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Charukesi Ramadurai: Getting Started With Travel Writing

Posted: January 5, 2012

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Meet Travel Writer Charukesi Ramadurai, who tells us if travelling to exotic places and writing about them is the dream career it looks like! 

Interview by Aparna V.Singh

A good travel writer’s words are like a magic carpet; they can transport us to new places and help us discover hidden delights or make us see well-known sights in an entirely new light. They serve as an extension to our senses and make us experience the flavours of destinations that we long to explore, someday.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bangalore-based travel blogger and freelance writer whose travel mantra is ‘anywhere but here’ – so when she is not actually travelling, she is busy planning her next trip. She blogs her travel stories on Itchy Feet. Charu talks to us about her passion and shares some pointers for anyone considering travel writing as a career option. More about her and her published work on her website. 

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): Travel writing as a career fascinates many of us who like to travel, and we see many more narratives today, whether in print or web. How does one get started with travel writing?

Charukesi Ramadurai (CR): My advice to anyone who wants to get started on a career in writing is to start a blog. There are lots of reasons for this – it builds a writing discipline, it helps to polish your writing skills, it helps you explore and generate new ideas, it creates a good set of readers who will come to be familiar with your writing. Your blog will also be your calling card when you first approach editors – when you don’t have any published clips to show them. All of this comes with a caveat – remember that on your blog, there is no other editor. It is you, your content and your own satisfaction with what you have written. People who visit your blog rarely come there to criticize or critique (most of them, atleast in the beginning, are just friends and family), so don’t take any praise there too seriously!

People who visit your blog rarely come there to criticize or critique (most of them, atleast in the beginning, are just friends and family), so don’t take any praise there too seriously!

And once you have the confidence, start pitching to your local newspaper – there is always a demand for interesting travel stories. Or as you mentioned, the web – there are loads of travel emags and websites that are happy to publish your writing. You may want to consider unpaid gigs or those which do not pay much initially for that experience and exposure (but don’t let that become a norm).

AVS: How difficult is it to get published in this field? Tell us a little about your own journey to getting published.

CR: It is not difficult to get published as such but it is difficult to break into the bigger magazines, especially the specialist travel magazines. I started off with newspaper travel supplements and moved on to magazines. I also pitched to magazines which are not exclusively travel-based but also general interest publications which have travel pages. I spent (and still spend) a lot of time and effort researching publications – their style, the kind of stories they carry and so on.

AVS: Do you have any suggestions on improving one’s writing in this area?

CR: As with any writing, read, read, read the greats. Every time I read Pico Iyer, I am struck by the kind of things he brings to life about any culture or country, the depth of his understanding of the people he meets and interacts with.

The fundamental things to remember in travel writing: a place is not a story, your journey is not a story. A good travel story is about what you see, hear, sense and understand about any place or journey you have undertaken. In some cases, it need not be about your travel at all but about your experience entirely of the place – let me give you an example – a traveller to Sri Lanka can take out of it not just her own visit but a whole absorbing story on how the country is changing and coping with its new lease of life after the civil war.

The simple writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ is particularly significant for travel writing since it is possible that the reader has never been there or will never go there (but the idea is to make him / her want to go). Wherever you go, talk to locals and visit places where locals hang out (say, pubs, markets). Take down notes – not just what you see but also little details that you can weave together later as part of the story. You can use photographs as notes; I do!

AVS: For anyone who wants to get published, would you have some inputs on how to go about it?

CR: Once you have a destination or idea in mind, make a list of possible angles to your story and flesh them out. That will make it clear which of them are interesting or unique enough to make a full story out of. See which publications would be a good fit for this kind of story and find the right editor to pitch your story to – do not send the full written story, only the story idea detailing what your proposed angle is.

Where can you find editorial contacts? In blogs and writing groups, mastheads, publication websites, social networking sites – especially Linkedin. But here is the warning! Getting contacts is the easy part.

You need to convince the editor – why should s/he hire you? Here are some tips for that:

– Get the small details right – the editor’s name, for example (you would be surprised how many people think this is not so important!)

– Your query needs to grab attention! Stand out from the crowd – begin your pitch with a strong hook.

– Research the publication before you pitch – read writer’s guidelines, previous issues – get their style and needs right – see what kind of stories they like.

– Think of yourself as a writer first – whether you are a travel writer or not remains to be seen.

AVS: Some say that there is almost an excess of travel writing and/or information today. In this climate of abundance, how do you see the role of a writer?

CR: Whatever you read about a place or experience, it is not ever the same as being there and experiencing it yourself. So travel writing can at best give you a sense of what to expect, what to look out for and not miss when you actually go there. The writer’s role is to take you beneath the surface – to the society and culture that is behind what you see.

A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute. – Colin Thubron, as quoted by William Dalrymple, Guardian UK

So, think about this – what’s your unique insight? What can you take out from the experience of travel and your reader take out from your story?

The writer’s role is to take you beneath the surface – to the society and culture that is behind what you see.

AVS: Is it a viable career in India/elsewhere? In other words, can it pay the bills?

CR: Theoretically, yes, it can. There are people who make a living from travel writing. But for that you need to be writing for the real biggies and writing regularly for them. And that is just a lucky (or really skilled) few.

AVS: Do you have any favourite books/reads in this genre? Do share.

CR: Pico Iyer (particularly Video Night In Kathmandu), Bill Bryson (Neither Here Nor There),

Eric Newby, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Michael Palin and the hundreds of travel blogs out there.

AVS: From your own writing, which are your favourite pieces?

CR: A couple of my favourite pieces are Istanbul published in Forbes and Cambodia published in Mint.

Thanks Charu, for your practical and informative answers. We wish you bon voyage for your next trip!

Pic credit: Charukesi Ramadurai (This pic is from Charu’s trip to Sri Lanka)

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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