Writing Travel Guides
The Author/ April 12 1995
There are two distinct schools of thought regarding research for travel guides. The more conventional is too commission writers who know a place well and can write about it from previous experience, topped up with further visits to ensure their information is up to date.
A more radical approach suggests that it is better for a travel writer to arrive fresh, never having visited a place before in order to appreciate it from the point of view of a visitor. Then the writer experiences it in the same way, uncovering the problems and challenges of an unfamiliar place for a first time visitor and assessing its attractions realistically. By the same token some writers prefer to arrive and judge a place for themselves, without reading other guidebooks in advance, in order not to be influenced by other author’s opinions.
Plagiarism is the bete noire of travel writing. Any destination of distinction, be it Brighton or Bali, will have been written about before. Some places such as Paris or Venice have been the subjects of centuries of travel writing, so that any new attempt is bound to be a palimpsest. The hardest thing of all is to add anything new.
Nevertheless for most good travel writers preliminary research is essential; many like to feel they have read everything that has been previously written, from guidebooks to travelogues and relevant literature about the region, both foreign and vernacular. Then there can be a certain satisfaction in tracing the sources from which subsequent writers have derived their information. As often as not the original details of a building’s architectural history, or anecdotes about a village’s medieval past, can be traced back to Baedeker, still the doyen of travel guides.
Veteran travel writer, and author of such classics as France Today, John Ardagh, says his preferred approach is to read general works covering history and culture before he travels, and then read up other guidebooks, along with all the local brochures and tourist office hand-outs, when he arrives. But he stresses, “Never believe anybody else. Always check everything. Other guides often make factual mistakes.”
Whatever the approach, travel writing is no holiday, although most guidebook publishers would like to think it is, and pay their writers accordingly. Usually fees are barely adequate to cover research and writing time. Most guide books are commissioned on a single payment basis, without royalties. Rough Guides is one of the few companies who prefer to pay their contributors on a royalty basis. Managing editor, Mark Dunford, explains, “We feel it encourages more long term commitment. Usually the same people will update future editions, and hopefully always want to improve them.”
However authors are paid, in order to do a conscientious job they need to set a cracking pace. Whether it is checking on places they know from previous visits or researching somewhere for the first time, it is usually a brisk affair. All the museums in a town need to be visited; to see their collections, observe any particular gems, and fact-check. There is little time to linger over a perfect Roman vase or exquisite tapestry. Buy the catalogue and contemplate the beauty later.
Visiting sights of natural beauty is even more frustrating. Five minutes is enough time to assess the quality of sand on the beach, and actually diving in for a swim might seriously set back your schedule. Obviously specialist guide books about walking or mountain climbing need to be researched and written by people who are actually experienced and spend time doing the walks, rides, dives or whatever. But for general guidebooks it is usually impossible to do more than sample a view with no time for contemplation or picnicking on the grass.
It is also very important to visit places that are criticised or omitted by other guides; both to ensure that no hidden gem has been missed, or conversely to make absolutely sure that they really are as horrible as others might suggest.
Some guidebook publishers favour using writers who are based in the place they are writing about; then they get much more thorough knowledge, and usually have to pay less in expenses. This approach can however cause problems with communication since writers really need to appreciate the particular angle of a series, as well as needing to see a place from the point of a view of a visitor.
On the whole probably the best approach is that favoured by series like Insight Guides or the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides, which like to combine a mix of writers; some based locally and some sent out specially. Brian Bell, editorial director of Insight Guides explains, “It depends on the area, really. In a small place like Bermuda for example it might be difficult to find a suitable writer. But ideally we would combine writers with local knowledge with our own more objective view. That way you get the best of both worlds.”
Guidebooks today are very far from traditional travel books, which usually consist of a sustained narrative, possibly based around diifferent themes, and are very dependent on the particular enthusiasms of the author. Today guidebooks are more likely to be packages of information, divided up into different sights. As well as basic outlines of background history, architecture and local traditions, most guides also provide a thorough assessment of practical matters with separate sections on hotels, restaurants, entertainment and sports, detailing everything from the quality of the beaches to the best value local wine to buy. In some cases this information may be provided by experts in the subject. Many guides will employ food and wine specialists, for example.
Trustworthy and up to date listings for hotels and restaurants are a key element of any good guidebook. Some publishers will employ authors specifically to research hotels and restaurants; this has the advantage of genuine critical assessment. If someone specialises in judging hotels they will be able to make comparative judgements, and check out numbers of bedrooms, the quality of service, and all the various facilities, with a practised eye.
But many series will expect their authors to contribute details of hotels and restaurants as part of the package. Writers for Rough Guides, for example, are expected to contribute all practical information themselves, including recommendations for hotels and restaurants. Some publishers will pay an extra fee for a write up of any particularly recommended accommodation. Another approach, appropriate to smaller guides like the Insight Pocket Guides, is to commission one writer to present their own particular view of a place, including personal recommendations for hotels and restaurants. This has the advantage that if the recommendations fail to satisfy you know who to blame.
The most taxing matter is keeping guidebooks up to date; three or four years old and most of the practical information will be out of date. Insight Guides avoid having to reprint their entire books, which are heavily photographic in content, by putting all the practical information on cheaper paper at the back of the book, so they can reprint with up to date inserts. Dorling Kindersley ambitiously promise to update their glossy visual guides every year, which means that even before one has appeared in the shops, researchers are already working on corrections and updates for the next edition.
The distinction between traditional travel books and guidebooks today is perhaps an unfortunate one. Certainly many of the guides available now would benefit from the wider knowledge and insights of writers like Jan Morris or
Certainly John Ardagh feels very strongly that guidebooks should
be more than guides to architecture and beaches, “It is really important to capture the flavour of the place and include information of topical value as well, to explain the political context.” At their best guidebooks can be vehicles for good writing as well as essential information.