Bondi rainbow

Most writing in the newspapers, magazines, blogs and travel websites cater for ‘tourism’. When you hear “tourism” you associate the word with travel, though from a literature point of view, the information provided whilst scanning tourism sites is far from meeting the requirements of being travel writing (travel writing and travel literature are used interchangeably throughout this course).


After reading last week’s notes you should be able to see differences between quality travel writing and convenient tourism writing. This week’s notes will aim to breakdown some of the qualities you will need to consider when creating travel writing. This is not to say that convenient travel information doesn’t serve its purpose. It may be tailored for tourists who need a holiday that goes to plan and may not have time to be the travelling opportunist – the ‘traveller’ (an adventurist plans to turn any stone they can).


Travel writing as a genre goes deeper than just providing simple location information. It attempts to tell a story with different layers. It often consists of the mishaps rather than filled with positives that form a unique travel narrative.


If we have a story about a man fumbling is way through South America with language limitations, who just had his credit card duplicated, he will have a fumbling narrative to tell.


Travel writing as a genre is very open. Thomas Swick writes an excellent article called Roads Not Taken. He outlines what travel writing is. I’d suggest reading the article.


Roads Not Taken by Thomas Swick raises the question: “Why is so much travel writing so boring?” and writes it can “leave us feeling empty” and is “journalism’s tiramisu”.


Roads Not Taken (Swick, 2001) addresses six essential elements of travel writing that are important for a story’s success: history, sharing a journey’s people, imagination, insight, humor and dialogue. Many of these elements are also qualities shared by fiction writing (Granville, 1990).


In the 1980s, according to Swick, a tarnished image immerged for travel writers as “free-loaders who simply found a cheap way to travel” through writing promotional information.


Three travel writers who deserve time are Bruce Chatwin, Peter Davis and Ryszard Kapuscinski. They use the elements mentioned by Swick plus additional features with varying balances of each element.


Bruce Chatwin provides travel writing with a strong, non-patronising voice and is able to write from different writing points of view. He writes about journeys that are not average. Chatwin constructs compact sentences that pack a punch and avoid overwriting.


In Patagonia (Chatwin, 2003) and A Coup (Chatwin, 1991) are both examples of Chatwin’s work. They provide history, character development, scene development and insight concerning Chatwin’s journeys and he strategically utilizes dialogue through characters to recreate the journey. Dialogue is provided carefully, in short progressive doses, by characters he meets. At times In Patagonia uses Spanish and foreign accents (broken English) in dialogue and there’s often has hidden subtext.


In Gaiman the schoolmaster’s wife introduced me to the pianist. He was a thin nervous boy with a drained face and eyes that water in the wind. His hands were strong and red. The ladies in the Welsh Choir had adopted him (Chatwin, 1994).


After giving this scene development and introducing the “pianist” Chatwin then goes on to connect the reader with the character with the pianist’s dialogue: “And now I play the Pathétique. Yes?” This writing has dialogue, insight, and character development and offers a pleasant voice for its readers.


Chatwin pays particular attention to providing history during his writing and does so without jolting or disrupt the rhythm of the story and offers all of Swick’s elements.


Peter Davis is a travel writer who writes similarly to Chatwin. His writing incorporates mild humor, scene development, character development, insight, dialogue and history. From his essay Bollywood blockbuster (Davis, 2001) “I don’t usually allow a complete stranger to remove my trousers” is a nice example. In Bollywood blockbuster Davis introduces a character with the use of dialogue: “My name is Arjun,” which tunes his readers into wanting more information about this character. “I’m a film producer and I’ve been watching you … would like to do a film with me?” Afterwards Davis goes on to provide insight, related to this character and about the travel story’s location: “in India no request is what is seems” and “perhaps he was after my camera?” Immediately, hands-on experience is sensed from Davis giving the reader the impression Davis is street-smart in the ways of India. This comforts readers to trust his insight concerning India’s darker side and engages readers to want more information from Davis’ experiences. Once readers open their guard up to Davis he goes on to give his knockout sentence: “Worse, he might have wanted my kidneys for a transplant”; the chilling reality of the third world.


Davis also strategically inserts historical information into his text: “The massive bell from the 15th-century Metropolitan Cathedral announces the hour (Davis, 2002).” This sentence alone has been constructed with history, scene and insight. Davis cleverly structures sentences in a similar fashion throughout his writing to not disrupt sentence rhythm during his stories.


The other travel writer who does it well is Ryszard Kapuscinski. This writer uses anecdotes in the midst of his non-patronizing voice. Kapuscinski generally writes in first person narrative, which puts his opinion in the firing line for readers. A typical example of his writing is: “Where ever one goes in this word, one will boast about how far their ancestors had come or reached (Kapuscinski, 1994).” Kapuscinski then goes onto to give his personal point of view: “People need this awareness.” This opinion by Kapuscinski runs the risk of losing readers, which is not a bad thing—just because you upset people it doesn’t mean you’re not producing literature.


Kapuscinski uses Swick’s “essential elements,” although he uses these elements with a different commitment to Chatwin and Davis.


Have a read of Kapuscinski’s work:


…in the Susamyr Valley, two hundred kilometres from Funze, Dzhumal herds the sheep of the Panfilov kolkoz, and because he distinguished himself in this work, he was awarded by government decree the title of Outstanding Shephard of the Kirghiz Soveit Socialist Republic (Kapuscinski, 1994).


Now Davis’s:


…in the late afternoon, in another corner of the square, Aztec dancers pound their drums with such vigour that the church bells are almost silenced. Else where in the square rap dancers, political demonstrators, tradesmen, shoeshiners and entrepreneurs congregate and push their causes (Davis, 2002).


Davis tends to show his story while Kapuscinski does more telling. Scene development is lacking in Kapuscinski’s writing, as shown in his above paragraph, though he substitutes this with dramatic nonfiction inclusions as can be seen here:


“During the blasting of a block a coal had fallen and killed workers. They managed to dig out the body, but he had died instantly (Kapuscinski, 1991).”


If writing lacks a balance of scene development, character development, insight, humor, according to Swick, it does run the risk of being “boring”.


The following writing by Kapuscinski has a little more creativeness:


The truck is racing through the dusk, its headlamps, like pupils searching for the finish line. It’s close: Jeziorany, twenty kilometres. Another half hour, and we’ll be there. The truck is pushing hard, but it’s touch and go. They old machine wasn’t meant for such a haul (Kapuscinski, 1991).


Bruce Chatwin, Peter Davis and Ryszard Kapuscinski are definitely not “free-loaders who simply found a cheap way to travel”. Considering their writing and Swick’s six essential elements as a guide should keep you in the right direction for creating nice travel writing.


That’s it for this week’s travel writing notes. If you’re keen for extra reading you can track down some of the readings from the “Annotated Bibliography” I’ve provided below.


Discussion you may wish to add to the reply section below for this week are:


  • What difference do you see between tourism and travel?
  • What elements of writing do you expect to see in enjoyable travel writing?
  • Name some of Swick’s points for nice travel writing.




Chatwin, B 1991, ‘ A Coup’, in B Buford (ed.), The Best of Granta travel, Granta Books, UK, pp. 72-89.


This story is an example of nonfiction writing that reads like a work of fiction. The story has been told with imagination and creativeness to give an exciting travel story. The writing has been provided with tension, conflict, subtext, character development, scene development and plot pace that keeps the story moving quickly. There are great examples of using dialogue to bind readers to a story in this piece of nonfiction writing.


Chatwin, B 2003, In Patagonia, Penguin, London.


This writing is an extended piece of travel writing exploring South America’s region known as “Patagonia”. The writing is the work of nonfiction, although incorporates many techniques of fiction writing.


The author writes the story as a first person narrative, although there are chapters where the author has more focus on the story’s characters, then the story is told as a third person narrative. During the story, characters, history, insight, and scene development are given to bind readers to the story. This writing is an excellent example of travel writing with much to show and tell.


Davis, P 2002, ‘Mexico City’, Eureka Street, vol. 12, no. 7, September, pp. 24-6.


This is a short piece of travel writing providing an insightful visit to Mexico City. The author provides a style of writing which incorporates his readers and attempts to include them in the story.


This piece has many elements of fiction writing mixed with realism. There are useful tips for those visiting Mexico City, history on the location, character introduction and development, dialogue and the story is delivered with an enthusiastic pace. This writer has many tips for travel writers wishing to develop their skills for travel stories.


Davis, P 1998, ‘Bollywood blockbuster’, The Age, 6 June, p. 130.


A short piece of writing is about the writer’s journey to India and his experience with the film industry there.


In this writing the author provides a first person narrative about his adventure and accidental stumbling upon India’s film industry. The writer provides humorous characters and education about India’s film industry. Although, this education is not in depth, the reading is set with a fast, entertaining pace and provides an interesting read for those wishing to spark up their travel writing.


Grenville, K 1990, ‘Getting Started’, The writing book: a workbook for fiction writers, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 16-38.


This is a textbook for fiction writers who are starting or who wish to improve their fiction writing skills.


The author addresses many variables which separate readers and fiction writing. In doing this she provides many different elements of writing such as, character, point of view, voice, dialogue, scene, just to name a few, to attempt to bring fiction writer’s attention to these elements to improve the connection between their writing and their readers. The book is a great text for those wishing to produce quality fiction writing.


Grenville, K 1990, ‘Dialogue’, The writing book: a workbook for fiction writers, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 101-23.


This writing extract by Kate Grenville focuses on dialogue in fiction writing. Grenville provides suggestions for creating efficient dialogue and mentions flawed dialogue can separate a reader from a story.


The author defines dialogue as: ‘an artificial expression designed to live on the page’. Grenville writes dialogue is not the same as conversation and highlights the use of punctuation to perfect dialogue. Grenville also labels dialogue as: ‘an optional extra’. She indicates writers need to be selective with what they consider to be that ‘optional extra’. Helpful tips are given which are useful for creative non-fiction writers.


Swick, T 2001, ‘Roads Not Taken’, Columbia Journalism Review, vol. 40, no. 1, May-June, pp. 65-7.


This piece of writing aims to identify the elements which separate the good travel writing from the bad. The author mentions most travel writing is boring and often done by “free-loaders” looking for cheap travel.


In the essay the author outlines elements which he believes are required for successful travel writing. The piece mentions travel writing requires history, people, insight, humor, dialogue and imagination.


Kapuscinski, R 1994, Imperium, Granta Books, London.


An extended work providing history and education of the countries which make up Central Asia during the times of the “Imperium”.


The writer provides a large amount of information in the form of personal anecdotes. This writing is given as a first person narrative and provides many writing techniques similar to those of fiction writing. The story gives an example of a writer who tells his readers rather than shows them. There is dialogue and character throughout the story, although there is a larger dedication to history and education for readers. Over all, it’s not a bad book for travel writers looking to move their writing forward.


Kapuscinski, R 1991, ‘Stiff’, in B Buford (ed.), The Best of Granta travel, Granta Books, London, pp. 192-9.


A nonfiction travel journey given by the writer as a first person narrative. The writer gives a good example of travel writing, although it lacks humor. With this lack of humor aside, there are still many things to take from this piece for the emerging travel writer.


The author provides information throughout the journey which attempts to give mild shock to his readers. There is a fast pace to the story and plenty of insight.

Gaston Cavalleri is an Australian travel writer, novelist, screenwriter, and jiu-jitsu fighter. To support his travel writing & literature give a “like” to the Facebook page.