Travel Writing Corner: Interview with Jeremy Head

Posted on June 27, 2011 by

Welcome to the first installment of my brand new Travel Writing Corner! Every other week, I’ll be presenting interviews with accomplished travel writers and sharing travel writing tips here. To kickstart this series, I’m thrilled to present the venerable Jeremy Head. Recently ranked as one of the UK’s 50 most influential travel writers,  he’s an award-winning travel writer, guidebook author, photographer and occasional TV presenter.

1. How did you break into the world of travel writing?

I took a 3 month course in Periodical Journalism at the London College of Print (now the London College of Communication). The course taught me a lot of great basics about writing features, sub-editing, pitching and reporting. That was in 1999! Part of the course involved setting up work experience – which I managed to organise with a company that produced weekly free magazines for London commuters. All of the magazines had travel content in them so I started suggesting ideas to the editor based on the year I had spent travelling (see qu2 below). Work experience ended but I kept writing bits and piecs for them on a freelance basis. Bit by bit I wrote more and more of their travel content and eventually convinced the Group Editor to let me be travel editor. To my surprise he agreed. I had 3 fantastic years until the internet basically killed the mags off. Revenue was almost entirely from recruitment advertising and the whole sector ended up online within the space of about 18 months. The speed of the decline from a business that made a £2 million profit was utterly staggering.

2. What were you doing before you became a travel writer?

I spent 5 years in marketing after leaving university – great experience, but creatively frustrating. I wanted to write. I took a year out and travelled all over the place and that got me thinking seriously about travel writing – and travel presenting too. (Actually TV was my main aspiration at that point.) It took me a good couple of years to actually start doing travel writing properly – this in a time when the web was in its infancy so blogs and personal websites just didn’t really exist. I didn’t always dream of being a travel writer, but from my early years I loved writing and wanted to be a journalist.

3. What do you find most fulfilling, and challenging, about travel writing?

Most fulfilling if I am honest is still seeing my name in print (yes, print – not online). I love the sense of excitement and trepidation of going to a newsagent and buying a copy of a newspaper or magazine to see my latest feature or seeing one of my guidebooks on the shelf in a book shop.

Most challenging? From a writing perspective, it’s finding new angles. Every travel editor has had the same old ideas pitched at them 100 times before – particularly for popular destinations. Coming up with a new angle that works for a particular title’s audience is perhaps the most challenging bit of the job but it’s also very satisfying. But the real challenge? Making it pay. Very very hard to earn a ‘proper’ living – by that I mean save some cash for a rainy day, plan for your future, put down a deposit on a house.

The Children of Burundi - Photo by Jeremy Head

4. Many guidebook and print writers are venturing into online journalism and new media, are you dipping your toes into this field and if yes, why?

Yes. I had no choice. The internet has killed off the middle market for travel writers. The 20 to 30 people still writing regularly for big UK newspapers still make a decent living, but the rest struggle. Rates continue to decline as advertising cash is spent online instead of in print. I had to choose – join in or change career. I was fortunate enough to get a job with a cool search and social media company iCrossing as their travel editor. I now work 4 days a week for them – with the odd chunk of time off to do a trip to write up for a specific commission to a place I really want to visit. I commission and edit content for the websites of major travel brands. Increasingly I am working with these travel companies on Content Strategy too. Thinking about their customers/readers, doing research, working out what to publish for them and why. I am really enjoying the regular cash – I miss the freedom of freelancing a bit though. I blog about this stuff too and really enjoy that – Travelblather, my travel writing blog is all about the challenges for travel writers of adapting to these new circumstances.

5. Do you think new media is reshaping the role of guidebooks and travel magazines in today’s world?

Yes I do. I’ve just written my first iPhone app – it’s not live yet but soon will be and I think apps are the guidebooks of the future – no question – location-specific information is so, so cool. Being in a place and having an app that knows where you are and can point you exactly where you want to go next is just amazingly clever.
For magazines I’m less convinced. I think the iPad has shown that people will browse and read at length online so who knows. Up to its arrival I still felt that I’d always prefer a beautifully laid out, well written feature in a magazine to squinting at copy with ads all around it on a laptop. What magazines absolutely must do is play in the online space as well and leverage the community of readers that they have for their print editions online as well.
Pigirma - Photo by Jeremy Head

6. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

  • Don’t expect it to be one long line of free cocktails and sunsets. It’s hard work making it pay properly. If you want to spend a few years seeing the world without it costing a lot then travel blogging is a great way to go about it if you know what you are about. If you are serious about a career as a travel writer I think you need more than that though. You need to be multi-platform. Build your profile off line as well as on-line. Pitch ideas at editors and try and get published by a few big publications. Having this stuff on your CV is very very useful. It gives you credibility in a space which is getting ever more crowded with newcomers.
  • Learn to be critical of your own writing. Always look to squeeze more out of your words. Web is easy in that you rarely have a set word count. Print you have to nail it in say 1500 words – and that is a wonderful discipline to get you maximising the impact of your words.
  • Take pictures and/or video too. Learn to do that stuff.
  • Tell stories. Beginning, middle, end.
  • Make sure you still enjoy it and that the lens through which you see the world is not smeared and blurry because you have seen so many places already. Believe it or not, after a few years, even travel writing can seem like just a job and every airport no better than that box of an office you vowed to quit forever as you set off on your new dream job of travel writing!

7. As a travel writer, you travel for a living. What are some of your favorite places in the world (I know pointing out one favorite is too tough!)?

- The Trans-Siberian railway remains one of my favourite trips – and it was my first travel section cover feature for The Times
- Jordan - wonderful cultural gems, great food, great people
- Thailand – unbeatable for beaches. I did SIX full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan before it got spoilt. I you asked me to choose a favourite region it would be SE Asia without question.
- Seville – I am author of Frommer’s Day By Day Seville and I love the place – the archtecture, the food and the atmosphere. Just need to learn some better Spanish!
Karelia in Northern Russia is also pretty special – particularly in winter

 


Jeremy Head has been a travel writer for over a decade, covering stories from all over the world, in particular South East Asia and countries of the former Soviet Union. His travel features have been published in The Daily Mail, The Times, the Independent, Wanderlust and Travel Weekly. Based in the UK, he currently works for web marketing and social media company iCrossing as Travel Editor, commissioning and writing travel features and destination guides. If you want to read more him, check out his travel writing blog, Travel Blather, or find him on Twitter.

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

3 Responses to “Travel Writing Corner: Interview with Jeremy Head”

  1. patbean July 11, 2011 11:55 pm #

    As a former journalist who now lives and travels full time in a small RV with her dog, Maggie, I significantly related to this blog. My few sources for travel writing dried up because of the internet. I now blog daily (currently about an African Safari, but mostly just my travels with Maggie), and am thankful I am no longer dependent on my writing for a living. Like Jeremy, I do still love seeing my name in print, and wish it were happening more often. patbean.wordpress.com

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