Travel Writer's Field Guide: How to write for the internet

By John Summerton

The internet is a tool to wield. For some areas of travel writing, it hands-down beats print. For others, print will always win. Long-form journalism, in-depth reporting, travelogues and travel books, the inspirational, the picture-heavy, the complex, belong on dead wood. It is in the magazine and the newspaper where the skill of an editor is to position an article that you’d never reach for online but grabs you, surprises you, thrills you.

Flicking through pages of a magazine should be more random than browsing the internet. Who ‘browses’ the internet anyway? Very rarely do we flit around, following whim online – except perhaps when distracted and killing time, or getting sucked down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole. We use the internet to search and find particular pieces of information. And that’s where the internet excels: information. We have in our hands vast amounts of facts, figures, guides and maps, all geolocated. Print can’t get close, not even a guidebook (and we love guidebooks).

The travel writer, then, needs an arsenal of skills. We need to be able to write for print and the internet. The two are surprisingly different, and not just for the obvious reasons. Whenever you write something for the web, consider why you would be reading it online. Think about how you’d be searching for it. Think about how long you would spend reading the introduction, how you jump to the information you need. What context will you be searching for it? If you are wandering the streets of Copenhagen looking for a craft beer bar, what information do you want to appear on your phone? If you’re looking for the best time to see the sunset over the Alhambra, Granada, in November, would you want to wade through 400 words of eloquently written prose? No. So how do we do it?

Writing for the web
Whether you are writing for your blog, or a travel site or company blog, some general elements for writing are different from print.

1. Well written.

As much love, care and attention need to go into digital products as print. In some ways, it’s even more important than print for an article to flow. From the top to the bottom needs to be effortless for the reader. Online, there should be no roadblocks. Making the reading as easy as possible is often harder than prose. Travel writers who started life on newspapers can be picked out – there is no room for fluff or whimsy.

2. Good story

Yes, inevitably, a good story is always best. Even when writing guides, a round piece of storytelling, whether 150 words or 600, will make it more compelling. For anything over 200 words we suggest drawing a quick diagram of the structure, even if that is a general introduction to Jakarta. Over a couple of hundred words, you’re not going to get the rich complexity, but why not start off an introduction to Greenland: ‘Greenland is the great wild beyond. Life is unexpected, unpredictable. Unlock its secrets, and it will be a journey you’ll never forget.’ Sounds a lot better than: ‘Greenland is an autonomous constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark.’ The latter sounds like a sentence from Wikipedia, which, of course, it is.

3. Shorter articles

Shorter is nearly always better online. Cut out the chaff and then cut again. Three to four hundred words are usually plenty for a blog post. It can be longer, but the amount of time that someone will stay with the story diminishes quickly.

4. Give information

The web is best for information-giving. It’s no coincidence there’s a preponderance of lists. They are easy to read, and offer highly readable bite-sized information. A quick guide to Labrador over 800 words can be broken down in many ways.

5. Think mobile

At the time of writing, more than 50 per cent of internet traffic comes from mobile devices, and our writing needs to reflect that. One page on a mobile site has around seven words on a line and approximately 25 lines without any photos or ads. With a picture, you’re looking at about 100 words before scrolling.

6. Think global

Once you publish the blog, the world can read it, and will. A global audience has several implications for writing. Bear in mind that for many readers, English won’t be their first language. Avoid colloquialisms, slang and phrasal verbs (give in, offer up, get out). It won’t sound as chatty, and often loses some of its style.  


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