The smart advice on how to be a travel writer: think close to home

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Kingsport Church CircleFreelancers who dream of writing about travel are lured by the dream of having big-name publications such as Travel + Leisure paying them to take multi-week vacations to exotic locales where they’ll bask in lavish accommodations. If this you, and you’re serious about becoming a travel writer, you’ll soon feel the smack of reality on your forehead: your chances of scoring such plum assignments are pretty much nil. But just because you’re not Rick Steves or Arthur Frommer doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful freelancer who writes about travel as part of a broader portfolio. Here’s a smart way to go about becoming a travel writer: start local.

Are you absorbed by how the Amish cope with the 21st Century or the process of preparing the spongy Ethiopian injera bread you tasted in Chicago or Toronto? Readers elsewhere may well be fascinated by quirky features associated with your hometown. If you live in or near a traditional travel destination, and even if you don’t, your chances of scoring decent travel writing assignments – and being paid for them – are better than you may think.

‘Being there’ is two-thirds of travel writing

If you’re located in a major metropolitan area, you’re in luck. Chicago has a rich architectural history, spectacular lakefront, and lively summer festival season, all of which provide inspiration for travel stories. But dig deeper than typical tourist attractions for your story ideas and you’ll have editors’ ears. The key is giving readers a sense of being immersed in a location, explains WeekAway content editor Eleni Chappen. (Editor’s note: WeekAway is an Ebyline partner.)

“Talk to at least one local to get their perspective on an area,” suggests Chappen. “Blurring the lines between travel and the local experience is happening more and more in the travel industry, and that perspective is something travelers crave now. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to step out of the tourist’s path.”

Adam Rugel, co-founder and CEO of Open Places, agrees. “Describe that one dish in a restaurant that is really special, or that one trail in a park that is really special,” he advises. “Write about things that you can’t do anywhere else.”Downtown Chicago Street Scene

Travel editors: there really is no place like home

If you’re located in “flyover country,” don’t despair. Small towns often boast offbeat and off-the-beaten-track attractions that can provide inspiration for unique travel stories.

“We have a site dedicated to the South Shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana,” says WeekAway’s Chappen. “Not everyone would call this a conventional destination, but it has attractions like the Indiana Dunes National Seashore, which make for a great summer day-trip from Chicago. Now, a person from California is probably not looking to fly here for a week’s vacation, but it’s certainly a viable destination for a Chicago couple looking for something to do on the weekend.”

“Anything can be interesting, whether it’s a traditional vacation spot or someplace that you would never think to travel to,” Rugel agrees.

As a local, you can write about gems that visitors or travel writing veterans parachuting in for a day would otherwise miss. One example: the central business district of Kingsport, Tenn., a city of about 50,000, features buildings that date from the early 1900s. Church Circle District, a prominent feature of downtown Kingsport, is home to four historic church buildings and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but nowhere to be found in many tourist guides for the region. That lack of publicity is one feature that travel editors, inundated with pitches for destinations they’ve published on many times and to which everyone’s been, often crave.

Getting published? Look off the beaten track again.

Unless you’re already known to editors, you’re probably wasting your time pitching major travel publications, warns Tim Leffel, a travel writer and editor and author of Travel Writing 2.0: Earning Money from Your Travels in the New Media Landscape.

“It’s easier to break into trade publications, regional magazines, and those that run some travel articles but aren’t really travel magazines,” Leffel says “Spending some time perusing titles at a good newsstand or library helps, as does using a service like the Wooden Horse Database that supplies contact information for lots of publications you didn’t even know existed. Online is where the clear growth is.”

Knowing your potential audience also makes pitching and writing local and regional travel stories easier, Chappen advises.

“Try to create an ideal profile of those who are most likely to travel to your area. Are they singles in their twenties or families with young children? Do they want the luxury spa or are they the rustic, outdoors type?” she explains. “I’m an optimist and think that any area can be attractive, but not every area is attractive equally to everyone.”

You may even find it easier to get published writing about local attractions than writers pitching stories about world famous travel destinations, says Leffel.

“Everyone wants to go to France or Italy and write about it. Not so many people want to write about Missouri or Idaho,” Leffel explains. “There are plenty of angles in Missouri or Idaho though and good pitches to the right places—including regional publications–can have a high rate of success.”

 Photos by Audrey Henderson

Five Tips to Help Freelance Writers Stress Story Value in Pitches

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Resumes and pitch letters have a lot in common. For freelance writers, a well-written pitch letter with a solid story idea yields a writing assignment. And a tight and terse resume that successfully sells a job candidate results in a job interview. The critical common ingredient in both successful pitch letters and resumes is value – the power-packed word that means importance, usefulness, relevance and significance.

Resumes and pitch letters that fail to communicate value within seconds are trashed.

Successful freelance writers who consistently score writing jobs have learned how to persuasively stress the value of the content they’re trying to sell in their pitch letters. Embellished with carefully chosen sentences, practically every phrase drives home the value of the story the writer proposes.

Here are five tips that can help you focus on and stress value in every pitch letter you write:

1. Understand market. Heading the list is knowledge of the market’s demographics.  Before you can think about writing a pitch letter, find  the answers to these questions: Who are the readers (age, sex,  education), and what kind of information do they want? Rather than skim a couple of articles,  read several so that you have a strong feeling for content.  Get a sense of the publication’s editorial mission and philosophy.   If it’s an online magazine or newsletter, the “About” page ought to explain it.  Many mission statements also provide information about  the publication’s readers.

2. Topic relevance. Will the subject immediately draw readers?  Once the market niche is understood,  search for stories that are specific – I stress specific — to this market.  If you find yourself justifying a story’s relevance, abort and find another story. There should be no doubt about a topic’s relevance.  Check to see if topic was covered before.  If it’s a popular topic, there’s a good chance that it was already written about.  But that doesn’t mean your story isn’t viable. The topic could have been covered two years ago; or it may be so broad or complex, there are several angles, all of which are important.  Along with making a strong case for your story, you’ll also score points with your editor. He or she will appreciate the fact that you did your homework.  And if the topic was covered, you’ve positioned the story so that it’s fresh and new.

3. Timeliness. The more timely and relevant the subject matter the better. What with readers’ bombarded with information from countless vehicles,  information must be fresh and offer new insights.   The timeliness of a story can’t be stressed enough, especially if there are several competing publications in the market.  The Internet explosion has created content wars, and virtually every editor is hungry for timely stories.  When I edited newspapers and online news sites, my best writers understood the impact of timely stories.  My freelancers knew that breaking news stories were the best and fastest ways to win immediate points.
4. Benefit. In some way, readers ought to benefit from the information the writer is imparting.  Regardless of the market, story pitches must spotlight the story’s importance for readers.  In how-to, DIY, and self-help publications, online or print, the benefit for readers is particularly important.

5. Advice. Great information is valuable by itself. But the topper is leaving readers with a takeaway – helpful, easy-to-implement advice or tips they can use or adapt.  The advice section, which usually falls at the end of a story, is vitally important because it not only summarizes and ties the story together, but it also tells readers  how to apply  the information and where to learn more.

BONUS: A powerful working head  

Finally, the selling topper – the icing on the proverbial cake – is a strong, provocative head that immediately piques an editor’s interest. More likely than not, the editor will change it (Most editors, including myself, are obsessive about coming up with power-packed heads that instantly snare readers).  Most importantly,  the working head must capture the story’s essence. Coming up with great heads isn’t easy. But they’re worth the effort, because it tells editors that you’ve worked hard to deliver a strong, substantial, and well-conceived story pitch.

How Freelance Writers Can Take Their Photography Skills to the Next Level

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Journalism is largely driven by opportunity, which is why you should always carry a camera. Your photographs may end up being the only documentation available for your story or for some random, newsworthy event that you may stumble upon while walking home. Everyone has taken a picture or two, but taking great photos can help make you a little more cash as a freelancer. Here are some tips to bring your photo skills to the next level:

1. Learn how to use your camera’s manual functions. The automatic settings are easily fooled by challenging conditions like backlighting. So knowing how to balance aperture, shutter speed and flash can help you produce salable photos even with a point-and-shoot. A faster shutter, for example, will freeze action but let in less light. A bigger aperture will let in more light but give you a shallower depth-of-field. At f2.8, your background will blur out, providing nice isolation of your portrait.

2. Your chances of selling a photo increases with quality. This means always shooting at the highest quality image setting you camera offers (RAW is best) and actually taking time to compose shots. Train yourself to look around and behind your subject to see if anything intrudes into frame like a pole coming out of the top your subjects head. Don’t center every shot or shoot everybody in front of a wall. Experiment with different angles.

3. Choose a camera with fully manual and semi-automatic settings like aperture priority or shutter priority. The two latter functions are probably what you’ll use most. They allow you to manually set either shutter or aperture and the camera will do the rest. You also want a camera with an optical viewfinder as opposed to focusing with the LCD. An optical viewfinder allows you to shoot on a bright day. A Canon G10, G11 or G12 is what many photojournalists carry around when not working since it’s a relatively simple camera with decent lens quality and a full manual mode. The new class of micro Four Thirds is even smaller and has interchangeable lens capability. Most Four Thirds don’t have optical viewfinders, though.

I use a Canon 5D digital SLR (single-lens reflex). It’s an amazing camera but pricey, an beast of a machine for any upcoming freelance writers. A more affordable option would be a used Canon 40D or a T2i with a good lens or two. It’s always better to buy good glass over an expensive camera body for anybody that can’t afford both. So if you already have an old Canon 20D, upgrade your lenses. You’ll be amazed at the quality you can get from a professional grade “L” lens. And if you don’t have one already, buy a 50mm 1.8. It’s the sharpest and fastest lens that you can buy for $110.

50 Journalists and Bloggers to Follow On Facebook ‘Subscribe’

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By now you’ve probably heard about Facebook’s new Subscribe button, which allows you to follow journalist and web content writers that you respect on Facebook. It essentially works like Twitter, feeding your information cravings with a healthy helping of news and views. But who do you subscribe to? Today, Facebook’s journalism program manager Vadim Lavrusik provided a jumping off point for “subscribe” newbies, and listed 50 journalists and bloggers who are available for subscriptions.

With the launch of Subscribe last week, we wanted to show an example of some journalists who are using Subscribe to enable readers and viewers to keep up with their public updates and also subscribe to sources they are interested in keeping up with.

To help you satiate your own media diet, we’ve published his list below so you can start subscribing right away!

To turn on Subscribe, go to https://www.facebook.com/about/subscribe.

  1. Ann Curry, TODAY Show/NBC News
  2. Brian Stelter, reporter at The New York Times
  3. Ayman Mohyeldin, NBC News, Egypt Correspondent
  4. Elizabeth Spiers, editor of The New York Observer
  5. Brian Storm, executive producer at MediaStorm
  6. Craig Kanalley, Huffington Post, senior traffic and trends editor
  7. Esther Vargas, editor at Peru21
  8. Pete Cashmore, CEO and founder of Mashable, CNN columnist
  9. Anthony De Rosa, Social Media Editor at Reuters
  10. Saul Hansell, Big News Editor at Huffington Post.
  11. Liz Gannes, AllThingsD reporter
  12. Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist
  13. Robert Scoble, Scobleizer
  14. Nick Bilton, The New York Times reporter and lead technology writer
  15. Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media
  16. Jenna Wortham, New York Times reporter
  17. Franz Strasser, video journalist at BBC News
  18. Om Malik, founder of GigaOmniMedia
  19. Jessica Vascellaro, Wall Street Journal repoter
  20. Jeff Jarvis, CUNY prof, writer
  21. Mathew Ingram, GigaOm writer
  22. MG Siegler, writer at TechCrunch
  23. Ben Parr, Editor at Large at Mashable
  24. Bilal Randere, Online Producer at Al Jazeera
  25. Laurie Segall, CNN Money producer
  26. Daniela Capistrano, Online Producer at “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”
  27. Mark Milian, reporter at CNN.com
  28. Jason Kincaid, TechCrunch
  29. Brian Ries, The Daily Beast social media editor
  30. Jenn Van Grove, senior reporter at Mashable
  31. Liz Heron, The New York Times, social media editor
  32. Jason DeRusha, WCCO reporter/anchor
  33. Walt Mossberg, AllThingsd columnist
  34. Amanda Zamora, Washington Post, social media & engagement editor
  35. Gregory Korte, reporter at USA Today
  36. Jen Lee Reeves, Interactive Director at KOMU
  37. Martin Beck, Los Angeles Times engagement editor
  38. P. Kim Bui, KPCC Social Media Editor
  39. Alexander B. Howard, Gov. 2.0 Washington Correspondent at O’Reilly Media: https://www.facebook.com/alexhoward
  40. Doug Crets, tech blogger at RWW
  41. Jeff Sonderman, Poynter writer
  42. Patrick Witty, international picture editor at TIME
  43. Tyson Evans, assistant editor of interactive news at The New York Times
  44. Mark W. Smith, web editor and columnist at Detroit Free Press.
  45. Irina Slutsky, reporter at Age Age
  46. Dan Ackerman, senior editor at CNET
  47. Paul Takahashi, multimedia journalist at the Las Vegas Sun
  48. Rosa Golijan, contributing writer at MSNBC
  49. Jim MacMillan, journalist in residence for War News Radio at Swarthmore College
  50. Dan Petty, social media editor at The Denver Post

Prolific Freelancer Thursday Bram on Pricing Infoproducts, Working with Subcontractors

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Freelance writer Thursday Bram has contributed to websites including CNET, GigaOM, and Lifehack. She’s also created a variety of information products like ebooks and online classes and recently launched an online membership site at EnhancedFreelance.

Ebyline chatted with Thursday about media trends and new opportunities for writers.

Ebyline: What are some of the limitations of the traditional hourly or per project freelance model where you’re working with clients? How can freelancers bust out of that model?

Thursday:
The biggest limitation, especially to charging hourly, is that every freelance writer has only 24 hours in every day — and if we try to work all of them, it tends to end poorly. At the very least, a lack of sleep makes for less than excellent work. There are certainly other limitations, as well, but that’s the limitation that I’ve run up against the most often. It means that the amount of money that can be made by someone that purely freelances is limited.

Breaking out of that hourly model is crucial. Charging per project is an important first step, because it means that you’ve got room to start exploring if there are time intensive parts of the work you do can be outsourced. I have a virtual assistant who can handle repetitive tasks, like tracking down email addresses for potential sources, freeing me up to do more actual writing. From there, it’s a question of what additional income sources you can think of that fit well with your specialties. That might mean subcontracting out work, creating ebooks or something entirely different.

When and why did you decide to start working with subcontractors? 

I’ve actually been working with one of army subcontractors for well over a year now. What sparked the idea to bring her on was a client who wanted me on a project where the budget was too low for me to actually take on. But I knew a writer who could handle the work with some editing and charged a rate that would allow me to get the posts written and still budget a little of my time for the necessary editing. It felt like a win all around.

Nowadays a lot of writers monetize their content by selling infoproducts but prices for those products are all over the map. What are your thoughts on pricing infoproducts?

Pricing can be tough, just because one group of buyers might be willing to pay a lot more than others. The first thing that I look at when I’m creating a new product is how much time I’m going to put into it. That’s in contrast to what some people will tell you (“look at the audience size” is pretty common advice). I want to know what I need to make for a project to make financial sense for me. From there, I’ll make a table of how many copies I need to sell at which price points for a total. Then I’ll run down the numbers to see what I think is realistic  There’s a bit of gut instinct at play, but you can usually get a good feel based on your research.

One of the dangers with infoproducts and content marketing is that you share too much and give away the farm for free or you don’t share enough and readers wonder if the product is all hype. Any thoughts on finding the right balance?

I’m happy to give away plenty of information in general. I blog all over the place and have given away plenty of free ebooks and the like. But I don’t generally do a lot of free information in connection with a specific product. I think that having built up my expertise is enough.

Another reason that I’m not scared to be forthcoming with free information is because much of what I write about (and sell in product form) is not some secret great truth. I learned most of it for free, by trial and error, reading everything in sight and bothering people who know more. What I’m really offering in a product is organization and guidance through all that information. And most people really do find that worth paying for.

I’ve seen a few other freelancer writers create membership communities as you’ve done. Do you think these communities are the new ebook or blog? Or is there another emerging trend you’re noticing?

I actually see live events being one of the big trends coming up. There have always been tons of forums and membership sites for freelancers (think about all those sites that offer guidelines for publications behind pay walls). I definitely can tell that there’s a lot of differences between the membership sites that have been started in the past few months. Mine really focuses on building up a business as a whole — marketing, additional income sources and the like. I’ve seen one that’s much more of a mentorship program and another that’s more geared towards honing writing abilities.

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