As an editor, one thing I try to hammer home with new writers is that a story can take many different formats.
There’s no one-size-fits-all, and that can be freeing.
Just thinking of how to present a story differently can turn a marginal idea into a great one. The subjects themselves, what your goals are as a writer, and the amount of time you have to do the story can all drive the kind of piece you build.
Even better: You can sometimes leverage these approaches to create multiple assignments from a single topic. Meaning your story about a restaurant for one magazine can also be spun off as a Q&A for another publication.
Below are six type of travel article formats with some favorite examples of each. If you can master these story types, you’ll make yourself valuable to any editor.
1. The List
As the name implies, this kind of story is literally a list; a focused roundup of places with bite-sized descriptions of each destination.
I don’t want to suggest that any kind of story is easy to do, but “the list” offers the least resistance for first-time writers. It’s simple in format and lends itself to a cross section of subjects. Structured themes might be: “Ten Best Restaurants in Portland” or “Five Killer Outdoor Adventures in the White Mountains.”
What it requires is careful planning and expertise in the subject. Lists of this kind usually entail a one- or two-paragraph set-up, followed by short, focused single-paragraph descriptions of each entry. Print editors always find these kinds of stories useful and web editors especially love to gobble these up.
Here’s a recent example of a hotel round-up that we recently did online at Yankee.
2. The Narrative
Here is a story format you’re probably most familiar with. With a narrative, the writer takes the reader on a journey through a particular destination—from the places you go to the people you meet. When we think of the world’s best travel writing, it often takes this form.
These kinds of pieces require thoughtful planning and solid reporting. Who will you interview? How will you frame the story? What kind of voice do you want to strike?
These are essential questions to ask as you start outlining and creating your narrative. These articles require work, but the good ones are always rewarding to publish.
This one, by the writer Bill Donahue, on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, is one of my favorites.
3. The Timeline
I like stories with structure, and the timeline offers a versatile and useful framework.
Timelines can be narrative in structure, but they’re broken up by day and/or time segments. 8:15am, 10:00am, 12:30pm, and so on. By going this route, you can efficiently link together events and experiences to tell a larger story. What it requires is careful notes, lively language, and an understanding that the goal of the piece is to inspire your readers to enjoy the same kind of experience.
I used the timeline format for a piece I did several years ago on a weekend I spent documenting the life and work of a couple who owns a popular Vermont B&B.
4. The Review
Here is where writers get their opinions on! With the review, a writer is giving their explicit views of a place and whether it lives up to its billing. Restaurants are popular topics. So are hotels.
This story type demands exacting notes and requires a thick skin if you’re going to include any negative attributes. But reviews are valuable and can offer important service info that a magazine can really sell.
In 2017, Yankee published a fun review of the best lobster rolls in New England. We still receive letters about it today.
5. The Personality Profile
These kinds of stories are narrative in format—you’re on a journey of sorts—but the focus is a person, rather than a place. You’re writing about a personality. Maybe that person is famous, maybe he or she isn’t well-known.
You may not think of a profile as a travel story, but a narrative about a person and where they come from or what they do can say a lot about a place. It’s an indirect way of writing about a city or region, and it can be extremely effective. These stories require thoughtful questions made in advance of the interview and a clear direction on where you want to lead the story.
Not that long ago we published a delightful profile of an entrepreneur in Vermont. His ambition and how he was doing it said a lot about the region where he was trying to make his fortune.
6. The Q&A
This just may be my favorite story format. In effect you’re documenting a conversation with someone. There are your questions, and there are the answers from the person you’re interviewing. All of it is preceded by a short but informative setup.
I love interviewing people and building a story around the back-and-forth of those interviews. They can offer the reader an interesting and in-depth portrait of a person and a place, but the challenge is to make the questions meaningful and engaging for your subject so that the story reads like a real conversation.
Earlier this year, I did a Q&A with Erin French, owner and chef at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine. Her restaurant has become one of the most difficult dinner reservations to secure in the country and I talked to her about what that meant and the celebrity that came with it.
If any of these different story types grab your attention and sound like a good fit for you, then go ahead and start there. Find a publication that needs that specific type of article.
By starting with the right format that best suits your destination and interests, the process of writing will be smoother, and you’ll likely enjoy the process on your way to finding success as a travel writer.