The Accidental Journalist
Richard McColl is a formally trained Anglo-Canadian journalist born and raised in London, England. His parents saw the importance in travel as education and his early years were punctuated with lengthy stints abroad for both vacation purposes and for employment. He has worked as an expedition guide through all of South America. His writing appears in many media outlets across the world and he is the author of the Michelin Green Guide to Colombia, contributor and editor of Was Gabo an Irishman? When he is not writing from his base in Bogota, Colombia he can be found running his small hotel la Casa Amarilla in Mompós, Bolivar.
This is an advice piece penned in February 2014 for a Travel Writing Guidebook that never made it to the printers!
Travel Writing as a Genre and Legitimate Form of Journalism
As perhaps a naïve and hopeful writer, I genuinely believe that SEO and to a lesser extent keywords are going to fade away in the same manner as Technicolor T shirts, and everything will revert to norm as in the literary fashion of yesteryear. Once the dust has settled and the furor of how to pitch your website, your blog, your article and garner the most hits and generate an ad-sense income has ebbed, we will once again be looking at a future present of constant, great, engaging and informed content. This will be provided once again by writers, journalists and less so bloggers, experts in their fields and whose text is followed enthusiastically by a strong cadre of equally well informed devotees. Over the years it has become evident that the quality of writing on and for the web has improved in many quarters, as let’s say, the less technologically sound minds (but literary geniuses) have come to terms with the industry to be able to keep abreast of the game. And by the same rationale, there is a great deal of utter nonsensical gibberish being published onto word press and BlogSpot sites by people with every right to an audience, but, only to their audience in a direct and focused manner. High quality content and content which is relevant needs to be pushed higher up the pecking order. That there is nonsense out there is nothing new, but what would you rather read? A document which inspires and informs you or something that is a footnote to an advertorial section better served as lining the floor as you paint your front room?
As a news journalist who has more than dabbled in travel and guidebook writing I find myself confronting daily realities of how, what and where best to publish my texts and articles. What are the stories that need to be told, who is my audience and how is what I have to say relevant to them? I cannot abide by the “who, why, where, what, which and with what result” teachings of my University course unless it is told in the correct fashion. A news piece needs to be up to date and short on description, a feature can be more exploratory and lengthier, but a travel piece is neither of the aforementioned and in order to grip my attention at least and hold it, I need a human element, possibly some humor and the absolute absence of something that a colleague of mine over at Matador (http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/does-your-writing-suck-plight-writing-and-travel-porn/)David Miller talks at length about Travel “porn”. As Miller says: “I feel compelled to state that I don’t really look at writing as a spectrum of value judgments. My intention in these “lessons” isn’t to judge one kind of writing as “good” and another “bad,” but to identify common patterns I see as an editor receiving submissions.”
And now, everyone is a travel writer, a blogger a chronicler, a Samuel Pepys in their own time. Accessibility to media has created a forum and a platform for everyone and this has made the internet a richer yet more perilous place. Everything can be “beautiful”, “wonderful”, “scenic”, “sun-dappled” and my personal pet hate “a hidden gem”. But, then, the discerning reader will be lost as soon as this language is employed in the article. Look to one of the all-time greats of travel writing, Paul Theroux and you will notice a curmudgeonly but infectiously readable author. Rightly so of course since his texts are neither diatribes nor pithy observations of a hackneyed event but carefully investigated, established and executed articles that are relevant to the reader and a wholly international context. Of course Theroux is the master of putting a situation that may not be the most earthshattering into a readable, amusing and once again relevant piece of writing and this is what I feel is the line in the sand between the average blogger and the writer. The writer will know how to take a seemingly irrelevant piece of information and turn it, without embellishing, without exaggerating, employing the use of italics in order to emphasize, into a core element of an article, chapter and so on.
So, take an experience, one that you can tell to some mates over a beer, replace the jargon without losing the sense of the story and render it available to another audience base and you know that you are getting somewhere. Remember that we are not all experts in your field, you may need to explain it to us but at the same time, don’t treat your reader as a complete dunce, there is a fine line on both sides between being condescending and creating a vocabulary version of Kindergarten.
This last element of writing dovetails nicely into another pet peeve of mine and that is the issue of being obliged to write virtually advertorial public relations spiel as a hack on a press trip. The word of warning is the following, you will expected to write fluff, possibly gloss over the most pertinent and interesting tenets of the article, you will have to name your host/ provider in a viable and visible part of the article and you will most likely be treading where another has gone before since the sort of places and organizations that pitch out their camp around press trips have the means to do so and will have done so previously.
Now, if this is the sort of reporting career that you wish to embark upon then there’s no issue to be taken with this whatsoever. However, err on the side of caution in every situation when a fine hotel stay is bandied your way, when you have to use rudimentary superlatives to describe a meal and are forced into a complimentary massage. And never please cede your rights to permit the inviting agency/ organization/ entity into copy approval. Your words are your own and there is a reason for the subjective manner in which they are written. You need to care, you need to know what it is you are trying to say and you need to find a way to communicate this. Don’t worry about the press officer breathing down your neck, they live for good press and positive feedback that ends up being churned back into a power point presentation held during an investors’ meeting somewhere down the line. I would like to be able to say the following in my own way but someone already said it better. As a famous US war photographer, John Hoagland (15 June 1947 – 16 March 1984) killed in El Salvador said: “Do something right and I’m going to take your picture. Do something wrong and I’m going to take your picture also.”
Which brings me finally to my tale:
Interestingly enough, two of the most read articles I have published with the Matador Network have been two strikingly different pieces which goes a long way to showing how there is such an extreme variation in readerships but via the same page and media. The first is “How to Trek the Inca Trail”. (http://matadornetwork.com/trips/how-to-trek-the-inca-trail/ ) Why should I be writing this one? Well, I trekked this historical pathway once as a tourist and 4 times as a guide, this makes me an expert of sorts. My idle observations as a tourist have been tempered by my knowledge of the act. The second is “Swapping cocaine for tourism in Guaviare, Colombia”. (http://matadornetwork.com/trips/swapping-cocaine-for-tourism-in-guaviare-colombia/) Of course, this last piece is different and possesses all the keywords to make it a hit, there’s the inevitable cocaine and Colombia link, the daredevil style adventurous element. But, note how it is put into context, through a small, albeit 15 minute, chance meeting with a local campesino. He was the person who brought a human element to the page and was able to frame my piece. Alone and without Saul the campesino, the story falls flat.
My First Experience in Santa Marta
I am introducing this unpublished article hopefully as a template for further aspiring writers and journalists in the expectation that they will exceed their chosen aims. I wrote this article, and my desire was for it to be published in the mainstream media as a possible first person narrative. This was a few years ago and I was still fresh as a freelancer and to my eyes everything and every angle presented a possible avenue to write and potentially sell an article. I can share with you the fact that I still believe this but am more thick-skinned and more aware of what can be published, what is advertorial and what sells.
Sweat clinging to my top lip, I lay, shirt strewn to one side, back pressed into my bed, looking up through bloodshot eyes at the ceiling fan. This device was offering no respite from the evening heat here in Santa Marta, Colombia and did little more to cool me than to slice through the hot Caribbean air and push it back at me.
It felt like every pore on my body was in overdrive giving the impression that the sheet upon which I lay was second hand and that the staff here had not seen fit to change it prior to my arrival. Too tired and with my patience shorn due to the lingering effects of that morning’s hangover I tossed my guidebook to one end of the room.
Barely had I managed to slip into a much needed sleep when my door seemed to lift from its hinges and the police thundered down on the paneling with their fists.
“Policia, requiso, Policía, abre la puerta”
Bleary-eyed I snapped back the bolt on the door without moving from the bed, swung my legs over the side and before I could don a shirt and look somewhat respectable three officers were in my room, squeezing through the small space available and tossing my belongings.
I cringed as the commanding officer picked up my sodden, cigarette smelling t-shirt infused with all of the odorous delicacies from the previous night on the town. He sniffed deep and glared accusingly before he said:
“Gringo mochilero, huele a humo, a ti te gusta la marihuana?”
Almost too bored to reply I managed some sort of negative response.
“Vienes a nuestro país, vienes a putear, vienes a consumir drogas.” Continued the commanding officer.
All the while I could make out police officer 1 in my bathroom lifting up the lid on the cistern and checking the water in the toilet. Police officer 2 had his hand out of the window and was arching his arm to feel the ledge above the external window frame.
It became clear. This was a set up. As the commanding officer kept on with his baseless but albeit threatening barrage of accusations, it was all too evident that someone had tipped off the police alerting them to this hotel and in turn to my room as a source of an easy drugs bust.
Only that, unless something had been planted in my room, I was not in the possession of any illicit material. My work and travels had brought me to Colombia to study the environment, write of up and coming destinations and basically soak up the atmosphere. Not of this meant for me to be involved in a scene not dissimilar to Charles Nichol’s the Fruit Palace, most of which incidentally had taken place only meters from where I now found myself.
My mattress was flipped, the sweat drenched sheet torn from it and I genuinely believed that this was it.
Until finally the commanding officer seemed sincerely interested in what I had to say and where I had been in Colombia, in particular the Pacific coast.
“Have you seen the turtles?” He asked with almost childlike wonder.
“Yes, I worked for an NGO protecting them and in placing the newborns in a hatchery.”
My guidebook was near to hand and the commanding officer brought it close under the dim and bare solo light bulb hanging in the room. He started thumbing through pages, asking my opinions of various destinations along the Pacific coast and then testing my knowledge of the rest of Colombia.
“You must go here, and he folded and dog-eared a page, and then another one. I forget where he was sending me, and it was irrelevant as I was set to leave the country shortly, but my mind was racing trying to take in what had actually taken place. What had started as a set up that seem to lead directly to paying a bribe or hurried to calls to the British Consul, was now becoming a familiar chat with a public official with a gun.
And yet he was not finished here. Satisfied with me and with his discourse on the must see sights of Colombia, and brimming with pride, he looked me over once again and said:
“Aquí están mis datos, mi celular y mi dirección si tienes algún problema más.”
It felt like he was suggesting that I would have further problems, hard to imagine that this was the same man who had held my stinking t-shirt to his nose and accused me of being a hippie on a trail head full of zombie. And with that he finished his annotations in the back of my guidebook and bade me farewell.
If you enjoyed this you may enjoy further ruminations on writing as a career: