Get Your Masters in Travel Writing: The Good, Bad and Wonderful about the Degree

Travel Writing — By on March 15, 2011 at 11:15 pm

By Candace RardonTravel Writing
LG Section Editor

“A Master’s in what?”

I’d need about a hundred hands to count the number of times I’ve been asked to clarify what I’m studying, and just as many to count how often I’ve had to repeat myself: “A Master’s in travel writing.” Indeed, I too had to look twice the first time I discovered the program in which I’m currently enrolled. I’d just returned home to Virginia after six months of working in London, and was only a few weeks away from moving to New Zealand for a year. I’m still not sure what led me to type “Master’s in Travel Writing” into Google one night in my family’s living room, but suddenly, there it was! The fact that it was offered by a school called Kingston University just outside of central London seemed like a sign, a chance to return to a city I’d fallen in love with but had been forced to leave too soon.

Now that I’m one-third of the way through the year-long program and ready to start the next round of classes, I’m at the point where I can take stock of how it’s gone so far and, to any of you interested in studying travel writing as well, hopefully help you decide if such a program is for you!

The bad

On my first night of orientation, the course director for the entire creative writing department had each faculty member go around and introduce themselves, describing what they’ve published and the specific genre they work in. Not one of them mentioned travel writing. My heart sunk as I realized I wouldn’t be studying under the next great Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson like I’d foolishly imagined. Part of this was my own mistake in that I didn’t ask enough questions before signing onto the course. On the other hand, part of it was due to the fact that the university marketed the course as its own distinct program. The reality—which soon became clear—was that I was one of a few travel-writing students lumped into the general Creative Writing Master’s program, with a much larger contingent of novelists, poets, and screenwriters.

I was equally disappointed on the first night of my writer’s workshop class to find that I was the only one out of 10 people who writes non-fiction. But as my professor shared (he himself a science fiction author!), “Good writing is good writing,” and they welcomed me into the class, discussing my travel adventures as eagerly as we pored over other students’ short stories. They also raised questions throughout the semester that I hadn’t often considered, such as seeing myself as a character, finding the story, and keeping the narrative going.

The good

What my actual course has not offered me in specific travel writing instruction, I’ve been lucky enough to find elsewhere. Being based in London means you can easily supplement your studies with other workshops and conferences either in England or not far away in other European cities. Last September, I attended Peter Carty’s one-day travel writing workshop that he hosts monthly in central London. A few weeks later, I spent a weekend with Jonathan Lorie in Travellers’ Tales’ Compass Points: Beginners’ Writers Weekend workshop, learning about how to structure travel articles and books and the best way to go about pitching ideas to editors.

Also in November, Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) hosted their first European conference in chilly Copenhagen, bringing in well-known travel writers Andrew Evans and Lola Akinmade to host several excellent sessions on narrative travel writing. This year has taught me the importance of both having initiative and being creative, seeking out instruction and inspiration wherever it may be!

The wonderful

Despite any unmet expectations or initial disappointment, it’s hard to dwell for too long on the negative aspects of this experience. All I can really think about is the feeling of studying something I’m passionate about. I’ve spent hours in front of the two shelves in the library that hold texts on travel writing theory and history, such as Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, learning to place my own writing in context with the genre’s historical development. Many creative writing programs around the world stick to the three P’s (as I like to refer to them)—prose, poetry, and plays—and so the open-endedness of this particular program is one that affords me the freedom to write about travel—and that’s something to celebrate! Even while I know my diploma won’t be an automatic ticket into the hallowed halls of Lonely Planet or National Geographic, I’m grateful that my program has not only strengthened my writing in general, but has given me the space to grow and develop as a travel writer.

What to expect after graduation

Woman with Guidebook

As with most creative fields, there’s no set career path for a travel writer. Whether your dream is to write for a guidebook company, craft feature articles for a travel magazine, or publish full-length travel narratives, there’s no end to the number of opportunities available. Although my course is essentially a creative writing degree, the flexibility I have to write about travel has given me the extra motivation to seek out internships and other opportunities. I’ve also found professors and visiting writers to be a great resource, keen to improve your writing and make it as strong as it can be. With strengthened writing skills and hopefully a greater degree of clarity about what direction you are interested in, you can then pursue publication with more confidence.

Some books to get you started:

1. Don George, Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing
2. Michael Shapiro, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration
3. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing
4. The Best American Travel Writing series
5. Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas

Sample assignments

1. 5,000-word creative writing sample: For my writers’ workshop last semester, we took turns submitting shorter pieces of writing each week and then critiquing them in class. We continued to improve on our submissions over the semester and ultimately turned them into a 5,000 word sample for our final assessment. The best part about the project? Having the freedom to write on whatever we liked, whether that was fiction or non-fiction.

2. 2,500-word critical essay: The thought of a class called “Critical Writing for Creative Writers” didn’t exactly thrill my travel writer’s heart. Each week was spent covering a different ”ism,” or literary theory, from poststructuralism to feminism to Marxism. Fortunately, my discussion section leader gave us a great degree of flexibility when it came to developing our final assignment and I was able to tailor it to suit my particular interests—i.e. a travel piece on a WWOOFing experience last year.

3. Annotated bibliography: This assignment was also for my critical theory class and again, wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d signed up to do. But the goal was to essentially complete research on our overall project, whether it be a novel, collection of poems, or, like myself, a travel narrative. We then had to compile a list of 10-12 sources that were useful to us—and I was surprised by how interesting it actually was to delve deeper into a particular topic.

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