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Travel writer Jen StevensIt’s fun to take a trip. On the road, you write down lots of details about what you see and do. You meet and talk with people and get great insights and quotes. You do a good job of being an attentive, inquisitive, observant reporter. You enjoy the process. Like I said, it’s fun. Invigorating, even.

But once you’re home, you find yourself overwhelmed by pages upon pages of notes. It’s not clear how you turn all this fodder into something you can sell. 

And so, you hem and haw… and days and then weeks go by, and, alas, no article emerges. That’s a cryin’ shame. 

But no question—it’s a challenge that often paralyzes new writers. So here’s what you do to get over the hurdle and transform your notes into a story you can sell.

1. Clearly and specifically define your story idea and your audience.

A place is not an idea. You have to dig deeper than that to define a specific story that will interest a particular reader. The more narrow your idea, the easier it will be to figure out what goes in and what doesn’t. One trip could yield two, three, even seven or more stories. So not every note you took or activity you enjoyed on a trip will go into every article. Divide and conquer! 

For example, on the heels of a trip to Colorado Springs, you could write “5 Unique Colorado Springs Outdoor Activities to Enjoy with Tweens and Teens.” Now that’s a specific article idea. And there’s a well-defined audience: parents with kids in middle or high school.

Now, with that in mind, you’d go through your notes and pull out the relevant stuff—probably leaving to the side the spa visit and the great spot for afternoon tea. (Those could go in another article.)

Once you’ve pulled out the material you want to include in this first one you’re working on… then you can start thinking about how to put it together.

2. The Hack: Find a published travel story that you like and deconstruct it. 

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how you structure a story. Somebody has figured out a sound structure already. So borrow it. 

What you’re doing here is stripping out the content so you can see the girding underneath it. This little writing hack is perfectly legal – and advisable, frankly. Here’s how it works… 

Let’s take our example – the “5 Unique Colorado Springs Outdoor Activities to Enjoy with Tweens and Teens.” That’s a “round-up” idea – a listing almost. 

So I went online to flip through some recent travel coverage in search of a “round-up” piece that I might use as a model for my own. I found this story, which seemed a likely candidate, “10 places off the beaten path to see art in Washington, D.C.” 

Model secured… next you simply pick it apart, sentence-by-sentence to identify what’s going on in each one. 

  • Intro – 2 paragraphs 
    • It explains why the content of this story is useful to the reader (teases benefit) – it’s not always easy to go to museums in D.C., tickets hard to get, crowds, lines
    • o It asks the question, “Where should art lovers go for something quiet or off the beaten path”
    • o It teases a couple of the items explored below and highlight benefit – “Whether it’s the gorgeous murals at the Department of the Interior or the watercolors and sculptures at quirky venues run by nonprofits, these non-museum spots give you a chance to see art without long lines.”
  • Collection of 10 recommendations, each anchored by a subhead

          Each recommendation is introduced by a subhead and then follows a straightforward formula: 

    • Say where the site is
    • Explain what it is
    • Detail what’s housed there
    • Introduce a specific exhibit you can see now (which makes the piece timely)
    • List an address and telephone number

You can imagine how it would be possible to recreate a similar introduction, but instead of being about art in D.C., yours would be about things to do with kids in Colorado Springs. Here’s my quick stab at it, just to show you what I mean: 

“Entertaining 12 and 16 year olds on a family vacation isn’t always easy – not, anyway, if you’ve made a “no electronics” rule. Without the crutch of a phone and ear buds, you may find your youngsters cranky… and in need of dramatic distraction. Colorado Springs, fortunately, delivers. 

“From the scrambling potential in the Garden of the Gods to the adrenalin-pumping drama of a zip line run over a canyon, these outdoors attractions deliver.”

Then, as you can see from my outline, the blurbs about each attraction are formulaic. All you have to do is follow the formula. 

You can deconstruct any kind of article… and once you have, you’ll have created a roadmap you can use for your own. 

Then it’s simply a matter of slotting in the details for the story you want to write. 

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