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On bad travel writing

Sunset at Candidasa, Bali

The headline was typical of so many articles shared on Facebook; it employed superlatives and throwaway adjectives, enticing readers with the promise of revealing Asia’s secret destinations.

50 Most Stunning Lesser-Known Places In Asia You’d Love To Go, it shouted.

Curious, I clicked on the link. It immediately took me to a website buried in similar lists: “World’s 10 Best Destinations To Travel Alone”; “The Ultimate Wanderlist: 60 Cities To Visit Before You Die”; “35 Most Amazing Roads In The World You Should Drive In Your Lifetime”.

These are mere distractions that, in most cases, should not be taken seriously. At best they serve as tasters, bite-size introductions to places we might not have known or even thought of visiting. Although there is a niche for Top 10 lists, especially in a world where constant streams of information vie for our attention, I lament the proliferation of thoughtless ‘listicles’. On the editorial side they are usually not hard to produce; whether they are of actual value to the reader is another matter entirely.

Perhaps journalism school and two years in publishing have hardened my view, but I was infuriated by what I saw. For instance, I could not ignore the gaping hole in attribution: of its 50 photos, only one was credited to a Flickr account. The text itself was carelessly peppered with typos (“ancienct city”, “snorkling”, “Luang Praband”), grammatical errors and sweeping generalisations (including a Japanese island “known for it’s Mediterranean feel”).

Worse still, it was badly written and full of inaccuracies. An undulating landscape of tea fields and highland forest in Sri Lanka was described as a “dense region”, while the Indonesian island of Ambon was located in the “Moluccas seas”.

Ambon, for the record, is on the Banda Sea. The Molucca Sea lies roughly 250 km to the north, defining the area of water between the northeast arm of Sulawesi and Halmahera. In American terms, 250 km is about 155 miles, which doesn’t seem like much. But that is the difference between England and France, for Paris lies 255 km southeast of Hastings, a town on the south English coast.

Scanning the contents of the list, I noticed a fair number of choices ticked the obscurity box, although many appeared to be chosen at random. Others, like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos, were already well known to both luxury travellers and backpackers.

Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, fell in the “completely random” category, and its inclusion left me scratching my head. I recognised the headland in the photo – but the two-line summary below it was bereft of useful information:

“The capital of Timor-Leste, Dili is the largest city of East Timor. It’s full of rich views like the one above.”

Dili's lighthouse

Dili’s lighthouse

What is a “rich view”? Is it a vista that is valued at more than the amount spent on getting there? And perhaps more importantly, did the writer understand that Timor-Leste and East Timor were one and the same? Last December, I stood with a fellow travel blogger on Dili’s waterfront, admiring the view across the bay out to Atauro and the crocodile-shaped headland of Cape Fatucama. The city does have its share of beautiful vistas, but these do not appear at every turn. Carmen, a hotelier who had worked in Dili for over a decade, urged us to go beyond the dusty capital, for that was where the wild, rugged beauty of Timor-Leste could be found.

Maybe I am being a pedant, but I firmly believe the issue is not just one of semantics. In order to gain respect, bloggers, like any “conventional” travel writer, should also strive for accuracy and attention to detail. And even Top 50 lists can be done well. Instead of a lazy, half-hearted attempt, we can choose to write pieces that are properly researched and genuinely informative, akin to this annual interactive by the New York Times. Anything less would be a disservice to our audience. 

43 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yeah, those examples are rather shocking! I’m by no means a professional, when it comes to my own writing (very much a novice, only starting out), but I’d like to believe I do better than those examples!

    September 25, 2014
    • I’m sure you will be much better than that, Stephen. Writing is a craft that takes years to develop, so don’t sweat it – we all have to start somewhere!

      September 25, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on adventure and commented:
    Thank you!

    September 25, 2014
    • You’re welcome. Thanks in turn for the reblog!

      September 25, 2014
  3. Fingers crossed this does not sound like me. There’s ignorance, and then there is plain click-bait writing.
    It’s about time people described the difference between Tourism and Travel, and especially underlining the importance to squeeze out as much culture as possible when visiting these ‘destinations you must visit before you die’.
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!!

    Milly

    September 25, 2014
    • Thank you, Milly. With the click-bait writing, part of the problem is down to finances. I think as travel bloggers, it is very tempting to fall into that trap – do you chase sponsored posts (often thinly veiled PR advertorials) to fund it as a business? And how much editorial independence are you willing to sacrifice? It is a real struggle for those who travel full-time and live off their websites.

      September 25, 2014
  4. Sometimes you wonder if the writers have actually been to some of the places they write about.

    September 25, 2014
    • Absolutely, Debra. Given how thin the text was, I doubt the writer of that list I mentioned had been to any of those places…

      September 25, 2014
  5. Thanks James for this excellent article. I too have been appalled at some of the things I’ve read (though you seem to have stumbled upon a particularly egregious example) and also been at times quite bewildered by some of the lists. I must admit that I have learned a lot about writing about our travels over my years of blogging and kind of cringe when I read some of my early posts. And I have learned a lot from you, from reading your blog. I take it far more seriously now – to at least get my facts straight, and hopefully make it entertaining at the same time.
    Alison

    September 25, 2014
    • I feel just the same way, Alison – especially when it comes to reading my older posts! And thanks very much for the kind words. I would say your blog is entertaining, honest and full of deeper meaning; very few out there illustrate the “inner journey” as beautifully as you do.
      James

      September 25, 2014
  6. …REAL TALK, man!!…

    September 25, 2014
    • I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time now! Reading that awful listicle was the tipping point.

      September 25, 2014
  7. I think the motivation behind some of these poor articles is also to blame. They’re poorly written because the authors aren’t actually interested in inspiring people to travel themselves and give them info on how to do so, they just want to boost their clicks, likes……

    Nice, honest post J.

    September 25, 2014
    • Thank you, Tanya. You’re completely right – a lot of these writers measure their success on numbers alone. For all the talk about page views, keywords and SEO, I still think content is king. It’s sad that good quality writing is harder to find these days.

      September 25, 2014
    • Exactly what I was gonna say. It’s all about views and stats.

      September 26, 2014
  8. Totally agreeing with Tanya, they only want to boost their clicks (the photo says it all). Journalism school, huh? Now I know why your writing sounds so professional! 🙂 Greetings!

    September 25, 2014
    • Greetings Suze! It has been a long time since I’ve commented on your blog… I really must find the time to catch up. 🙂 I’ve been doing a journalism masters for the past year – there’s still one more to go. But it is a real challenge to balance studying with full-time work and the blog; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody!

      September 26, 2014
  9. In the past I stumbled upon a blog with a lot of beautiful photos, but the writer only wrote ‘courtesy: Google’ underneath each photo, out of his utmost ignorance. You know, I noticed that Akismet has been doing its job filtering most spams out there by checking for any misspellings, one of the validations it’s currently using. Speaking of misspelling, those published posts or articles which fall into the same category as the one you mention here should be treated as spam as well, logically. 🙂

    Thanks for bringing this up, James!

    September 25, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Bama. It is quite sad that people are too lazy to credit others for their work – there are a lot of photos out there which are not in the public domain, and most of those on Creative Commons require at least some kind of attribution.

      September 26, 2014
  10. I usually see ‘listicles’, as you call them, as limiting. Sometimes they get me looking at places I haven’t thought much about or even heard of, but many times they’re cliche. My experience in traveling is that when people are just checking things off a “Top 10” list, they can miss a great deal what really makes the destination desirable.

    Thanks for the post, it makes me feel less snobbish for looking at them that way! 🙂 Cheers!

    September 25, 2014
    • I couldn’t agree more. It’s just like the kind of tourism where you get off a bus, take a few photos and then get back on again. I know someone who recently went to Indonesia on a cruise, and yet he had no idea about the places he’d been because it was someone else who organised the trip!

      Thanks in turn for your comment – I was thinking other readers would also see me as a “travel snob”! But if that means we’re being selective and thoughtful about what we experience, then so be it. 🙂

      September 26, 2014
  11. Thank you for posting this! I had a similar experience the other day. I read an article on 10 of the most remote places to visit. One of the destinations was Sakhalin Island. The article said the native Nivhk people haven’t seen many outsiders. Well, actually, the population of Sakhalin is now over 80% ethnic Russian, followed by many other nationalities such as Korean and Ukrainian — even larger than the indigenous population. The blurb goes on to describe it as an untouched paradise. Again, research. The island has been mined for coal for decades, and after the USSR collapsed, the oil industry there boomed. There are a lot of foreigners there for that, as well as pollution! It’s pretty clear the author hasn’t been or even properly researched — I haven’t been either, actually, but I know these things since I’m a bit of a Russia nerd.

    I think these articles can be damaging, not just because they spread false information (and are annoying!), but they sort of perpetuate a checklist tourism that isn’t truly interested in learning or authenticity. People go to places with these false cliches in mind, and if that’s what they want to see, they will see it instead of approaching places with a mind open to learning about a place for what it is, complicated histories, grit, and all.

    September 26, 2014
    • Wow, I did not know all those things about Sakhalin! Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I’m a general geography nerd and stickler for detail, so it really irks me when these kinds of articles get published. The Asia one in particular hit a raw nerve… I really dislike it when people misrepresent my home continent. It’s not that hard to get your facts straight; as you said it just takes a bit more effort and research.

      September 26, 2014
  12. Thank you for this thoughtful post and all the thoughtful comments. We thought we were the only ones that felt this way….

    And yet we wade in to this discussion in defense of the list approach to blog posts. We do this with some trepidation as we are relatively new to the travel blog scene. We have only be blogging on family travel (under the moniker of Big World Little Eyes Travel or BWLEtravel) since June of this year.

    We would like very much to believe that content is king and that the blogosphere rewards original photography and writing. We try hard to find the fun in history and the beauty in places, and then we try to communicate it in a way that parents can translate into interesting adventures for their kids.

    But the sad reality, we are learning, is that it is nearly impossible to be noticed by search engines if the title does not include “top [insert number]” or “top tips.” This is especially the case is one does not additionally pay for advertising. It is surprisingly difficult to even cover the operating costs of a travel blog without going down these paths.

    We share the irritation at sub-standard or half-hearted efforts to generate content…..and we would add that it becomes all the more irritating to see that this kind of content often manages to drive more website traffic! Content may be king in theory, but traffic generates the value that finances content creation. We are still struggling with this.

    And yet, for every superficial and dreadful travel list we encounter, we also find really wonderful travel writing and even helpful lists out there on the world wide web.

    We are coming to the conclusion that travel blogs are not too different from any retail space. Many people are perfectly happy with the bargain basement knock-off. Tour group/cruise travelers also still seek something interesting about a place (otherwise, they would not hire the guide) even if they are not comfortable striking out on their own.

    A significantly smaller number of people seek out small-batch artisans and luxury options. This is the universe we choose to inhabit, and this is the audience we choose to address. We choose to avoid and ignore the others….after all, life is too short to waste time on thrown together posts. Hopefully, we will at least manage to cover our operating costs in the process.

    James, your blog gives us hope that the artisan approach to travel blogging is a viable option. We greatly appreciate your thoughtful posts and lovely companion pictures.

    So by all means, rail against laziness and sub-standard execution. But remember that the market exists for this stuff. As for us, whenever we run across a list we like, we feature it on all our social media channels. Conversely, when we don’t like or don’t agree with a list we attempt to spark discussion on Twitter and Facebook. We hope that discussion and rewarding excellent travel writing will help encourage others like us looking to provide quality content to interested readers.

    Thanks again for this post.

    September 28, 2014
    • Kate, thank you for writing such a detailed, insightful and honest reply.

      Although I will never write them on my own blog, I’m not necessarily against lists per se. They can be done very well and are even justified in some cases. Not many of us have the time to sit down and immerse ourselves in longform writing, and as you said the market for lists is substantially bigger!

      I also admire your approach and the way you are trying to make your own blog a self-financing endeavour. It is not an easy task with so many other travel blogs out there fighting for attention.

      October 3, 2014
  13. You pointed out a very interesting fact. Such an insightful piece. Thanks for sharing.

    September 28, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Carissa. I had to get this off my chest!

      October 3, 2014
  14. Hahah loved this.. Although somewhat comical, this is so true. I have also found some hilariously inaccurate descriptions of places that I have been to.. Successful travel writing is all about quality.

    September 29, 2014
    • Agreed! Sometimes these lists and descriptions are so bad (and full of cliches) I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry.

      October 3, 2014
  15. Everyone wants to be a travel writer – or just a writer – these days. Just like everyone wants to be a photographer. It’s frustrating and obnoxious, but I guess every industry, job, and hobby has its fakes. Keep up your amazing work, and try to ignore the crap out there.

    September 30, 2014
    • Thank you for the encouragement, Mandy. I’m finding that there is always something new to learn when it comes to both writing and photography.

      October 3, 2014
  16. Sam #

    That was incredibly insightful and motivating to me as I figure out how to write the travel segments of my blog. Thank you 🙂

    October 3, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Sam. And thank you for the kind comment. 🙂

      October 4, 2014
  17. I couldn’t agree more James!!! The proliferation of lists on the net plays to the numbers game. Although I can’t quite fathom what kind of audience they are targeting. Who would want to read generic information that is not backed up by personal perspectives? I am guessing their numbers prove there are many who do.

    October 7, 2014
    • Sadly there is a large proportion of people who will happily read these vacuous lists! I hope I didn’t come across too harsh or snobby in this post – but after seeing such an awful (mis)representation of our home continent, the point simply had to be made.

      October 9, 2014
  18. To me, travel writing must evoke a sense of place and make the reader feel like they’re experiencing the location, not just reading about it. It’s in the hope of doing this that I’ve just started my own travel blog! Thank you for your insightful article – I am so glad that people are willing to be vocal advocates of quality travel writing! 🙂

    October 20, 2014
    • I completely agree – if the writing doesn’t transport you there in some way, it hasn’t really done the job. You were so lucky to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg last year… Russia seems like such an enormous, perplexing country, and St. Petersburg is one of those grand imperial cities I dream of visiting! 🙂

      October 21, 2014
      • Thanks for reading my Russian post – it is definitely a place of pretty stark dichotomies. I hope you get the chance to go there some day!

        October 21, 2014
  19. Thoughtful and good piece on crappy travel writing and click baiting… you were able to summarize everyone’s frustrations with these damn lists. Is there anything more frustrating than clicking on a link only to be taken to a thousand more links to have to search for what you were originally interested in?! lol
    Continue the good work. 🙂

    December 27, 2014
    • Thanks for that, I really appreciate it. 🙂 Those lists sure get tiresome… it especially irks me when they badly undersell a place that I know and love!

      December 28, 2014
  20. Thanks for this post. Such great reminders. I write a travel blog about Orlando, and I always want it to be fresh, real, and just offer something of substance. Appreciate you encouraging us to always hone our craft. 🙂

    January 12, 2015
    • Thanks in turn for the kind words, Violette. 🙂 You are so right about keeping it fresh and real – I wish there were more travel blogs out there that strived to do the same.

      On another note, I did not know there were so many neat hipster places in Orlando! Maybe it was down to my ignorance (and the presence of Disney, SeaWorld etc.) but I always imagined the city as more of a family destination.

      January 16, 2015
  21. James, I totally agree. There are some websites like Cracked.com that are nothing more than lists. I think listed posts are okay sometimes, but it is best if it comes from a persons personal experiences, not a made up list from a cubicle.

    Accuracy is very important. I am sure there are inaccuracies on my blog, but I do my very best to make sure it is true. (Although FOX News didn’t exactly check out the no-go-zones, so why should a regular blogger fact check?)

    January 26, 2015

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