I’ve just finished judging the NAWG (National Association of Writers Groups) travel writing competition, and the entries have taken me right around the world.
My initial sift enabled me to cull at least half of the entries. So why did those ones fail to win me over?
1. They were WIDOMHs. What’s a WIDOMH? It’s a What I Did On My Holiday piece. Being blunt, I couldn’t give a toss what you did on YOUR holiday. When I’m reading a travel piece, I want to think about what I can do on my holiday, if I were to follow in the writer's footsteps. There’s a difference between writing about your own experiences in a way that will inspire readers to want to go there, and simply regurgitating your itinerary for your two-week break. When you share an experience you need to convey the atmosphere. Use your senses to paint a picture. What could you hear? What could you taste? What could you smell? How did you feel? And what specific details did you see? Don’t say that you did this, then you did that, before you did something else. WIDOMHs don’t show the reader what they can do on their holiday - they just bore them with your holiday. But the readers aren’t going on your holiday, are they?
2. Not enough travel. The concept of a travel article is quite broad, in my opinion. But again, travel is about atmosphere and experience. It’s not a simple regurgitation of the historical facts of a place. That’s a historical piece, not a travel piece.
3. Needs an angle. A travel article is more interesting if it has a clear focus and strong angle. Don’t write about Tenerife. Write about Tenerife’s wildlife, or its literary connections. When you write about a place you need to offer more than a tourist brochure, and you can do this by writing for a specific readership. Where would you recommend gardeners go, when visiting Tenerife? Which top three clubs would you recommend for the under 25s? What is there for a family with children all under 5 years old to do? Think about your reader and what they want to know about a place.
4. Don’t get sidetracked. I know, when it comes to travelling, getting sidetracked is when you make the best discoveries. But getting sidetracked when you’re writing a travel article is the worst thing you can do. And if you have a strong angle, and a clear idea about who your readership is, you’re less likely to get sidetracked. In fact, one piece began brilliantly, but then suddenly veered off at a completely different tangent. This new tangent was boring. It lost its humour and colour. Had the second half been as good as the first this particular entry would have been in the running for first place. But instead, it got sidetracked, so it failed the first sift. A shame.
5. I’m thick. So make things easy for me to read. Please. My brain can’t cope with opening sentences that are also the entire opening paragraph. All 348 words of them. By the time I was half way through the sentence I’d forgotten what the point was and I had to go back to the start again. Three times that happened. That’s like taking off, all excited that you’re underway, and then being told by the captain that you have to return to the airport. Read your work out aloud. If you have to stop to draw breath then you need to rewrite your text.
Give yourself time when entering competitions. Not just time to come up with an idea, and time to write the first draft. But time to put it away and forget about it. And then time to reacquaint yourself with it, and time to edit it. It will all be time well spent.
Do that, and all of your writing, not just your competition entries, will survive the reader’s first sift, whoever that reader may be.