Starting out as a new travel writer is a tough business, but a provocative one. There is an innate lure to see the world and write about it. I have been lucky, and I’m grateful for all I have seen while writing travel articles.
As the Editor of In The Know Traveler, I am asked by writers, friends and strangers on the street the same question all the time, “How do I get your job?” People know about the perks of travel writering: the exotic locales, being wined and dined, the press trips and free travel. Mostly, they just want free trips and an LOA (letter of assignment) from me. I don’t blame them. Travel is fun, but expensive. Being a journalist has opened a lot of doors that traveling on my own would never provide. So I get it, and I am happy to use freelancers.
At this point, I receive new article submissions every day. In fact, I have received two just this morning. The vast majority are rejected almost immediately. One of the two has already been rejected. I never enjoy rejecting a story because, in most cases, I know the writer has tried and worked hard at putting his story together. Still, I turn down a lot of stories each week. Because I frequently do not have the time to explain my decisions (as time is not a friend to most editors), I thought it was time to help out my friend, the travel writer.
The following series (I am thinking five parts) will offer mistakes I commonly see that will get a story killed from consideration immediately. While I can only speak for In The Know Traveler, I have spoken with many other editors who agree with me.
“We” voice Sucks
What I am calling “we” voice is writing in first person plural. As an example, “Larry was talking to us. We were listening. We felt good about what Larry was saying to us.” I am not sure of the allure of writing in “we” voice. It always feels like the writer is not wanting to take credit for what is happening in his or her story, so another character or group is brought in to soften the experience. Perhaps, most travel experience happens with another person witnessing the event, or validating it, somehow making the extra person important to the story — which is… ridiculous. It is a hard point of view to do well and distances the reader from the story. The only thing I can say for sure about “we” voice is that it mostly sucks. However, I read more submitted travel stories written in “we” voice than anything else that eventually get a “pass” from editorial consideration.
Please note: “we” voice should not be confused with using the word “we” or offering a description of a group. I am only talking about using first person plural for a whole story or when a writer uses “we” to describe the feelings of the group.
Why “We” Sucks
Once, when I asked a writer to change her story into first person singular (“I” voice), she said, “But my boyfriend, Larry, was there,” as if I was supposed to care about Larry. As a reader, I only give a writer a few seconds to care about a story on the Internet — just like everyone else, making “we” a deal breaker.
Oddly, I have received a number of stories from this writer, all in “we” voice including Larry as an unnecessary interloper. For the record, I think she should dump Larry. He never does anything interesting and, what little I do know, sounds like he is a pest.
1. At the heart of a travel story is a personal experience, which gets diluted by extra people in first person plural.
2. First person plural invites more people doing things within the sotry, which all needs to be explained and takes away from the travel narrative.
3. “We” voice is unusual in most writing (so is second person, “you” voice). Using it is a distraction within itself.
4. The voice is limiting because, unless the narrator is a mind reader, the writer cannot comment on feelings had by the additional people in the story. It cannot comment upon what the group saw either.
5. Because ITKT stories are designed with the Internet in mind, 500-800 words, it is important to get to the point. “We” slows everything down.
When is “We” Accepted by ITKT
As a general rule, I almost never run a story that is predominantly written in “we” voice. However, there is always an exception.
1. If the story is brilliant and about a unique destination.
2. If the story is more about the other person than the narrator and the narrator has an authority to make comment. I recently published a story about a mom taking her child out to do things that specifically appealed to the child. I trusted the mom to know what her child liked or did not.
3. If a story has sections that could easily be converted into I voice.
4. If the writer is willing to rewrite.
Stay tuned as there is more to say about stories that get rejected and writing choices that suck.
The complete series
For Part 1, Why We Sucks
Part 2, Use Your Words
Part 3, Do Your Homework
Part 4, The Dreadful Epic
Part 5, The Easy Opening
Want to start receiving my updates and maybe get a free travel-related product? visit TWL’s Free Stuff page
Another story that might be of interest, Read Better Now Damn It! 5 Tips to a Better Literary Reading
For free stuff
I tried using cool bullet points to explain the case against “we” voice, but the damn Internet html code didn’t work. So I went with numbering, which I am not happy about it.
excellent blog Devin. I am going to refer your site to people in my travel writing class (which begins this week). I find the same problem with some stories I get submitted. And also the second person travel story has become somewhat passe other than if it’s an informative piece but even then it doesn’t always work. When I first started publishing travel back in the early ’80’s you could get away with this but now most editors prefer a first person content.
I would agree with second person as well. I will likely say something on this as well. The only person I who write in second person is Lorrie Morre, who doesn’t write travel.
We would tend to agree with you…
Nicely said 🙂
What a great idea! I seriously can’t wait to read the other four. 🙂 <3
As a widely published travel writer (for over twenty years with credits in more than 250 different magazines and newspapers), let me say that I appreciate Devin’s celebration of the first person for travel stories. Many print editors have lost their courage and shun the personal voice. A travel story is like a poem–it is a frozen moment in time–it is the way you saw the moment, and from a perspective that nobody else can look at it. Why? Because they are not you. This is about your interpretation. Meanwhile , you can dispense some facts and evoke a sense of place. The story need not be epic–it is your tale. That said, I think WE does work sometimes. Most people don’t use it correctly. If somebody always uses WE they are hiding it. “I” takes more guts. But even worse are all of these third person service pieces, dumbed down and bled of personality that the really big, high paying magazines assigh us to write. So, bravo to Devin and his gang–he is giving writer’s an intelligent place to tell their story.
Thank you Telaina,
I will have the others out in the next few weeks. Hopefully one a week.
Thank you Becca,
Did I pay you to write this? Your compliment is gratifying on a number of levels. The most important being that the travel story is personal. Your voice to your experience is what makes a story have meaning, in my opinion. It is the part of a story that inspires me in a way a guidebook and many magazine articles never can. I love the description of poetry and a travel narrative as being a “frozen moment.” I will be looking for you in the byline.
Back to “we.” I think you are right Becca. “We” voice can work. I have seen it work, but only rarely. A couple of years back I read “Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates. The book opens in third person plural, “they” voice. Who the hell does that? Most would never even try. I wouldn’t, but Yates pulls it off impressively. Still, if I see first person plural in a submission, I will just pass on it.
It’s easy to make a habit of using “we.” Then it puts the writer into a rut requiring energy to climb out. I’m glad you took the time to discuss this issue which will help me climb out of the rut.
Great article, Devin. Thanks for the tips!
I know the rut well.
Thanks for the support.
Hi Devin, great write!
Gordon David Durich
.-= Gordon Durich´s last blog ..TESTIMONIALS =-.
.-= Devin Galaudet´s last blog ..Free Stuff: All Four of Lonely Planet’s National Park Guides =-.
I found your blog through the TBEX forum. I think this is a helpful post because most newbie writers often seem to have problems with which person to write in. As a news reporter, I’ve been trained to never write in first person. So now that I’m transitioning into freelance writing for print magazines, etc. I’ll have to loosen up a little. I’m interested to read more of your posts.
Yes, writing in first person can be a little counter-intuitive at first and there are still plenty of outlets that prefer 3rd person, but there is definitely a trend moving toward more personal narrative. Keep me posted to how it goes for you.
This is exactly what I needed to read. Thanks for the insight!
Great advice Devin. Thanks for sharing your experiences as an editor 🙂