Legendary travel writer and editor Don George shares his secrets
Many of the world’s top writers, editors, publishers and travel photographers landed at Corte Madera this week, for the annual Don George Book Passage Conference of Travel Writers and Photographers. The event was started “on a whim” in 1992: Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli called and said they should organize a multi-day conference for travel writers at the bookstore, George said yes and invited journalist and travel writer Jan Morris (“one of the greatest human beings of all time”) to be their guest of honor.
Now in its 30th year and still at the beloved Bay Area bookstore, mornings are all about workshops, with afternoon panels covering everything from social media to finding your story in the field. Basically everything you need to know to be a travel writer or photographer.
“I’m proud that the conference has continued and grown into what it is today — it’s been one of the highlights of my year,” says George, who lives just across the bay in the small town of Piedmont. During the conference, he also answers questions about how to get started, what makes a good travelogue, and working with publishers and travel industry professionals.
Travel writing was once a very different world, with hopeful queries to magazine editors typed and mailed. George’s Breakthrough, an essay on the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, has landed pride of place in the pages of Miss magazine thanks to such a missive. He kicked off a career that spanned four decades, including travel editor roles at San Francisco Chronicle, Salon and Lonely Planet. He has also written several books, including Lonely Planet’s no longer sold Travel Writing Guide, and has received countless literary accolades, including the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year award from the Society of American Travel Writers.
“I feel incredibly blessed because it was such a crazy combination of serendipity that started my career,” George says. “I loved writing poetry in high school and went to Princeton where I majored in English Literature and minored in Creative Writing. After graduation I went to Europe for a year and did an internship at Paris It was there that I fell in love with the world and realized that the class I wanted to be in was not an ivy-covered class as a tweed English teacher.
Still editor for National Geographic Travel and is currently working on a second anthology of his best travel articles, a sequel to The Way of Wanderlust: Don George’s Best TravelogueHere, “The Gift of Travel Writing” shares some industry tips and insights.
What does your pre-conference course look like, all day in the field?
“We meet at Passage of the book and taking a ferry to San Francisco, where I talk about some of the tips and secrets I’ve learned over the years, and how to improve writing as a writer and editor. As we walk from the Ferry Building to the North Beach neighborhood, I asked the writers to search for a story about the city and clues that reveal the essence of the story. They are detectives, but what mystery are they trying to solve? Another task I set for them after lunch is to locate themselves somewhere and write a description using all of their senses. People are very good at writing about what they see, but they’re usually not so good at writing about what they smell, hear, taste, or touch. We tend to forget about all those other senses, so the idea is to get people to pay attention and honor them as well.
Biggest takeaways you learned early in your career?
“Don’t compromise: follow your dream. Find a way to make that dream come true. Make your own luck. Don’t be afraid to say yes.
Common mistakes writers make and how can they successfully land assignments?
“Not studying the publication they want to write for closely enough and confusing a destination with a story. If they write me a question saying: “I’m going to Italy”. Do you want a story? My answer will be: “Italy is not a story. What about the Italy you want to write about? When I lead workshops, I present my point of view as an editor and what I’m looking for in a story. Often writers don’t understand the purpose of their stories. It’s often “this is what I did” or “this is what happened to me”. I try to get them to think about what they want the reader to take away.
How do you shape a story for maximum effect?
“Good writing should make the reader’s journey easier and not allow them to get lost along the way. Put the verbs correctly. Get rid of adjectives. If you have a noun that will do the job of an adjective, get rid of the adjectives and make every word count.
What’s the future of beautifully written travel prose in the video-dominated world of social media?
“Travel publishing has evolved so much that it was like watching an earthquake with the landscape totally rearranged afterwards. When I started, there were about 15 publications in the United States that you could write for, and you either got published there or you didn’t, and that’s how your career progressed. Now it’s exploded into this exciting but overwhelming realm where everyone can be their own editor. One thing to remember is the principle of doing justice and honoring your subject and yourself as the creator. Honor your audience and do the best you can, whatever medium you choose. Make sure you’re delivering the right message in the most effective and evocative way possible, whether that’s with a two-minute video or a 2,500-word story.
Can you sum up what it’s like to be a travel writer in ten words?
1. “Explore the world with all your heart/with your mind; share what you learned and liked.
2. “Blessed life studying/sharing in the classroom of the world.”
Is it still possible to make a living as a travel writer today?
“It has always been difficult to make a living as a travel writer, and it remains so today. The best way is to geographically and stylistically expand your professional portfolio (words, photos, video storytelling) and cultivate personal relationships with publishers and producers by attending workshops and conferences.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted travel writing and travel?
“It shattered people’s travel dreams. For two years we were all sitting rather than wandering around the world. Travel agencies, hotels and tour operators have been hit hard. Financially, it’s still something people are trying to recover from. But I think the positive is that we’ve come to appreciate the value of travel and travel in our lives. We appreciate the fragility and interconnectedness of the planet in a whole new way. Our role as stewards and what we need to do to preserve and retain all of these incredibly wonderful things that we once took for granted.
What can you share about your writers’ workshops in Paris next summer?
“Another positive aspect of the pandemic is that it taught us if we had a dream to go there. I always wanted to organize a writing workshop in Paris and said that I would organize one this summer. I just did it, and it was wonderful, so I’ll be holding two there next July. I took a big apartment on Île Saint-Louis, one of my favorite places. The workshops will take place from the apartment, but we will walk around the city and do different writing exercises. The idea is that everyone finds their point of passion in Paris, something that really speaks to them, on which they will write an essay entitled “My Personal Paris”.
Your takeaway for budding travel writers?
“Become the editor of the publication you want to write for. Understand how they choose the stories they publish. Every editor has a picture puzzle of stories in their mind; understand where your story fits into that puzzle.
The Don George Writers’ Workshops in Paris run July 6-11 and July 16-21, 2023, with groups limited to nine writers per workshop. www.don-george.com.
This article was published in the InsideHook SF newsletter. Join now to learn more about the Bay Area.