Welcome to the Travel Writing Corner! This week, I’m featuring one of my favorite writers in the industry, Lola Akinmade. The Nigerian-born and Swedish-based writer is an excellent photographer as well, having had her work published in National Geographic Traveler, BBC, San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes Traveler, Sherman’s Travel, Fodors.com, ISLANDS Magazine and Guardian UK’s Been There. With further ado, here’s Lola, sharing some of her insights and tips on travel writing.
1. How did you break into the world of travel writing?
I’ve been writing on some level for many years, whether penning fictional stories as a teenager or doing some technical writing as a programmer. It wasn’t until 2002 when I worked as a volunteer field journalist with Eco-challenge that I truly got into writing about place and culture.
For the next four years after that, I dabbled a bit in travel writing until later in 2006 when I discovered a growing community called Matador and one of the best editors and mentors out there, David Miller.
The rest has been a steady process of growth through trial and error.
2. What were you doing before you became a travel writer? Did you always dream of being a travel writer?
Before becoming a freelance writer and photographer, I was actually an application developer/programmer for 12+ years. I’d been working professionally as a programmer since I was 19 years old. I have a Masters degree in Information Systems and for many years, I designed, developed, and integrated geographic information systems and web-based applications for airports, the federal government, various municipalities and other clients.
My dream was never to become a “travel writer”, but rather, someone who travelled, experienced different cultures, and tried to share what I experienced as transparently as I could. So my love for travel and sharing stories was what naturally led me down this path.
It wasn’t until 2009 when I was getting married and relocating to a new continent did I decide to resign from my programming job and fall head-first into freelancing. Before then, I definitely kept my day job while writing and photographing on the side.
And no, I didn’t marry a billionaire. I’m grateful to be able to make enough living income from my writing and photography, coupled with a very low maintenance lifestyle.
3. What do you find most fulfilling, and challenging, about travel writing?
Most fulfilling – Besides various opportunities to travel, explore, and share the world with others, the most fulfilling part of being a writer for me is the creativity and flexibility that comes with this lifestyle. Having been in a serious corporate environment for many years, I’m so grateful for this level of freedom.
Most challenging – Without being versatile and creative in your skill sets, trying to earn a steady income from “travel” writing can be challenging especially if you quit a lucrative career to pursue it fulltime. Most travel writers I know write about a broad range of subjects – food, culture, lifestyle, entertainment, and more. Many writers are also photographers and social media consultants as well. Others actively use their blogs as a way of generating income as well.
It’s all about finding the right balance that works for you, actively making it work for you, all the while enjoying what you do.
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?
To touch briefly on the versatility aspect again, being able to roll with the industry as it evolves is what every writer needs to proactively do. Be it using various social media tools for promoting their work professionally to connecting with editors and publications, and being able to deliver quality work consistently.
I started writing for online media outlets before I started writing for print magazines (the opposite direction) so I fully appreciate both mediums. Personally, I am also working with Sweden.se as a photographer and writer to help promote the country’s image abroad by sharing ground level day-to-day snippets of life here in Sweden.
5. Do you think new media is reshaping the role of guidebooks and travel magazines in today’s world?
One thing I love and continue to advocate about Matador Network is how it’s breaking boundaries in terms of new media and online journalism. From featuring fresh honest voices to working on cutting edge projects such as our Road Warriors program with the Belize Tourism Board, we’re actively working to ban the fluff in travel writing. We promote writing about place in a way that respects the place and does it enough justice as best as we can.
With regards to guidebooks, having current information is key and that’s why many online sites such as Spotted by Locals are popping up which offer more up-to-date ground level information about destinations from locals living within those destinations.
Print is definitely not dead, but it has entered into a new marriage with digital media and online delivery which can only flourish in my opinion.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I often get emails asking what to do and how to break into travel writing, and the very first question I pose to aspiring writers is whether or not they have enough passion. Passion is what sustains you through the rough patches when you feel like you’re hitting walls and barriers in every direction.
Once you’ve decided you’ve got enough passion to guide you through, don’t quit your day job quite yet. There’s a very thin line between freedom and greed. You still need to tend to some responsibilities you may have before fully diving head-first into being a fulltime freelancer.
If you feel your skills need to be significantly improved, consider investing in yourself through a course. MatadorU offers excellent, practical, and well-proven travel writing and photography courses that have produced dozens of successful alums who are actively publishing work, getting assignments, winning awards, and living their passions of writing and/or photography. The thing about the program is we help you find your voice as a writer or style as a photographer.
Start building that freelancing portfolio or that blogging empire while you slowly transition from your daytime job and responsibilities.
Once you are ready (and only you will know when you’re ready), make the leap. Don’t feel pressured to jump earlier than you’re comfortable with. Cut out the industry noise and industry cliques, and that constant pressure of looking at other writers/photographers/bloggers you admire.
Do it when you are ready.
7. As a travel writer, you travel for a living. What are some of your favorite places in the world (I know point out one favorite is too tough!)?
When I first started out, I thought I had to constantly travel to be considered a “travel writer,” but as I’ve gained more experience within the industry, I’ve realized that I’d rather write about place and human stories, than jet-setting from city to city without enough time to explore and appreciate it.
I no longer feel that pressure to just travel for travelling’s sake or country counting.
That said, I have been to roughly 40 countries so far and plan on traveling to many more. Most of these places have left long lasting impressions on me – be it navigating the crazy traffic in the streets of Lagos, Nigeria to dog-sledding in Swedish Lapland, working with sex-trafficking victims in Cambodia, or hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
Every single experience makes me a more rounded and compassionate individual, and I think that’s just one of the gifts travel really gives us – an opportunity to grow in profound ways.
Editor for Matador Goods, Lola Akinmade-Åkerström’s photography and travel writing are characterized by vibrancy and hope. Her work has appeared in Vogue, National Geographic Traveler, BBC, San Francisco Chronicle, Travel Channel’s World Hum and Forbes Traveler. She currently volunteers as a photojournalist with the Swedish Red Cross, World Hope International and C.H.I.E.F – an NGO based in Nigeria that promotes grassroots health development, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the empowerment of women. Find out more about her on her official portfolio or her blog.