger’s Draw: Voice or Topic?

by Keith Savage · 16 comments

Post image for The Travel Blogger’s Draw: Voice or Topic?

I was reading through the latest batch of new blog posts recently when I came across The Longest Way Home’s article on Google vs. Lonely Planet. He discusses the merits and faults of using smartphones and guidebooks while away on extended travels. His thought-provoking (and useful!) analysis lead me to think about how travel blogs fit into the traveler’s toolbox. As a new travel blogger myself, and one who isn’t currently traveling, I’ve found the process of identifying topics that are useful to blog-readers at large both interesting and challenging. If deep sources of information are so easily accessible through tools such as Google Maps, BootsNAll, and other thriving internet travel communities, what can the fledgling travel writer hope to contribute without being redundantly sub-par? Was I done writing before I’d really begun?

I’d had this same feeling several years ago when my wife and I contemplated researching a travel guidebook while on vacation for six weeks. We spent countless nights trying to find a winning niche that hadn’t been overrun with content or one that would benefit from our unique take. It’s very possible that we came up with some ideas that were right on the money, but we ultimately decided not to do the guidebook. We wanted to “enjoy” our vacation instead. In the course of our brainstorming, there were countless times we said “well Rough Guides does that better” or “it’s tough to beat Rick Steves with that angle.” It was frustrating. Looking back on it now I think we put too little stock in our one fundamentally unchangeable trait: the lens of our experience.

It dawned on me that in the age of instantly accessible data, what grabs readers is the new voice–the new slant–on the same old places. What effect will your voice have on the way readers think about a destination? Some of you might be thinking, “duh,” but it’s a hugely buoying and hopeful thought for new writers trying to find their writer-legs. They’ll love you or they won’t. Cut off that stress and just be you. I don’t want to oversimplify the prospect of doing well as a travel writer since there are strategic decisions that need to be made. I’m advocating that writers turn off that nit-picky voice in their heads and just write. Don’t worry that someone else just wrote about the same city you’re covering in a future post. Travel. Write. Share your insight.

The world isn’t getting any bigger, but the constellations of events that create experiences and compose memories are infinite. And that should make all travel writers happy. It means we’ll never be done writing.

Are readers more interested in the blogger or the topic? I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

Original photo by Karen Eliot via Flickr

KeithNo Gravatar February 8, 2010 at 7:56 PM

You guys are awesome – great discussion! I think blog readers secretly demand high-quality articles. I know when I stumble upon a blog that is poorly written or conceived I move on. It’s the gift and the curse of the internet: easy to find writing, easy to move on. It’s really easy to post quickly and get that instant gratification, but it’s watering down our collective quality bank. Pretty much everything in society is moving toward faster, smaller, more – and yet the slow things, those creations that require time to craft and appreciate, are ultimately more satisfying. Let’s all fight our tendencies to rush out post after post. Quality finds readers and keeps readers.

However, if your site is based on ads then it makes a sad kind of sense to constantly pump out content. You want a steadily increasing stream of visitors to view your page and provide better chances for clicks. Quite the conundrum, but all it takes is a healthy batch of creativity and we’ll figure it out.

Wandering CarolNo Gravatar February 8, 2010 at 7:03 PM

I’ve been thinking about print versus blogging so much that it turned into a huge blog post on my site – too long to paste here – so I’ll summarize my thoughts … which I’m sure you’re just dying to hear.

The one major change in writing for print as a result of the Web is that print articles are shorter. As to whether or not my own writing has been influenced by my blog, I’d have to say … maybe.

Blogging is travel writing at warp speed. I spend a tenth of the time writing a blog post as I do for a newspaper article and do a fraction of the research. And I think – at least I hope – this is teaching me to write faster in my newspaper writing, too.

The problem, though, is that while spending less time may make a blog more immediate than a print article, it’s not as carefully crafted. I agonize over finding just the right angle for a newspaper article. Being in Paris might make a great blog post, but it is not going to cut it as a travel piece. Following the footsteps of Oscar Wilde in Paris might – and did, I wrote about it last year.

With a blog there is less accountability. This may sound negative but I see it as a good thing. You’re your own boss. When I write for someone else’s publication I suffer from performance anxiety and this slows me down. Writing for your own blog is total freedom. And that’s the best feeling of all.

That said, why do so many blogs sound like PR rubbish? I love this! And I love that! I went here and there and I had FUN! I don’t get it. Why, with all that freedom, are people writing the same kind of schlock that they complain about reading in print? Obviously I’m generalizing. The best blogs are thought provoking, entertaining and well written, just like the best travel articles. And here’s the crux of what I’ve been thinking. The best travel posts I’ve read are the ones when travel bloggers aren’t actually travelling. When they’re reflecting on the nature of travel, or what kind of footprint we’re leaving, or what we’re hoping to gain and how best to describe our experience (ie posts about voice versus place). Maybe travel bloggers on the road can be too immediate. I know I’m guilty of that. Maybe it’s not a question of print versus blogging but of how to merge the best of the two.
.-= Wandering Carol´s last blog ..Travel writing – newspapers versus blogging =-.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar February 7, 2010 at 4:10 PM

Ooh, I have to chime in again based on Carol’s comment. We have a tried and tested newspaper/magazine writer joining the debate. She makes a strong point on common ground, but I contend that phenomenon has only progressed in the last 5 to 7 years. A few papers closed doors due to the recession for sure, but much of it is low readership. Hence, newspapers had to start playing along with the blogger “voice”. In the past, I’d read a piece on Spain for instance, never once paying attention to the byline name. Nowadays a piece is tooled partly through a destination’s charms, but also the writer. Example: the Modern Gonzo guy began traveling in 2003, due to word of mouth the Vancouver Sun picked him up as a regular columnist. Was he a trained journalist? Nope. His rise to writing and hosting a travel show was partly luck (I’m sure), but also his persona.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Bits and Bytes =-.

Wandering CarolNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 4:46 PM

I love this discussion but whoaaa, isn’t there a big bias here, with people stereotyping magazine and newspaper articles as staid or generic or guide-book-type-info or, um, boooring, as opposed to blogging which is more about ‘voice.’ Okay, to a large extent, this may be true. There’s a lot of dull shlock out there in newspaper land. But. Not. Always. As a travel writer (and travel blogger) who writes mainly for newspapers, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get published while writing the way I wanted to, crafting a piece like a short story with humour and conflict and way too much ‘I’ – actually, I still do that, but my point is, take a closer look at some of the big publications – there is more common ground between blogging and newpaper writing than people might realize. I tried for years to break into the Chicago Tribune, and when I finally did, it was with a piece that began: ” “Am I going to die?” I asked Josie.” That said, it’s all about voice! If I want to know where the museums are I’ll grab a guidebook, but if I want the flavour (excuse my spelling, I’m Canadian) of a place, I google every travel article I can find, and the best are the ones where writers are confident enough to assert (insert?) their personalities. Through their slant, a place comes alive. The destination is the framework for an article – but it’s the voice that makes it sing.

KeithNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 9:20 PM

Interesting counterpoint on differences (or similarities) between newspapers/magazines and blogs, especially for a blogger who hasn’t written for these media. Another vote for voice! Thanks for stopping by – hope to see you around more!

MarkNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 9:38 AM

My blog is almost completely useless for getting any practical information about the places I travel. Blogs evolved from online personal journals to become a wide variety of different websites that run the gamut from boring, to informative, to raucous, to irreverent and still to the intimate personal details of other people’s lives. Travel blogs often contain several of those factors, and some find popularity while others don’t. For me, it’s about finding small stories in the places I go, and some of them aren’t really tied to place.

The big thing to remember is that for every type of blogger, there’s a reader looking for that sort of content. I subscribe to a number of travel blog RSS feeds at any given time, and enjoy the prep and travel posts, but to be completely honest, I’ll often unsubscribe once the trip is over and the blogger decides to go ‘professional.’ I abhor list articles, guest bloggers, and an ever changing stream of miscellaneous posts put up to meet the weekly quota and drive adclicks. I’m looking for the writer’s voice, and I want to know who’s words I’m reading when I land on a site. If I want the generic writing, I’ll pick up a magazine. The writing is tighter, the information is cleaner, and the photos are usually a notch above. I strongly believe in the editorial process, and find that’s the biggest weakness with blogs as mass media. While not perfect, there’s a level of professionalism and craftsmanship that I find lacking in many of the magazine style blogs.

But all of that is just me, and I’m only one man with one opinion… well, I have a LOT of opinions, but that’s another problem altogether.

NB: There are many exceptions to the criticisms I’ve made above, and many brillian bloggers running around the interwebs unchecked, but I find it sometimes difficult to sort them from the multitudes of other blogs clogging the pipes.
.-= Mark´s last blog ..Slow Travel =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 8:23 PM

I appreciate your honest take on the blogosphere. I agree with your point that there’s an audience for all types of content, but without sufficient exposure those folks won’t find the blog they’d really like. It seems like it could become a decision about whether to write the “generic” content you abhor to generate traffic or plow on with your selected style.

Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you around again!

AnilNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 3:07 AM

Experience will continue to matter for, there’re way too many permutations and combinations possible even for a place that’s been covered widely.

A blogger can hope to bring his / her voice to bear on it.
.-= Anil´s last blog ..The Notorious Cannon by the Hazarduari Palace, Murshidabad =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 7:56 PM

Hi Anil – I agree with you. Thanks for stopping by!

Gary ArndtNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 6:28 PM

Most people cannot tell you who wrote the articles they read in a magazine or a newspaper. If they fired the entire editorial staff of a magazine and replaced them, most people wouldn’t change their subscription because of that. People read the New York Times because it is an institution, not because of the people who work there.

Blogs, on the other hand, are all about personality. Most people can tell you the name of the person behind their favorite blogs. You might not even be able to pin down a particular article they wrote.

This is the fundamental difference between writing and blogging.
.-= Gary Arndt´s last blog ..Daily Travel Photo – Mammoth Cave, Kentucky =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 9:09 PM

Hi Gary, thanks for stopping by! Great insight, and it confirms a suspicion of mine. Blogging definitely seems more personal especially when you tie in Twitter, e-mail, and other direct-contact methods.

Hope to see you around these parts again!

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 6:06 PM

Interesting. During my tweetup with Shawn, we discussed the mechanics of travel writing. The consensus is that voice should be based on a place, not the writer. Perhaps what readers find engaging is an old tale retold with new eyes?
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Wednesday – She’s Come Undone =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 9:07 PM

But isn’t the writer’s voice inherent? Every writer has their unique style made up of quirks and references that no one else can replicate. Seems like the topic is the hook and the voice is what keeps readers coming back. Did you guys talk about that at all?

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar February 5, 2010 at 9:25 AM

You’re right, every writer does have their unique style. Good point. I should elaborate, we spoke of destination being the primary “voice” in relation to print travel writing, which keys into Gary’s insightful comment. I agree with him on blogging versus magazine/newspaper writing. In fact, I think you’ve tied into it as well, blogging is a fresher voice on travel writing. Think how Hunter S. Thompson redefined journalism, his personality was just as large as his writing escapades.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Wednesday – She’s Come Undone =-.

SuzyNo Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Nice post but a perplexing problem with travel writing. I completely agree a writer’s voice tends to keep readers reading. However, places are the billboard to any writer’s voice, initially attracting people to read. I think if you have an idea, why not go for it. No two people will have exactly the same take which is why you and your wife should go back and write that guidebook!

KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 12:46 PM

Thanks for stopping by, Suzy. Good point about the location being the initial draw to read the article – very important! Maybe someday we’ll get back to that guidebook idea 🙂

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: