Category Archives: Thinking

How to make ANY editor like your work

Just came across a post called How to make travel editors like your blog – which talks about their ‘OCD nature’ in looking for good voice, tight production skills, social media presence and community engagement, tech know-how and broad range of material.

As a web editor (non-travel), I couldn’t agree more. Their list of wants are true across any subject where people want to write professionally (and when I say write, that is just shorthand for all content: video, photos, audio, etc).

I’ve had a number of professional writers approach me for online work but when I go to look them up they’re not just not active online and don’t have a blog or anywhere else I can see their writing. Whereas that one person who has a regularly tended blog with interesting content and links to other online presences tells me that they ‘get it’ and this fact alone is far more likely to get them hired.

We’re living in a ‘show don’t tell’ world.

Read the full story: How to make travel editors like your blog

Life’s a beach – except for gingers

Beach day -3

Blue sky, sunshine and a temperature that is perfecto for gingers like me (average 24 degrees), meant today had to be a BEACH DAY! Better yet, the beaches were near empty. I love it how off-season for other people is when I can go outside and actually sunbathe. June-August is often a frightful bore for the fair-skinned, but the cusp of autumn/winter is just right for old Goldilocks here.

It’s given me the idea for a series of features based on The Ginger Calendar – where is good to go, with temperatures in the early 20s for most of the day and with a sea that isn’t too chilly? Please feel free to post your suggestions/experiences below.

Personally, I think it’s very easy to get wrong and have felt quite restricted on some trips abroad. For example, I once went to the Greek Islands in June and couldn’t go to the beach until 5pm when the sun finally turned the heat down. In reaction, I then made the mistake of going in October, when the beach was only warm enough from 11am-3pm and the sun set at 6ish.

Although the shops at many resorts were mostly closed, let me recommend the South of France in late September, early October. Today we took a picnic to Leucate (pictured) then went for a snooze on Le Racou beach in the far South-west of France, just a hour or two from the Spanish border, and it was lovely. The water could have been warmer and the waves slightly calmer, but the sun strength was just about right. One or two applications of Factor 50 and no frying skin.

Cool.

Travel details: this journey to Toulouse and beyond was part-sponsored by Bmibaby.com. More posts here.

I’m a travel writer with a fear of flying. WTF.

England!

Three weeks ago I was on an overnight, long-haul Emirates flight that hit turbulence somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Even the crew were told to strap in.

After repeating my usual mantra of “cobbled street, cobbled street” for a bit, I realised that this was going to go on a while. I was shivering uncontrollably and feeling a rising anxiety. It didn’t help that I was in a seat on my own, away from the family.

Then I remembered how tired the captain had sounded when he made his pre-take off announcements. This wasn’t good.

Time to go to Defcon 3 – Meditation. I’ve often found a good tactic is to take long, very slow breaths and count them in rounds of ten. I counted four lots of ten, and another five, before the worst of it was over. About 20-30 minutes in total. (The counting is a distraction from thinking about either the imminent crash dive or the sharks circling in the water below.)

After the turbulence started to ease off, I looked around me to share the relief only to find everyone around me fast asleep.

This is what is so utterly annoying about fear of flying. It’s a private hell.

Still, there and then, I decided I’d never fly again.

***

It’s three weeks later. I’m at Gate 52 at Manchester Airport. It’s 6.20am and I’m about to board the flight I promised myself I would never get on.

Because although during that seemingly endless half an hour of turbulence, I was ready to cough up for a Eurostar ticket and a TGV down to the south of France to visit family, once my feet were on firm ground, my irrational fears seemed ridiculous and laughable.

Besides, how cowardly would I be to back out now? For the rest of my days, I would be forced to look back at this moment and see it as a yellow-bellied turning point in my life when I finally gave in to my fears. Worse than that, I could pretty much say goodbye to my travel adventures and writing work.

There was another factor. Bmibaby were offering to fly us anywhere on their network for free. How churlish would it be to turn that down? Especially when all they were asking was that we went and had a great time and blogged a bit about the trip.

***

It’s hard to explain fear of flying to anyone who doesn’t have it.

The anticipation of flying can be crippling, wiping out all enjoyment until you land. There are crash dreams ahead of time and imaginary or media images of crash sites that pop into your head mid-flight.

But that’s just the start of it. I personally check the plane’s exterior for cracks in the fuselage before boarding. I also run-through all members of my family as the plane powers up down the runway to the point of no return – just in case.

Uncalled for, I remember Concorde, Lockerbie, 9-11, last month’s plane crash in Nepal.

I cross my fingers, fidget and say a prayer to the Catholic god of my childhood.

After take-off, I count 22 minutes until I feel safe – the time of a crash I once heard about on the news.

I uncross my fingers, and have to sit straight up in my seat, while simultaneously craning my neck out of the window to see that we are actually moving forward. My ears are on animal alert for changes in engine noise.

Talking with other passengers or even my own co-travellers is an annoying distraction as it breaks my concentration. But books and magazines aren’t engaging enough for my crash-focused brain. I remember Red Dwarf’s emergency procedures of taking out airline magazines and intently reading features on, for example, Turkey’s blossoming wine industry.

Since 2001 and a bereavement, I’ve also taken Valium to get me on the plane.

It’s horrible the emotional wringer flying puts me through. And it’s exhausting.

Fortunately, there is a ‘but’…

***

I think it is important to keep facing this phobia and not to let it shut me down. So despite everything I still get on the plane.

I do this knowing the fear will be gone once I’m there. And the nausea will be forgotten – at least until next time. I’ve probably failed in explaining how debilitating it can be, but it is what it is, and I have to deal with it.

So here I go again. A travel journalist with a phobia of flying.

Ironic, isn’t it.

***

Kiss the captain! A big, big thankyou to Captain Mark Dixon of BMIbaby, who navigated high cross winds on takeoff to cruise us smoothly onward to Toulouse, landing the plane safely an hour and 35 minutes later. Now at last I can enjoy the holiday.

As if there was anything to be worried about really. :)

And thankyou to also to Bmibaby.com, who have sponsored this trip. Trip info and prices to come in a future post.

Meanwhile here are some photos I took of the transfer from Birmingham to Manchester Airport at 3am today (now shifted to a separate post ‘Every journey starts with an airport transfer‘) – it’s time to feature all the bits that a travel writer rarely covers.

How nice is Toulouse Airport, for example!

Birmingham, meet Birmingham!

Birmingham welcome sign at the Amtak stationThe great thing about not having a traditional print commission is that:

  • you can publish the end article in a format of your choice.
  • you can don’t have to write for a set demographic.
  • you can have an altruistic motive because, let’s face it, payment for travel features is so 2008.

So, last month I spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama. Being from Birmingham, West Midlands, I thought it would be a funny stop-off point and that Brummie folks back home might like to read about their namesake.

But the traditional print idea of ’24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama’ for a regional Midlands audience didn’t do it justice. And, for the three reasons above, my travel feature has transmuted into more connective material.

To answer the three bulletpoints above:

  • Chosen format: a theme blog
    I picked this because there were so many overlaps and connections, and fun stuff – from the entertainment districts of Five Points vs Five Ways, to Malfunction Junction vs Spaghetti Junction, to discussions over their version of Benny from Crossroads – that a single blog post wouldn’t have done the content justice. Similarly, a series of posts here would have been diluted by general musings on travel journalism. The end result is that a tale of two Birminghams is now a blog unto itself. Well, a Tumblr, because it was easier. It is currently named Birmingham, meet Birmingham – and I have around 32 connections just for starters.
  • Potential readership: Brummies and Bhammies
    So the potential audience is 1,250,000 – that’s the sum of two Birmingham populations, although the figure would be more like 5,000,000 if counting the Birmingham metropolitan area and Greater Birmingham, rather than just the cities themselves. The readership is not tied to a demographic but to a subject of interest – our two hometowns and how we benchmark with each other.
  • Altruistic aim: foster connections
    Travel journalism is a happy field. We present aspirational destinations and stories about those places that people want to travel to. At best, travel advertisers hope that readers will book their product off the back of reading a published feature. However, as I connected with Bham natives via the internet and then IRL, it seemed to me that there were more interesting outcomes than tourism. What if, for example, like an aunt at a singles party, I could introduce Birmingham to Birmingham? What if Alabama’s coworking space could connect with my local coworking space in Moseley, or Birmingham Museum of Art (AL) could talk with BMAG (UK) – could they share connections, swap ideas, learn from each other, have fun? Could businesses even start to trade, offering pathways into international expansion?

Ok, so the idea took off in my head and will probably have nothing to do with how users actually consume the content.

But at the same time, why the hell not? At the tweetup they held to welcome me to Birmingham Alabama, I discovered they’d heard of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit – one of the more well-known (and irreverent) guides to Birmingham UK. They also knew that Birmingham City Council had used the ‘other Birmingham’s’ skyline to illustrate a recycling leaflet. An easy mistake in some ways – after all, we get each other’s search results all the time. We had also nearly organised a Skype linkup last year as their BarCamp was on at the same time as ours.

So perhaps we could do something with this. Like the British Airways-sponsored MetroTwin, which connects places, sights and entertainments in London and New York, and also now London and Mumbai.

But the connections don’t just have to be limited to the touristic.

Why not ‘metrotwin’ Birmingham with Birmingham on many levels?

The information is out there on the Birmingham Match Tumblr, or will be by degrees. What people do with it is another matter.

Ok, so exactly what is a tourist and what is a traveller?

It had to be done. People are searching for the answer to this question and finding this blog, naturally enough. So feel free to post your definitions. Because I’m not sure I know what the difference is. Budget, attitude, destination, length of holiday, courage, individuality, all of the above, none of the above?

Answers on a postcard… or even below. As you wish.

Oh yes, and here’s explorer Benedict Allen’s take on it when I asked him at a talk recently – it’s all about the note-taking and recording it for others.

Egypt tourist

A great pic from David Evers/Flickr

Tourist vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

How important is it to record your travels? This is the question I put to the explorer and Unbreakable tough guy Benedict Allen at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London this Saturday. I’m also interested in other people’s takes on this, and why they keep personal travel diaries?

Firstly, though, here’s Benedict Allen’s response:

It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.

Explorers like travellers are in the business of reporting back and, increasingly, this is a justification for going. We can no longer see the world simply as a playground (I was pretty self-indulgent when I started out). I feel better looking back that I recorded my expeditions: through writing, filming and photography.

You have to remember that is it s privilege to travel – many can’t do it (for financial and other reasons) – but by sharing it you give others a chance to get out there.

Of course, Benedict Allen has been on some pretty unique and far-flung trips. He added that the Niowra tribe he stayed with knew that their way of life was disintegrating and wanted him to record their Crocodile Initiation Ceremony for posterity.

But is there much value in the rest of us contributing our travel writing to others, especially if we aren’t adventurers but say backpackers following a well-trodden trail – or playground as Allen calls it? Is there anything for the world to learn from us?

Are we breaking down prejudices through our travel writing or are we just underscoring them?

And why are we so driven to record our experiences beyond the tourist holiday snap? Why, for example, do I have around 40-50 travel diaries locked up in a trunk in my house!?

(Aside: I did it so that I would have my best memories in writing for if I ever lost my memory. But also there were ideas of having published books, being the new Anais Nin, and let’s not underestimate the sheer habit of it.)

Finally, is ‘recording the experience’ really a difference between tourists and travellers? Or is it just that travelling types are often on long journeys with hours to kill so out comes the diary/blogging platform – or do you think you can you still be a ‘traveller’ on a weekend in the Lake District?

Of course, the irony of staying up late to blog my weekend of travel writing isn’t escaping me. I’m also reminded of Jack Kerouac who recorded the beat years while Neal Cassidy was the person who fully lived them.

So my finally question I’m pondering is how would my travels have been if I hadn’t stopped to record them – would I have live more fully in the moment, or is it worth saving some back to relive them later on?

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: See the list that keeps Benedict Allen alive

Girl with diary

A (wannabe) travel writer takes notes in a leather-bound diary at the Travellers' Tales festival, London (Feb 2010)

Travel articles remixed?

Could there be a trend for releasing journalistic research or unused data for others to ‘remix’ – as I suggested when I released the ‘behind the scenes’ source material for two of my online travel features?

It’s been happening in music for a while with the likes of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails releasing downloads of his music for fans to remix – check out Remix.nin.com. [Thanks to TTV Pete for the heads up.)

Digital journalists like Joanna Geary have bookmarked source material in Delicious and shared them at the end of their features for transparency. Meanwhile more and more people are uploading their research and original writings to Scribd.

But reworking traditional journalistic product ? With a growing DIY culture online, why not.

After writing up my ‘Behind the scenes of a travel feature‘ series and opening out the source material, I was interested to discover that I’m not the only one testing the water of transparent research with the additional invitation to create something new from it.

The BBC has just released footage from its series on The Virtual Revolution, inviting viewers to make their own documentary from the film:

We are providing unedited professionally filmed footage from the series, for you to use. This includes interviews, aerial shots, graphics and music. Download them for free under our permissive licence, and mix them with your own ingenuity.

I wonder if tech journalist and presenter Aleks Krotoski was behind the decision? She writes on her blog that she wanted to ‘keep the process as transparent as possible’ and agreed to take part in the series because it was a multi-platform event. In fact, she released her interview rushes with the web elite back in November 2009 and invited readers to ‘Steal this!’ In her post, she says:

Each link below takes you to the Digital Revolution page that hosts the video. On that page, you can watch and – crucially – download the content to keep for your very own. No, really. So when I say ‘Steal This!’ in the headline, I mean it (obviously with caveats…). With this content, you can mix it up, mash it up, create your own story of the Web. More on that in a forthcoming post. For now, I will leave you with the goods.

People share their creative endeavours with each other online all the time. It’s interesting that working journalists are now (finally?) doing the same. I’d love to know if anyone know any other examples of this, particularly in the travel genre. And I’m wondering could this be the start of a trend? What are its possibilities? What are its limitations? And how can we experiment with this stuff?

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 5: 101 romantic places around the world

Well, allegedly. Here, finally, is the source material that more than 100 PRs created via the TravMedia/Google Docs experiment. You can dip into it for reference or use it to create a whole new feature – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it. (Also, scroll down for links to the rest of the series and the published articles):

The features

The deconstruction

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 4: the results of the Google Docs experiment

Time for a quick review. After being commissioned to write two ‘top tens’ for Allaboutyou.com, I posted a PR alert and Twitter callout to help me find ‘romantic places’ in the UK and abroad – more on the problem with top ten lists in part 1. In part 2, you can read the travel editor’s original commissioning briefs, and in part 3, the seven tools of feature research are listed. Now, in part 4, the story continues…

So what happened next?

There was my blank Google Q&A form sitting out there in a load of PR and tourist board inboxes. The idea was that it would act as a collection funnel for the incoming data – and keep it off my email.

Answer: Google Docs went nuts.

Research results 1-50
Research results 1-50
  • Over 48 hours, the online Q&A form filled up with 98 responses.
  • The CEO of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) – spotted the callout on TravMedia and reposted the request to 400 association members across Africa.
  • The PRs did all the hard work for me in preparing guide prices, product details, image sources and contact info.
  • Nearly every question was answered by each PR and boxes were filled in – although many wrote an essay where the simple location was asked for, which stuffed up the spreadsheet layout.
  • Reams of irrelevant material and spin were produced to make a generic place sound romantic rather than point out any actual romantic history, tradition or fact. Annoying although certainly not unexpected.
  • There were a small number of bang-on-target suggestions, which were siphoned off into a UK and a worldwide file as per the commissions.
  • Several places were suggested twice, eg the Taj Mahal. I ended up using both client details as I used information from both.
  • I DID receive emails – but only nine (annoying but better than 98!). Three PRs ignored my form and emailed text such as a ‘nestled castle in a perched village’ or entire Valentine press releases (all ignored). Another emailed for clarification – subtext: was it worth her filling in the form? Some PRs experienced firewall issues and couldn’t access the form due to Websense, which blocks personal storage sites. Another emailed after the deadline had passed. And one filled in the form with out of date information – oops!
  • My favourite justification for romantic credentials was this one: ‘My daughter was conceived there, so no better compliment to the romance of the ambience.’
  • Another PR threw in some language tips on what to say in Sardinia to your beloved: ‘Non posso vivere senza di te – I can’t live without you!’
  • Twitter feedback resulted in a few funnies but no major new ideas. It did have a supportive role when I had further queries, though – see part 3 for more on this.

On the whole, it was a spectacularly good response, though. What did I learn from it?

Some pros and cons…

There were issues: double postings, excessive writing, unfounded statements and opinions, clichés, spin and so on. (The original source material is to be published in the next and final post.)

But there was also great value in rooting out knowledge I wouldn’t have found otherwise, such as being able to wear a suit of armour to propose at Warwick Castle or the location of the original ‘Horse Whisperer’ ranch.

So I have to say to the PRs, a big thanks for taking the time to fill in the form rather than send generic press releases.

Some tips for PRs…

For those faced with a Google form or  journalist request, DON’T waste your time spinning your product to fit the journalist’s angle. Facts, evidence, relevance and concision are the things that stand out over pretty prose and just stating that something fits the bill. It took seven hours to plough through all 98 responses, and to copy and paste the potentials. Take out all the generic suggestions spun for romance and this could be reduced to just an hour or two.

Ultimately, it was the chancing of so many sort-of relevant ideas that made the Google Docs/PR alert route financially unviable – shoving me frustratingly over time and therefore budget.

Factoring in picture research…

Sourcing good pictures is also like entering a time warp.

The pic research for each of the 10 blurbs was another tipping point. Free tourist board or PR pics are desirable and usually great quality. But traditionally writers haven’t had to source them – picture researchers have. Now, though, gallery features make popular editorial pieces and sourcing can be part of the commission package. Even with a media library log-in, or the PR contact for images, the resulting workload – the back and forth of emails, selection and zipping of images, collating and sending to the travel editor – soaked up another half day.

Surfing for images on a stock library is faster but you can still while away many minutes looking for the right image to go with your copy.

My judgment on the Google Docs research method…

Ordinarily, this type of feature would take me 1.5 days to write, but the extra spreadsheet and picture sourcing brought this up to 2-3 days. So using Web 2.0 tools did make life easier but it also actually slowed down the work.

The Google Docs sourcing experiment is not for every time – you have to be pretty dedicated to go through this process – and it’s probably not targeted enough for general themed features like these ones. It would probably work much better for my next list piece on great rail journeys.

But I do think it is invaluable when you are stuck for inspiration and it takes only a couple of minutes to put together. It also throws up some great source material and new ideas. The likes of TravMedia and HARO offer a community of experts and the wisdom of the crowd.

Statswise, in the end 6 out of 10 of the UK’s most romantic places were sourced from the Google Docs form; 8 out of 10 of the most romantic places worldwide feature were.

An invitation to rewrite my feature…

To round off, I’m finishing this series by publishing the source material itself (the locations and romantic USPs only in order to keep it manageable and to keep individual PR’s emails and phone numbers private).

Again I invite readers to compare the finished articles (UK and global) with the sourced material – would you have picked out the same list? I also invite the romantic among you to look for further inspiration and make your own selection from the list. Meanwhile, journalism students or wannabe travel writers are free to use the material to create their own travel feature from the material – – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it.

Next:

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 3: the seven tools of feature research

AAY Most romantic places feature

So how do you research a feature in the 21st century? The short answer is: In much the same way that journalists have always researched their features – by pulling ideas from their own head, asking colleagues, digging through  cuttings, a good contacts book, and researching and phoning experts.

But the variety of online tools, applications and networked communities should make it a) a lot faster, b) a lot easier, especially when it’s not your specialist subject (see pt 2: the commission).

I’ll try to answer whether this was the case or not at the end.

SEVEN TOOLS I USED TO CREATE MY ‘TOP TEN’ FEATURES

1 Personal knowledge/experience
Who doesn’t know that Paris is the city of lovers or that Brighton is the original dirty weekend destination? But the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham is also on my doorstep – and I had lots of photos of it from a Birmingham Flickrmeet I attended in 2009 – so this threw in a slightly left-of-centre choice. A mix of core choices and thought-provoking ones makes for a good ‘top ten’ mix. (For the trouble with tops tens, see pt 1 of this series.)

Goldsmith's doorway

2 Online networks
In the last two years, I have built up a community of travel journalists, PRs and friends on Twitter. But it’s not quantity but quality of connections that counts – the truth is it that is the people I have met IRL (in real life) who are more likely to respond and re-Tweet #lazyweb requests for help with a feature, such as here:

Twitter request for help

3 Social bookmarking sites
I keep an A-Z destination cuttings file of print articles and press kits but these were of no use for a themed feature. In this case, it’s easier to use a social bookmarking site like Digg or Delicious to find your keywords (‘romance’ ‘destinations’ etc). Here are some Delicious bookmarks for ‘romantic getaways’ (click to link through) – after all, why go searching for sites when someone else has probably already bookmarked them for you?

delicious bookmarks

4 PR contacts
I do have a few PRs that I know personally from press trips and if they cover a destination or suitable product, I’ll email them for a suggestion. The naturist Pakleni Islands in Croatia was one, for example. But I also cast a wider net by sending out a journalist alert on Travmedia.com – a useful service for soliciting PR material either in your own region or worldwide. (They also cover other subjects, not just travel, by the way.) HARO aka Help A Reporter Out is another option, though with a US bias the last time I used it. There may be others – let me know…

HARO front page

5 Search engines
I used this as a quick check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to include a staple like the Taj Mahal. While there’s no copyright on ideas, it can be tempting to lift information from a good article but it’s just not worth it – more than three words in a row lifted from a source may land you in court and all it takes is for a sub-editor to paste your copy into a search engine and you’ll never be used again by the travel editor. For these features, I did use Google to help put flesh on the bones of the suggestions, and to find pictures, but best practice is to source information direct from official sites and tourist boards – such as info on Lover from the Visit Wiltshire website.

Visit Wiltshire website

6 Review sites
TripAdvisor and other sites that rely on UGC (user generated content) act as a useful check and balance against official sites and marketing blurbs. It’s always good to get the downside on a destination so that you can include it if need be, especially for popular tourist destinations like Gretna Green. Although, for speed, this was an easier ask on Twitter – garnering a response from the owner of a wedding car service:

Twitter on Gretna GreenTwitter-Gretna-Green

7 Google Docs
Time to experiment! I’d seen a friend, @uktraveleditor, using Google Docs to source PR information and decided to give it a go – mainly because I wanted PR suggestions, package details and guide prices, but I mostly wanted to avoid an avalanche of marketing gumpf swamping my inbox – it was barely usable the last time I put a HARO alert out.

The idea is that you send PRs to the online form (eg, via Travmedia, see above), set a deadline for responses, they fill in a Q&A that you set up, and the answers are then collated in a spreadsheet. You need a Google account but it’s pretty easy to set up from there.

Here’s is the original form (click and zoom to see it at full size):

Romantic places Google Doc

You can see I’ve included pitch details on there, who the commission is for, what it is NOT for (ie spamming or emailing), and asked some very specific questions not just to get relevant answers but to keep PRs from chancing their products. I also noted that I might be writing this up here.

The only trouble was it was almost too successful:

Soliciting Google Doc suggestions

Next: