Ep 217 Travel writer Sue White reveals how you can write travel articles without leaving your home town.

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In Episode 217 of So you want to be a writer: What name was given to Ice Age fossils found in an LA subway? 3 ways to uncover your character’s true motivation. What does it really mean to be a best-selling author? Go in the draw to win our 12 books of Christmas. Authors you should follow on social media and travel writer Sue White reveals how you can write travel articles without leaving your home town.

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Show Notes


Shout out


Just want to thank Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait for the podcast which helped me kick start my writing this year.

This time last year I decided that 2017 would be the year to really focus on my writing and my memoir. Then in March I found the podcast and the enthusiasm welled up inside me.

So far I’ve written 45,000 words of my memoir; was successful in applying for a focus week in advanced memoir at Varuna which I finished last week.

And to top it off on Wednesday the Irish Times published a piece I’d written on missing Ireland at Christmas (I’ll share the article if I’m allowed) which was the most read article on their online forum on Wednesday. So, thank you Val and Al. You have and continue to inspire me!!


Los Angeles subway work uncovers array of Ice Age fossils

Three Ways to Discover Your Character’s True Motivation

What Does It Really Mean to Be a Bestselling Author?

50 of the best Australian authors and writers on Twitter

5 Australian author Instagram accounts I love

6 more Aussie author Instagram accounts I love

Writer in Residence

Sue White

Sue White is a journalist, travel writer, copywriter and writing coach.  She is published in major magazines and newspapers around the world, particularly in her home country of Australia, where she writes weekly for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. Her work has been published everywhere from Vogue to CNN – new additions in the last twelve months have included the Guardian AustraliaSBS Life and news.com.au.

A perpetual traveller, Sue is a member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. She writes a column for Out & About With Kids magazine amongst her other family travel pieces; is the founder of Babies Who Travel; and has built a large Facebook community on family travel – Kids Who Travel.

Follow Sue on Twitter

Visit Sue's website


WIN: The 12 Books of Christmas

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript 


Thanks so much for joining us today, Sue.


Pleasure. Great to chat.


Now, there's so much that I could actually talk to you about, but I'd like to hone in on a few things that I think are really relevant for our listeners at this point in time. But first, before we get on to that, I want to give listeners a bit of an idea, in case they don't know you, of your background. Because you weren't always a writer, right? You actually made a career change at some point. So can you just give us a bit of background on that?


Absolutely. I'm the queen of career changes. I love them. So I did start out thinking I was going to be a writer, but ended up doing communications. So I was a comms specialist for about ten years, which fit really nicely in with my personal travelling, actually. Because I would come home and do some communications contracts, and then I would go overseas and live the rest of my life there.

But then I had another career change and ended up ditching that and started teaching yoga. I got really into that on one of the trips I was away, and decided I'd had enough of being in an office. So I came back and I taught yoga for about six years, and trained yoga teachers.


That's so different.


Yeah. It was completely different. But I did actually start missing writing during that time, which led me to actually becoming a writer, as opposed to a communicator who also does a lot of writing.


So you did yoga. At what point did you think, oh, I might be a writer now? And what did you do? And why?


I think a lot of people who enjoy writing, you just miss it if you don't do it. You kind of need to do it in some form. So I started writing in my spare time. And then I started realising that there were some themes to my writing. And I explored, maybe I would write a book. This is all the while I'm going off and doing downward dogs at 6:30 in the morning, quite happily.


Oh my god.


So I would be going out to yoga class, and everyone would be coming home from the pubs in Newtown. So it was quite a contrast in lifestyles. And I missed writing, and I realised I had all these potential stories that could either be put together in a book. And then someone said to me, oh, maybe they would actually be good features, good standalone features. So I started exploring feature writing, magazines and newspapers. Got really into that. And then travel came next.


So you started writing features, and then at some point decided to get into travel writing. Why?


I actually started out thinking that travel writing wasn't going to be possible to do. So I actually didn't attempt it at first. Because I just thought it was too competitive and you had to have all these secret contacts in your back pocket, and I didn't have those contacts. So I assumed that it wasn't for me.

But after I started to understand how the world of feature writing worked, I realised that, oh, actually maybe with some extra knowledge, I could start to tap into travel writing. So I did a really big trip and just was writing as I was going, compiling story ideas, and then came back and used my understanding of the market and how it works to start pitching in travel stories. And then it went gang busters from there, really.


Now the thing with travel writing that people often think about is that they need to be really heavy-duty travellers. And that's not necessarily the case, is it? Because we've had students who are travel writers who live in country NSW and never go overseas, and who just do travel stories on towns that are within, say, two hours distance from their home.

Since it's this time of year where it's summer, some people might be travelling, or some people are at home, I'd just love to explore a discussion that will be relevant to everyone. Can you write travel stories when you're basically… When you don't travel much?


When you're not going anywhere? Oddly enough, you can. And it's one of the things that really surprises people when they take the travel writing course, and they start to understand where the opportunities lie. But there's a real opportunity for savvy travel writers to write on their hometown.

Especially, look, of course that's easier if you live somewhere that other people want to visit. If you live in a beach suburb or a beach town, and every January it starts to get inundated with visitors, well then there's probably a potential for a travel story about that area. And almost any major city, if you live in any major city, the same thing almost year-round.

But you're absolutely right. And we've got lots of graduates who live in regional areas, who live in the outback, who've generated a really successful career in travel writing by thinking about, well, actually what do I know that other people don't know about? Because if you live somewhere, if you're a local to somewhere, then you often have these fantastic insider tips. And I think that insider tips is what makes a really good travel writer. It's what makes us different to a brochure or to Google, is we've got that inside scoop.


And the thing is, I'm assuming then, you're not limited to – let's say you live in Sydney – you're not limited to say, I've written one article on Sydney, that's it, that's my home town, there are no more travel articles left for me.


No. Because this is what, and again, this is why I really like seeing people's mind shift, when they learn about the travel writing industry. You look at angles. You start to get really good, good travel writers will understand how to take one destination and turn it into a multitude of angles.

So in Sydney, yeah, you might have written a destination piece about Sydney, but then you've also written what to do in Sydney in summer on a rainy day when you can't go to the beach. And you've written a story on Sydney's museums that aren't the ones that we all know down at, say, Darling Harbour or Circular Quay. You've written about Sydney's theatre beyond the Opera House, you've written about the best food options. I could just go on and on and on. There's probably ten or twenty angles without even stopping to think about it. And then you start to learn where you can sell those stories.

But it's angles that's going to get you that repeat work. And it's a really smart way to operate.


So when you're talking about angles, it sounds to me like you're saying that a travel article is actually not necessarily written by somebody who travels a lot. A travel article is an article written for people who want stuff to do. Or who are typically travellers.


Well, and there's a real crossover between things like food writing, for example, and travel. Because a great food story of the best foodie spots in Byron Bay, for one audience it could absolutely be seen as a travel article. But for local readers, they are probably just as interested in going there. So yeah, absolutely. The crossover with travel with all sorts of niches. Like, we have travel writers who are really into wine, so then they write for wine-focused magazines. And when they go travelling, they'll do a story on their destination, but they'll also do a wine-focus story on their destination, and they're getting two hits out of that.

So yeah, once you start to really understand how you can use angles in travel writing, the world really opens up.


It's actually really interesting, because this has really just flipped the way I've been thinking about travel writing myself. And it's so much broader than a lot of people think.

So let's say somebody is interested in writing, obviously, because they're listening to this podcast, but they might be interested in dipping their toe in the water in travel writing. Whether that's at home or… Maybe let's take at home, an at home scenario, and then let's take a travel writing on their travels scenario. How would they dip their toe in the water?


I think if you're starting out, because everyone has this idea that travel writers are getting paid to fly across the world, and that is true, that definitely happens. But that's not going to happen on day one without a portfolio of work. So it is really sensible to start looking around your local area and think, what story opportunities are here that I could do that would be low cost, or I'm paying to do anyway? Because we all are forking out for all sorts of things. So figure out how that could potentially be turned into a story.

So you've got almost, you're using what's happening in your normal life to be the research fodder for your first story. So I would definitely start with that. You can of course also start with your upcoming holidays, which we can talk about too, if you'd like.


Well, let's say, if you have upcoming holidays and you know that in two months you're going to go to wherever, the Maldives or somewhere.


Sounds good.


Yeah, I wish.


So the first thing that is really important to remember in travel writing, and this does surprise a lot of our students, is that it's not the same as going on a holiday. Like, you can't just go on your next holiday and come back and write a story and have done nothing different while you're there. Because editors are not going to be interested in that. That's an email to your friends. Or a letter, if you still write snail mail.

But a travel writing piece, you should feel that the experience of being away, or even that experience of researching in your own town, is somehow different to what you would do in your normal life. You're going to be talking to more people, you're going to be interviewing. You're not going to be going to the same beach in the Maldives every day. You're going to be going to all the different beaches. You're not going to eat in the same restaurant that you just love every night. You're going to be moving around and getting different experiences. And of course, you're going to keep your eye out for really good angles, so that you can sell multiple stories.

So you do have to approach it quite differently to a holiday. And that's one of the things that, as I said, it does surprise people. But once you get the hang of that, then it becomes much easier.


And let's just take a real example. So down the road from my house is Barrenjoey Lighthouse. And I will admit that even though I have lived here for two and a half years, I have not yet gone to Barrenjoey Lighthouse, but apparently it's a cool thing to do.

Now, if you were writing just say an Instagram post or a blog post or whatever, we've seen those sorts of things, little selfies against the backdrop of Barrenjoey Lighthouse, or the view from Barrenjoey Lighthouse, and how you walked however kilometres it was to get there and so on.

If you were going to write a travel article on this instead, what additional things would you have needed to include to make this a worthwhile travel article? I realise that I've put you on the spot, because maybe you haven't gotten to Barrenjoey Lighthouse. I haven't either.


I actually haven't, but I do know of it. I haven't. But I can already get the idea. And I know the part of the world it's in.

So you'd have to think of a few different things. So firstly, is it a standalone, is it worth a standalone story on its own? So is someone going to take 800 words just on Barrenjoey Lighthouse? Now if it's really well known, like the lighthouse at Byron Bay is quite well known, so I'm sure there's stories just on that. Has it got some incredible historic angle that makes it really media worthy? In that case, okay. Can you stay at Barrenjoey Lighthouse? Again, all those things would potentially make me say, oh, okay, well this could be a story. Just 800 words, or 1,000 words, just on Barrenjoey Lighthouse.

But probably what the reality is is that Barrenjoey Lighthouse will be part of a bigger story about great walks in the northern beaches of Sydney. Or good day trips in the northern beaches where you don't get sand on your feet. So I'd come up with a number of different angles, and I'd probably be weaving it into a bigger picture story. Because one of the things that we all think as writers is that our thing is worth 2,000 words, and what editors always think is, oh yeah, that's interesting, but I also want a lot of other information as well. And they might want four or five different activities in that area packed into that same story.

So again, once you start to understand what the structure of travel stories is like, and what the market is actually buying, then you would look at Barrenjoey Lighthouse and you would go, all right, does it meet this criteria? Yes or no?


What are some of the most rewarding things about travel writing?


Oh, it's so fun. There's so many great things. And I think anyone who's into travelling, you've got itchy feet constantly. So it's a great excuse to be going away. But for me, I travelled a lot before I was a travel writer, and I've travelled even more since then. And you're travelling differently. You're doing different experiences.

So some of those experiences are, let's be honest, things that you couldn't necessarily afford to do so regularly on your own. Because in travel writing, often someone else is paying for them. So that's quite lovely.

But often you're getting access that you wouldn't normally get. So one good example from my travel writing career is I did a trip to Belize in Central America a number of years ago, and we went out into the jungles to talk to the farmers who were growing the cacao that goes into Green & Black's chocolate. So it's a beautiful part of the world, Belize. But if I just go there on my own, as a traveller, I can't just lob along and find the farmers and have a chat to them and go and have lunch in their house. I certainly couldn't then. Whereas because I was a travel writer, and I was actually on an organised trip called a famil, I was able to visit lots, six or ten different farmers, and meet their families and have this really amazing travel experience that I just couldn't do without wearing my travel writer's hat.


And of course, famil is short for what?


Familiarisation. Or sometimes known as press trips. It's the things that people think about when you're getting sent across the world as a travel writer and you're not paying for anything. You're usually with a group of other journalists on something called a ‘famil' or a press trip. There are pros and cons to those, but they certainly are very good for the wallet.


Yes. So with famils or press trips or junkets or whatever terminology we want to use, that is as you say the all-expense paid trip where a travel writer gets to go on someone else's dime to see the most amazing places on earth, often flying business or first class, and it's a pretty great experience.

As you say though, they don't happen on day one, because that's a little bit unrealistic. But it definitely does happen. Both you and I have been on famils.

What I think listeners would find really useful is if we could just step out the stages of… I know you cover this in your course, in your travel writing course, but there are different stages. That you start off doing this kind of travel trip, then this kind, then this kind, until you reach the all-expense paid famil. Can you step that out?


Yeah. So I reckon there's probably three or four different models. And that first model is really you start out, that's what we were talking about earlier, you pay for stuff yourself. So it's the do-it-yourself model.


Or you might do it at home?


It's either something that's free or it's low-cost or it's easy for you to achieve within the realms of your normal life. So, no one's going to pay for you to do things if you haven't got runs on the board. You've got to almost prove yourself, like in any industry really. So that's definitely the way to start out.

There are certainly some strategies that I often talk about with students for when you want to really ramp all that up, there's definitely strategies that you can do that en masse. But for most people starting out, you could just poke around and do a couple of stories that way.


And maybe a great example would be what you just said, seven great walks in the northern beaches, which doesn't cost anything.


Absolutely. And if you sit down and think about that there is, as I said, I reckon I could come up with twenty, if you gave me ten minutes, I could definitely come up with twenty things that we could do where Barrenjoey Lighthouse would be featured in a story.

So it's about starting to really think creatively about destinations and about what's around you. And often, when we talk about looking through local eyes in the travel writing course, and people are often really surprised. And you think, oh, there's nothing really here. And actually you look around and you're like, oh there is that, there is this, there is that. And it's stuff that other people wouldn't necessarily know. You only know because you are surrounded by it and it is around the corner from you.

So yeah, step one I reckon is to do your own thing. But after that, after you get a little bit of practice, you can start to get what we call hosted experiences. So hosting is when a company or an organisation will basically let you do the activity or the experience for free. So it could be you incorporating maybe BridgeClimb, or a surfing lesson, or a walking tour. So something that's not a massive big-ticket item in terms of lost revenue for that company, or big risk for that company. Perhaps they already had an extra spot on that walking tour, and it's not really any skin off their nose if they let you attend it as part of your potential story.

But again, that's stage two. Because you want to be able to show them some of your work, or potentially you want to show them a commission, and then you can start to reduce your costs and expand your horizons a little bit in that way. So that would be what I would approach next.

Once you've nailed that, you probably start to get a little bit more ambitious and start thinking about, well, I'm only paying for some things now. How could I pay for even fewer things? And there are a couple of ways to do that. So as you mentioned, the famil, we see it almost as the endpoint. Sometimes once you get a number of runs on the board you actually start to get offered famils earlier than you would think. Particularly if you are writing for a niche audience that appreciates the work, that access to having their story out there. Or if it's a very high-profile publication.

An example, for a number of years, I did the travel stories for Australian Yoga Journal. Obviously, it's a very niche industry, and I'd write about yoga retreats across the world. Well, even though it's a niche publication, for the people offering that as a free experience, it's great for them, it's the perfect audience for them. They don't need it to be CNN Magazine. They're quite happy that it's a targeted audience of people who are already really interested in yoga, and then potentially going to book in on their tours.

So you might find that those kind of opportunities come a little earlier than you would expect once you've got some examples in your portfolio.




There is one other little model that people don't think about that I really like, and it's kind of in between those do-it-yourself, someone's paying for a little bit, and the famil. And I refer to it as this hybrid model, where you deliberately, quite happily, don't try to get everything hosted. And that's often what I do. So I would have some things that are paid for. So perhaps my accommodation is paid for, my car rental is paid for, some of my meals, some of my activities. But the other stuff, I just pay for myself.

And I actually really love that model, because it gives me a lot more freedom on the ground than I have if I'm on an organised trip. And it gives me a lot more chance to maximise getting multiple stories out of my trip, because I'm much more in control of my own time than I would be if someone is paying for everything, and basically they have me on a schedule that I need to follow the whole trip.


Yes. Now one of the things that… Because I've known you for so many years now, I actually remember the day we met in Skygarden.


I remember that, too!


I remember the table we were sitting at, I can picture it. But anyway, one of the things that you've always been doing successfully, for whatever you're interested in at the time, for example, yoga, or whatever your particular interest is.


Wacky interests are.


Yeah, whatever your wacky interest is at the time. You manage to combine that with your writing, in that you will find a way to write a feature on it of some sort.


This is true.


Would that be correct?


This is true. Yeah. So I've done that. I'm probably up to my third iteration of that, I would say, now. I started out doing a lot of yoga-focused writing, and then yoga travel. Particularly the yoga travel.

Then I moved into environment interests. So I was really interested in all the green movement, and I did a lot of travel writing for all the niche environment magazines that are still around, but were very prominent a few years ago. And I did a lot of that.

So what would happen is every trip I would go on, I would get one or two mainstream stories, one yoga story, and one environment story, at least, out of one destination. So it was really easy for me to triple my money. And I got very good at working out itineraries that could overlap. Because there are some things that would be of interest to the yoga audience that the mainstream audience would like too, and the environment audience would like too, but not all the same. So I got really savvy at that.

And I guess the latest iteration of that is family travel, because I have a three-and-a-half-year-old, so I've been required to move into family travel. Now it just really suits me to write stories about the destination, again on their own, and also then to add in a family travel story or two.


And in addition to all of that, you write regular features on careers, and things like that. Can you just talk a little bit about that, and why you do it and what you like about it as well?


Yeah. I love the mix of different types of writing. I've always really thrived on variety, so being a freelancer really suits me. Because you get really involved in whatever it is you do, and then you file your story, and then on to the next thing. And I love that.

So I write every week for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and I've done that for a number of years including all the way through my travel writing, and written for all different sections of those publications. I've also written for lots of the big glossy magazines. And now I do the occasional parenting writing for some of those kids magazines, as well as my travel writing, as well as my Sydney Morning Herald writing.


Right, so you've got a lot on your plate, and you have a toddler. So maybe you can talk me through when you're not travelling, let's talk about that first, and you're at home and you need to basically fit in what sounds like fulltime work, with fulltime parenting. Just talk to me a little bit about the structure of that.

And then, I imagine if you are going on a trip, on a two-week trip or whatever, you then have to think about, well, how am I going to complete all my stories and stuff that I do while I'm away on a trip? So can we just discuss that?


Yes. And this will be certainly an issue that a lot of listeners will be faced with. Because it is a hectic time of your life when you've got young children, but it's a hectic time for a lot of people irrespective of what they're doing.

So for me, the first answer is I have childcare. So there's not a child running around under my feet, because work is work. And I learned that really early on from some friends who were really organised and really successful in what they did, and they had young children and they tried to keep going in their business with the child at their feet, and they all basically collapsed. So I didn't ever try to do that. I have childcare, I work when my child is asleep, I work in the evenings sometimes, I work at funny hours of the day. So I maximise every hour of every day, really.

I have a really fairly intense schedule. So I love a good list, and I plan things out, and I'm always looking at what the next week looks like, and the next fortnight looks like. I'm quite strategic. So I think it's really easy when you're busy to just get bogged down in what you're doing and then suddenly go, oh my goodness, I haven't pitched a story to this editor that loves me for four months, because my head's been buried. So I always am looking at the big picture.

In terms of travel writing, though, again I look at when… I now batch my travel a lot more. I used to do a lot more, I would go for a week and then come back for two or three weeks, and I'd go again for five days. Whereas now I'm likely to go for longer trips. Maybe four or five longer trips, rather than ten or twelve shorter trips.


And why is that better?


It's better because by the time you pack up a small child, and you organise all your other work, you actually may as well just be there and stay there and get multiple stories out of it. Rather than just go to all that trouble for smaller things. Which I could do when it was just me.


And you bring your child everywhere? You bring your child to all your travels?


It's because I'm a solo parent, and I bring my child everywhere. So not everyone is in that situation. I did take a nanny with me on our last trip, and that was delightful. And a lot of people are in a situation where they would just leave their children with their partner while they're doing that. And great. But a lot of people's partners may also protest about that. So not as many as you would think have that option.

And also, my child is really young. So in a few more years, he can much more tag along, and it's actually not an issue, just for normal stories that are not related to… You know, he can come to Barrenjoey Lighthouse and I can poke around and get the information I need and it's not really any hassle.

So yeah, I do take him everywhere. He's my mini traveller. But also I do a lot of family travel writing, so he's actually my tester. So he's quite integral to my stories at the moment, too.

I do usually work a lot when I'm away on a travel writing trip. So again, it's very different to a holiday. I am taking a holiday over the Christmas break, and I will just sit on a beach and do nothing, and sit on the same beach every day for a week. But when I'm on a travel writing trip, I'm not doing that. And I also am probably doing some work in the evenings. Because I really like to write when I'm away. I think travel writing is much fresher if you at least do a draft version when you're actually in situ. Because you get the colour and the anecdotes, and it all can vanish very quickly when you're back home in a busy schedule. So I do have a good system with that. And I do try to block off…


With that, when you say you do work while you're away, are you working on that travel story? Or are you working on some other unrelated story?


I'm usually doing both. But what I meant is I'm trying to write the story that I'm there for. So I was in Fiji earlier this year, and I wrote a few stories, I think I wrote three stories on our ten-day trip, and I wrote the draft for them while we were there. Because I knew that when I'm home, I'm really busy, and that the writing would be better, and I could do it more efficiently in situ, because it's fresh and it's alive for me.

On a longer trip, I do also do other work. But I try… I write long-lead features as opposed to news pieces, so I'm not necessarily writing stories that are time specific, so I can actually do a lot of writing in advance. So what it does mean for me is that before I go away on a travel writing trip I am really busy, because I'm trying to clear as much work as I can, so that when I'm away I can really focus on the experience and those travel stories and anything urgent. And then when I'm back I have a couple of weeks of catch up. So it's busy, there's no lying about that. I'm definitely busy.


And finally, you've mentioned that you are quite strategic, and you do look at the big picture. And that is, I know that to be true, because I've known you for so long. Can you share with us what kind of career plan you have for the next five years as your child gets a little bit older? What you've put in place as your plan, as your structure, in terms of your career?


I've been doing a lot of thinking about that, particularly this year. And I think what I've decided on is that I want to almost have a slashy career. Or a portfolio career, where you're doing multiple things. And that is going to be my career. But they're all writing related. Every arm to that slash. Every slash is writing related.

So I'm ramping up some copywriting work, because I'm always in demand for that. So I'm opening up a boutique agency in that. I'm partnered with another journalist for a media training business which is really interesting. I'm definitely keeping up all my journalism. And I'm definitely keeping up my travel writing. And I'm wondering now what my next niche will be, actually. But I'll keep the family travel niche up certainly for the next four or five years, at least, and start adding in probably some additional niches.


You mean a new interest or hobby or something?


That's right. It could be knitting, could be sailing. Probably won't be sailing; I'm a bit of a landlubber. I don't know what it's going to be! But I'm sure there will be something, because there always tends to be. Yeah, I could see that… And all those things, I also really quite like digital nomad lifestyle, so also again travel writing fits really nicely with that. And all the arms to my career fit really nicely with being location independent.

So I can see we'll be doing a lot more of what we've done this year, which is a two-month trip away, and I do a bit of work, and a bit of travel writing, and a bit of holiday all at once.


Awesome. Well, I can't wait to see what your next niche is going to be. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing all of that with us Sue, and look forward to seeing your next article.


Thank you, Valerie.

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