Travel Writing 101

In this section there are a host of stories, articles and even a podcast on the subject of travel journalism.

Peering into My Travel Journalism World: An interview with Elaine Lee

The following are excerpts from an interview conducted by Daiyyah Abdullah, Assistant Professor of English, Howard University for an article she wrote and published in the journal entitled Studies in Travel Writing! Vol. 10, No. 1, published by White Horse Press, Nottingham, England.

How did you become a travel writer?

For my 40th birthday, I gave myself a magnificent and magical sojourn round the world. On the last leg of my trip while flying from Indonesia to the United States, I thought to myself, ìI have to make travel a permanent part of my life.” HMMMMMMMM, I love to travel and I love to write-I think I’ll become a travel writer. After I got back home and got settled, I found myself a mentor, joined a travel writers’ club, took travel writing classes, read travel writing books—and voila, it happened. I wrote a book proposal, got a book deal and gave birth to my first book “Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure.” Subsequently, I included freelance travel writing, travel radio and travel TV to my repertoire. Being apart of the travel media is a wonderful lifestyle. I get to travel to exciting locations, write about my experience and share it with fellow travelers of the armchair as well as the experiential persuasion.

What motivated you to become a travel writer?

One of the things that motivated and motivates me is my desire to make the very best of my life as a single person. One of the best parts of being single is having personal freedom. So, I decided to celebrate my solitary status to the max by creating the lifestyle of my dreams, i.e., being a travel writer. Additionally, Through my writing and lifestyle, I wanted to inspire other single women to make the most of “singletude”. I hear too many black women complaining about the man shortage. Life is too short, unpredictable and fleeting, to be crying in your beer. The sistren have to get out in the world and find you their joy and besides its nothing like leaving the United States to lift a black woman’s self esteem.

What specific books that have been helpful to your career?

I read all of the travel writing books I could find as well as “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. I also read Mike Larsen’s books on how to write a book proposal and how to find a literary agent.

Can you share some tips for landing freelance assignments from editors?

I have gotten most of contacts with magazine editors through friends of friends as well as through direct email/snail mail queries. If you can get your foot in the door, have a nice portfolio and a flexible schedule, assignments often come your way. It helps to have a niche. For example, the fact that I can handle last minute assignments has helped me develop a relationship with several national webzines and national magazines.

Believe or not, many of my contacts, I got from just cold calls. For example, I contacted the executive editor of to share my idea of developing a travel segment for their website–they didn’t like my idea at the time but did assign me a story. They liked my work and assigned me another story and another until I became a regular contributor.

Who proofreads your work?

I have a wonderful working relationship with bay area based professional editor, Doug Childers. He helps me pull together my stories before I submit them to magazine editors. I found him through, which is a national editor clearinghouse located in Berkeley.

What advice would you give on when and when not, to share magazine contacts?

I share them if I think the other writer will be able to help the magazine/webzine in a way or time that I can’t assist them.

Could you give me an example of how you turned around a magazine editor’s initial rejection?

Wow, I wish I could–I am still trying to figure that out for myself. It seems like just as soon as I get a contact at a magazine, that person gets transferred, or the magazine has some big shake-up or something. But freelance travel writing is truly a numbers game. You have to send out lots of stories to get a few published and need to have working relationships with editors from at least 10 magazines/webzines.

Do you make money being a travel writer?

I, by no means, make a living at this— I make an average of $2 a word for my travel articles. I am a lawyer by profession and my avocation is travel writing. A few of the full-time travel writers in our travel writing club make a very handsome living at this but one of them told me that she attributes her success to having at least 100 queries out at any given time. Imagine my surprise. I thought I was doing something when I would send out 10.

Others successful travel writers create steady incomes for themselves by having regular columns in magazines and/or best selling books with wonderful promotional budgets and/or use a mixed media approach to promote their work.

What is a travel writing club?

Our association, Bay Area Travel Writers, is a network of 120 accomplished travel writers and photographers. We meet monthly and our gatherings provide a lively exchange of information among our widely traveled and published colleagues. Speakers from tourist boards and destinations make presentations to inform members of travel trends and news. We also hold panel discussions on such subjects as marketing, publishing and photography.


Shapeshifting: The Journey from Travel Writer to a Travel Media Professional, by Elaine Lee for the Bay Area Travel Writer’s Newsletter, 2007.

For my 40th birthday, I gave myself a magnificent and magical 6-month sojourn around the world. During my 17 hour return flight to the United States from Indonesia, in a jet lagged stupor, I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing trip. There must be a way to make travel a permanent part of my life. HMMMMMMMM, I love to travel and I love to write-I think I’ll become a travel writer. After I returned home and got settled, I found myself a mentor, joined a travel writers’ club, took travel writing classes, read travel writing books—and voila, it happened. I wrote a book proposal, got a book deal and gave birth to my first book “Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure.” Subsequently, I included freelance travel writing, travel radio/TV and public speaking to my repertoire.

Shapeshifting from a travel writer to a travel media professional has been an odyssey and adventure, the ingredients of which have included sheer luck, shameless self-promotion as well as the creation of a readiness for such a transition.

Below you will find four ways that media opportunities occurred for me.

When I got invitations to appear on national television shows like Travel Channel’s Daily Show and Moneywise, I asked the producers how they found me and they said they found me via my website.

When my book, “Go Girl”, was published, I sought interviews on numerous radio and televisions shows. After my interview on the San Francisco Bay Area’s KPFA-FM Morning Show, one of the producers called me several weeks later and invited me to develop a proposal to create an ongoing travel segment for their show. She said offered me the opportunity because she said that they liked my joie de vivre, obvious love for travel, knowledge base and the enthusiasm with which I conveyed information. I have been working with them off and on since then.

During the 1999 SF Book Expo, I took a break from staffing the BATW table and I noticed Doug McConnell, host of the Channel 4 KRON’s Bay Area Backroads television show sitting at the Chronicle Books table promoting his book. I approached him to tell him how much I liked his show and we got into a spirited conversation about our love of travel. A few minutes later, he invited me to appear on his show and I have been working with him and his staff off and on since then.

In 1999, I contacted the Maria O’Dowd, producer of the African American Women on Tour, the largest motivational seminar series for African American in the U.S., and told her that I would love to be a member of her team and create a workshop to teach the attendees of her conferences the nuts and bolts of international travel. She invited me to present a proposal, which I did. She approved it and I became one of the keynote speakers in their six city, national conference series.

Setting the stage for a successful expansion into broadcast travel media world may includes some or all of the following:

An obvious love for travel, a zest for living and the ability to convey those energies in a passionate, upbeat and articulate way.

Colorful and captivating business cards.

Develop and maintain an attractive and engaging website.

The promotion of your website and getting it properly positioned in major search engines, such as Google. Taking acting, public speaking, broadcast production classes, internships and/or improvisational comedy classes.

Honing your ability to produce sound bites on a dime.

*Having a book, product or something tangible to anchor your work.

Being persistent. Developing thick skin and not letting rejection discourage you.

Not being afraid or reluctant to engage in cold calling.

Not expecting to make much money at first.

As the internet continues to take a big bite out of the publishing industry, it is becoming increasing difficult to get books, photos and articles published thereby requiring many of us to be creatively diversified in the pursuit of sharing our travels. I have chosen radio, lecturing and television as the avenues to expand my horizons and they have proven to be quite satisfying, challenging, enriching and fun.

“Communities, like people, draw strength from storytelling. Having a story to tell is to have a place in the world.” A. Rucker

Lifting as I climb, Elaine Lee


10 Terrific Travel Writing Tips by Lori Beattie

1. Before you go on your adventure, pick your angle. Remember, “Paris” is not the story, it’s the destination. You, as the travelwriter, must think of a unique way to present “Paris” to your readers. It is this special angle that will be necessary to grab the interest of a travel editor.

2. Know who you are! Are you a woman travelling alone through China? Then that may be your angle, your expertise. Perhaps you are a woman physician travelling alone through China. Suddenly more markets open up. You can write from the independent female traveller’s angle or from that of a physician, or both, simultaneously. Are you a culinary expert who loves the tastes of the countries you visit? Lots of newspapers have food sections and there are many magazines dedicated to scrumptious stories from around the globe.

3. Editors are very busy people. The easier you can make their job the more chance you have of being published. Before sending a query to anyone, be sure to read their writers guidelines. You can write or call the publication for these guidelines.

4. Once you have read through the guidelines be sure to read some back-issues of the publication to get a feel for their style. It helps to know what they have published in the last year so you don’t propose a repetitive story.

5. Never phone an editor and say “I’m going to Mexico, do you want any stories?” What you should say is “I’m going to Mexico and I have some angles for stories that I’d like to run by you……” If the editor is interested, she/he may invite you to submit your story ideas or angles on paper.

6. Each publication will handle the query process in their own way. In general, magazines like to have clippings of any stories you may have published as well as the story angle you are proposing. Again, the easier it is for the editor, the more chances you have of getting a response. Editors need to have confidence in you and that needs to radiate off the page since it may be the first time they have heard from you.

7. Writing what you know makes you the expert. Your own backyard is interesting to someone, somewhere. And who better to write about Banff National Park than someone who lives and works there. Ditto, if you are are, for example, a weaver. Imagine the interesting article you could write about the wonderful woven goods in the markets of Guatemala.

8. Travelling free is sometimes possible if you are the writer chosen for a familiarization trip or if you are convincing enough to get the tourist authority to pay for your expenses in exchange for a story. Again, have your great angles ready. You will also be asked for clippings of your work. However, if you are both professional and organized in your approach, they may agree to help finance your trip without proof of publication. But beware, word travels fast if you take free trips and don’t publish. Your free travel will end very abruptly if you don’t follow through on your end of the bargain.

9. Like any skill, writing takes practice and dedication . Travelling as a writer is very different from travelling as a traveller. You must learn to record the sights, sounds and smells of a country. Your reader wants to feel like she is travelling alongside you. What really caught your eye in a bustling Vietnam market? Have you ever tried to describe the sound of the ever-present wind on a mountain top or to write about the wonderful aromas wafting from the kitchen in an out-of-the-way Italian trattoria?

10. Finally, organization is key to making money as a freelancer. Successful, full time freelancers have an extensive database of potential markets for their stories. Do your research, too. Start building a database of your own. Getting your story into multiple publications is the way to see a return on your travel investment. Happy writing!

Lori Beattie is the director of Artistic Adventures a company dedicated to teaching the art of documenting travel. As one journey woman to another, she shares her travelwriting know-how…


Breaking into Travel Writing by L. Peat O’Neil

The best tip I can give you: learn to write short.

Whether you plan to write for newspaper travel sections or glossy magazines with gorgeous photos, editors prize travel writers who turn in tightly written copy. No matter how well you think you write, you will sell more work if you write short, especially in the travel market.

Why bother, you might be wondering? Well, one way freelance travel writers break into the $2-a-word glossy travel and shelter magazine market is through the front-of-the-book sections. In those sections– which are made up of a variety of short clever items, photos, product reviews — a “story” is really a fast-paced blurb or a mini-interview, but the writer gets a tag or by-line and usually, a significant check for little effort.

Magazine editors try out freelancers on these midget league pieces because they’ll lose small if the writer tanks the assignment. Worst case scenario, the editor can write it herself. Best case scenario for a freelancer is the editor likes how you handle the short item and listens to your ideas for a full-length story. Next assignment: a longer piece, maybe with travel expenses. Be aware that many of those little pieces are written by the magazine’s staff. For insight on whether the items are freelance written, compare tag lines with the names on the masthead.

Those little items can be lucrative. Once you internalize the structure of a 250 to 500 word piece, you can knock them off quickly at proportionately better pay than a longer researched story. Pitch the idea as you would any other, after finding out which editor assigns for the “front of the book” department. If you’re good, editors will be calling you and asking if you could dash off 600 words, pretty please, by Tuesday. If you plan to produce material for websites, you’ll have to write the story in less than 700 words.

You’ll also sell to newspaper travel editors if you write tightly. Travel sections are pinched for space. Long rambling tours of Patagonia or Uzbekistan rarely appear in Sunday Travel sections anymore. You will see three to five short (700 to 1,000 word) pieces on specific topics. New Restaurants in San Francisco; Walks in the English Lake District; Discount Shopping in Manhattan; Taking the Kids River Rafting in France. Sure, there will always be a North American market for destination stories about New England, Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, but being able to follow travel trends and hook your story idea to lifestyle changes is an important marketing skill.

I can almost hear you wailing, “…900 words! Travel writing needs space for that scenery, the people, the food, the colorful street markets.” You’re thinking about destination articles that appear in Islands or the Smithsonian Magazine. If you can line up that kind of work, terrific, but most of us write for bread and butter markets that need brief, tightly written travel stories. Novice travel writers start with web publications, newspapers and move up to writing for regional magazines and ultimately, for the high paying glossies.

Here’s what else not to do: travel articles that start with the trip to the airport are almost always rejected. Another fault in travel narratives is describing every meal, cab ride or museum. Travel writing isn’t just about buildings and landscapes, it’s about people and places. Hone in on what readers can imitate in what you did.

Target your story to the right publication or circulation market. Study where various demographic groups go for their recreation– beyond the obvious. Editors know that Santa Fe is hip, that spa and spiritual retreat vacations have replaced baking on a beach, that soft adventure and nature tours have replaced racing through six European capitals — you need to construct a story idea and a focus that rocks a travel editor back on his heels and appeals to the publication’s readership.

For web publications and newspaper travel editors, the preferred method is to send the complete story, 800 to 1,000 words including a short sidebar, and photos. Newspaper travel editors are more interested in your story idea and fast paced writing style than where you’ve been published before. A useful sidebar can sell your story: where to stay, eat, a range of hotels.

Travel stories with a service focus are hot right now. Easy to research because you use quotes from experts to “tell” the story. Examples might be: taking along a pet, inter-generation travel, active/sports weekend getaways, leaning a language during vacation. Service articles about consolidator airfares or internet ticketing are usually written by staff, because the lead time for a freelance writer to do the piece would render stale information.

Photos can sell your article. Send digital images, slides, transparencies, black and white or color, but select images that have strong contrast and distinct close-up subjects — no sunsets, fuzzy beachscapes or minuscule shepherds on faraway hillsides.

Think regional. Your expertise about a region or city is an asset. Offer stories about your hometown to papers and regional magazines that view your home ground as an attractive destination. Editors will be interested in your local expertise, so mention that in your cover letter (with completed manuscript to newspapers) or query letter (to magazines). Don’t pitch the obvious, give them an insider’s perspective. If the publication accepts email queries, send an appropriate letter by email. If the editor asks for the pitch letter or story by USPS, send it that way.

Aim for realistic markets to start. Sorry, but you’re probably not going to start your freelance travel writing career in Travel & Leisure magazine. Bear in mind that while a publication may have an active website, they may focus resources on the print product. Find your level and work your way beyond it, using those online or newspaper travel clips to convince editors at print magazines that you can handle assignments on contract. If you want to waste your time and you are a beginner, go ahead, send your work to the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly.

In the long run, you’ll earn a steadier part-time income and advance your career faster if you focus on regional, trade and special interest magazines. Find those magazines on newsstands, on the internet, on a friend’s coffee table. Almost all special interest magazines are hungry for stories with a travel focus that addresses the magazine’s stated purpose, e.g. antiques, chocolate, glass collecting, railroading, whatever. I’ve even seen a travel article in the Masonry Institute Magazine — a story about the great monuments of the world made of brick.

Regional magazines are another break-in travel market. Many states, cities, recreational regions put out magazines aimed to attract tourists or promote local business. Sometimes the state economic and development commission has a hand in producing those magazines. Local writers have an edge. Remember that regional travel magazines come and go rapidly. Evaluate the magazine’s finances carefully before sending a query or working on a story.

How do you break in? Send a smart query about a place within the scope of the magazine’s stated objective, then follow up with a phone call or email.

Scale back your expectations. The travel writing genre has particular stylistic demands and you probably aren’t going to hit the pages of the Los Angeles Times or New York Times first shot. Pick medium sized papers that use freelance material. Seek out the smaller suburban papers near large urban markets. For example, in the Washington, DC area, the Examiner or the Alexandria Times are aimed at certain demographic areas. Every urban area in North America has small print and online publications like this where a feature story or regular column/blog on Food, Travel, Wine or the Arts serve the entire region and adds depth to the publication’s content.. Every week, those editors need articles and weekend getaway stories keyed to the local market..

Sometimes you can break in to a difficult market by having a story in the bottom drawer of your desk, my journalist grandmother used to say. And it’s true. Except now that story would be lurking in a forgotten folder on a thumb drive. A news event can make your unsold travel story suddenly timely. For example, a story about hiking in the Italian Alps would sell when that [WARNING: the next link shows graphic, possibly disturbing images] ancient iceman was discovered a few years back. Travel editors at large papers sometimes are confronted with a hole – a planned story that didn’t work out or a story pre-empted by other news events — if they have your story, and it fits (i.e. short enough), you could get a break.

Which brings me to another point. Submit work on many fronts. Travel writers who only have one story circulating aren’t likely to succeed. Designate some of your travel stories for self-syndication, that is, send the story to multiple newspaper markets in non-competing circulation areas, advising the travel editors what you are doing. If the travel article is particularly unique — unusual subject, great story line — then send the piece to one paper at a time. Enter travel writing contests or create a blog focused on your travels.

One last tip, you must forage for fresh ideas about the same old places. As a travel editor here at the Washington Post told me when the “Escapes” column started years ago, “Every travel story has been done already, we just have to think of new ways to tell it.” This translates to research or lucky finds. Dig deeper into the historical society archives for a travel story hook. Talk to people. Read small town papers for regional ideas you can blow into travel stories with broader appeal.

And now, I better quit, because I’m over my assigned word length!


Georgia Hesse’s List of Recommended Books for Travel Writers

Surely the best preparation for becoming a good writer (about travel or food or anything else) is being a good reader. Following are four lists. The first concerns some books read over the last two years that are noteworthy because of fine writing, novel ideas, or inspirational approaches to the art — or all three. The second tackles the tricky and toothsome world of words and the reading of them. A third provides a look at the English language and the magic that has made it (in a delicious pun) the lingua franca of the 21st century. Last come samples of essential sources that should live next to a writer’s desk. Georgia I. Hesse

1. THE WRITE STUFF (Cast alphabetically by author)

“Island Beneath the Sea,” Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, 2010. The wizardry that makes me believe Rosa in “The House of the Spirits” was born with green hair continues with Zarité, the beautiful slave of Haïti. A real person with a name that sounds like an Allende creation, Toussaint l’Ouverture, steps onto the scene. Myth meets history: mirabile dictu.

“Destiny Disrupted,” Tamin Ansary, Perseus Books Group, 2009. The subtitle tells the story: “A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.” In June, I heard the author speak during a panel at Carleton College in Minnesota (his school for two years, my school for four). He proved most entertaining and even eloquent. Half a century after he was given a copy of Hendrik Van Loon’s “The Story of Mankind” by historian Arnold Toynbee (who just happened to be passing through his tiny Afghan village of Lashkargah), Ansary has written his story of the faith professed by more than a billion human beings. He has mastered the art of simplifying the most recondite concepts. He enjoys playing word and name games: Did you know Kandahar (which the Taliban considers its capital) is a transformation of Alexander (as in the Great)? Or that the word “sheikh,” title for a tribal leader, really meant only “old man”? (Ansary runs the San Francisco Writers Workshop.)

“The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred,” Phil Cousineau, Conari Press, 1998. Probably most travelers go in search of rest or recreation. Some walk in the footsteps of heroes: Toulouse-Lautrec, say, or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Here, the pilgrimages and the process itself are sacred and arduous and not for the shrinking spirit. The wanderer seeks a sense of self.

“Seven Gateways,” Tony Grey, Halstead Press, 2008. The foreward to this book reads in part: “(This) is a pageant of…instances, played out in antiquity, that transports the reader into other times, other places entirely except that they seem times and places we know, `ours’ in an ineffable way.” Why is it that some places leaved us unmoved while prickle our skin and make our minds swim: Assissi, for instance, or Delphi or Mount Kailash in Tibet? Grey knows and tells.

“Gandhi & Churchill,” Arthur Herman, Bantum Books, 2008. Kipling wrote, “But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed nor Birth/ When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” Herman, in masterly manner, reintroduces us to rivals who together forged our epic age. (See also his “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”)

“The Age of Wonder,” Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 2008. Subtitled “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” this superbly written, diligently researched work preserves what I call “horizontal history.” Did you know that poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the work of chemist Humphrey Davy, who invented the lamp that brought safety to miners, or that Shelley was into geology? Twain worlds (and more) did meet. This is a buoyant adventure into enlightened minds.

“Pictures at an Exhibition,” Sara Houghteling, Knopf, 2009. In the pallid Paris of World War II, many cultured families lost their artistic masterpieces to the nasty Nazis. This dramatic novel immerses us in that corrupt world, still an incompletely known story. (For a factual account, look for the fascinating “The Rape of Europe,” Lynn H. Nicholas, Borzoi-Knopf, 1994.)

“All the Shah’s Men,” Stephen Kinzer, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, updated 2008). JFK once whined (a quote from memory): “We [meaning the U.S.] will do anything for South America except learn about it.” Right, and that goes double for Afghanistan, Iran, and all those Stan places. This book tells us what we didn’t know about Iran and the shadowy U.S./British ploys of the 1950s and what price that ignorance has cost us.

“The Discovery of France,” Graham Robb, W.W. Norton, 2007. Measure the Hexigon in a new manner: not by miles or kilometers but by time. Consider this, on the eve of the Revolution: “…France was three weeks long (Dunkirk to Perpignan) and three weeks wide (Strasbourg to Brest). Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans… .” La belle France, we hardly knew vous.

“Unsuitable for Ladies,” Jane Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1994. Some of my favorite travelers of all time were the (largely) 19th-century wayward women who ventured forth from “this blessed realm, this England” in bonnets, veils, sun-dresses, sensible skirts, all the finery of bonny Britain: Isabella Bird (who chirped even as blizzards and bedbugs bit at her limbs), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley, Freya Stark, et alia. Meet some of them here; follow them forever.

“The American Future,” Simon Schama, HarperCollins, 2008. One of my favorite historians (of “Landscape and Memory” and other masterworks) looks at a United States divided as it hasn’t been since the Civil War and sees it in the mirror of time; a poignant portrait.

“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” T.J. Stiles, Knopf, 2009. This “whacking” biography (as the N.Y. Times dubbed it) won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2009 and, in this year of 2010, a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. And to think he lives in the Presidio near Baker Beach! And to think further that he appeared on stage at Book Passage on Aug. I haven’t read the book yet but will have before the Conference.

2. FOR BIBLIOPHILES and LOGOPHILES (More or less in reverse order of my awareness of them)

“Word Catcher,” Phil Cousineau, Viva, Cleis Press, 2010. Anybody who knows the word “kerfuffle” deserves attention. But “floccinaucinihilipilification?” Surely he jests! Nope. “The act of regarding something as absolutely worthless or useless,” claims Cousineau. The Irish “cushlamocree” he calls “A lullaby of a word, a sweet nothing with a brogue.” Cruise began as a term for pirate attacks. (Everything that goes around comes around, non?)

“Red Herrings & White Elephants” and “Black Sheep and Lame Ducks,” both by Albert Jack; the first, HarperCollins, 2004; the second, Perigee (the Penguin Group), 2007. They explain the origins of phrases we hear and use daily; they are as irresistible as potato chips. For instance, to “read between the lines” is to find the true message hidden in a situation that is not obvious. It was an early method of coded writing in which the real message and the fake one were placed on alternate lines. Thus, a simple story could be read but the true meaning could be discerned only by skipping every other line. It doesn’t sound too clever.

“ ’Isms & ’Ologies,” Arthur Goldwag, Madison Park Press, 2007. Subtitled “The 453 Basic Tenets You’ve Only Pretended to Understand,” this encourages us not to throw words around until we know what they mean; refreshing habit, that. Take “atonalism:” “…music that is composed without reference to the major and minor scales.” Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss compared such music to “A sailless ship… .”

“Word Court,” Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done,” Barbara Wallraff, Harvest, Harcourt, Inc., 2000. For more than two decades, Wallraff has had us turning first to the last page of The Atlantic, to discover the meaning, and occasional madness, of words in her court. This book as well as her “Word Fugitives” (2006) is scholarly on the subjects of grammar and punctuation, and always refreshingly witty. Where, oh where is Wallraff writing now?

“Foyle’s Philavery, A treasury of unusual words” and “Foyle’s Further Philavery,” both by Christopher Foyle, Chambers Harrup, 2007, 2008. The chairman of celebrated Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road admits one won’t find “philavery” in any dictionary. His mother-in-law invented it while in a Scrabble struggle. It’s born of Greek “phileein” (to love) and Latin “verbum” (a word). Make your conversation sparkle with “ammophilous” (sand-loving), as in “My children are only four and five but already they’re ammophilous,” or if you don’t want to admit your wife is a female professional whistler, just call her a “siffleuse.” Maybe nobody will inquire further.

“A History of Reading,” Alberto Manguel, Viking Penguin, 1996. In AD 383, in Milan, a scholar named Augustine from Hippo in Roman North Africa (in today’s Algeria) witnessed the city’s bishop, Ambrose, reading silently! A marvel! At the time, normal reading was done out loud and Augustine was so impressed he recorded it in his “Confessions.” It was not for some 600 years that reading to oneself became usual in the West. (Both men were later canonized, as we know.) I was ignorant of this fascinating fact before meeting Manguel’s book. Almost equally intriguing are “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,” “The Library at Night,” “A Reading Diary,” “Reading Pictures,” “The Iliad and The Odyssey” (a biography of Homer). Of his 30-some other works, I am tempted by “Lost Words,” “Bride of Frankenstein” (film criticism), and “The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories.”

“Reading Like a Writer,” Francine Prose, HarperCollins, 2006. To the old question “Can creative writing be taught,” Prose (what a great name for a writer!) predictably replies “No.” However, she gives strategies for improving one’s work.

“Writers on Writing,” Times Books, Henry Holt, 2001. These are essays that will appeal especially to published writers. I suggest nobody could resist a column entitled “She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word.”


(Some of these are seriously worthwhile; others are romps.) Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling,” David Wolman, HarperCollins, 2008. Whose fault is the “h” in ghost? Why doesn’t “good” rhyme with “food”? Why did a German traveler wind up in Sidney (Montana) instead of Sydney (Australia)? Read on.

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” Lynne Truss; Gotham Books, 2004. Remember she’s British. She generally points out the differences between English and American useage. Besides a book about punctuation that makes you laugh out loud must be read.)

“The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way,” Bill Bryson, Morrow, 1990. Despite the recent books on our language, this remains choice, which won’t surprise anyone familiar with the author’s quirky approach to everything from Shakespeare to small-town America (as in “The Lost Continent”). It begins this way: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”

“The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language,” David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Of the six “parts” here there are 24 “usages,” from Modelling English to New Ways of Studying English, which includes the effects of technological change. There is a lot to laugh at (and with) in this heavy, 489-page book with its hundreds of illustrations, graphics, graphs and boxes. Thirty 30 expressions for being fired from one’s job are given under Jargon, from “career change opportunity” to “work force imbalance correction,” not omitting the curious “outplacement.” Take this book on a one-month cruise.

On the tedious omnipresence of clichés, a lover writes his beloved thus, in part. “At the end of the day, the point of the exercise is to tell it like it is, lay it on the line, put it on the table – drop a bombshell, get down to the nitty-gritty, the bottom line. That’s it. Take it or leave it. On your own head be it. I must love you and leave you. I kid you not. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. And I don’t mean maybe.” Lord Byron never wrote love letters like that.

“Made in America; an Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” Bill Bryson, Morrow, 1994. Despite the title, Bryson takes us beyond language to manifest destiny, the melting pot and the movies. Zounds!

“A Is for American,” Jill Lepore, Knopf, 2002. How America used language to create a national identity is Lepore’s thesis. She establishes it with the aid of seven characters: Noah Webster, Tortola-born William Thornton (who designed the rotunda of the new Capitol in Washington, D.C.), minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Alexander Graham Bell, the Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah (who invented an 85-character syllabary for his tribal tongue and gave his name to giant trees), aging slave Abd-al-Rahman, and Samuel F. B. Morse.

“Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World,” Nicholas Ostler, HarperCollins, 2005. We all know the importance of Greek and Latin and we may be familiar with Western European tongues: Spanish, French, German, anyone? Chinese and Arabic are surging to the fore. But what about Akkadian, Persian, Aramaic, Swahili, Sanskrit, Hittite, Hebrew, Hindi, Tibetan? Do you care? If so, you need this book.

“The Alphabetic Labyrinth,” Johanna Drucker, Thames and Hudson, 1995. The letters of the alphabet were born almost 4,000 years ago; symbols that stand for sounds, in olden days representing quasi-mystical, quasi-religious powers. It’s poetic, it’s eccentric: The “Book of Kells” meets Adobe.

“The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language,” Steven Pinker, Morrow, 1994. One can watch thinkers such as Pinker on YouTube these days, but still wordwork belongs to reading. Do you wonder how it happens that children learn language as spiders learn to spin a web? Is grammar in our genes? Pinker seeks answers from as far back as the Big Bang.

“The Stuff of Thought; Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” Steven Pinker; Viking, Penguin, 2004. Pinker returns in this sally into language as human nature as well as brain power. If you enjoy the mysteries of mind, you will be excited by this book.


NEWEST ON MY SHELF: Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors,” Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, 2008 (most recent edition). “It’s the writing, stupid!” Nobody does a better job of explaining that, from A to Z; viz: “As a verb, affect means to influence (`Smoking may affect your health’) or to adopt a pose or manner (`He affected ignorance’). Effect as a verb means to accomplish (`The prisoners effected an escape’). As a noun, the word needed is almost always effect (as in `personal effects’ or `the damaging effects of war’). Affect as a noun has a narrow psychological meaning to do with emotional states (by way of which it is related to affection). And did you think for a moment that flotsam and jetsam are the same thing? Banish that thought!

NEW: Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary,” Marc McCutcheon, Catchmark Books, Infobase Publishing, 2010. This is a book of 711 pages and is designed for those who know what they’re looking for but not what it’s called; a near-daily dilemma for many writers. Imagine the pleasure of learning what “A-copy” is: “New reporting term for trite or `lazy’ copy lifted directly from a public relations press release.” (Alas, we’re not told where the “A” comes from; maybe “alas”?) Do you wish to know what the leeward side of a mountain may be? It’s “rain shadow,” which is quite pretty. But under what listing is “mountains”? Try E for environment. Once you’ve found what the 23 categories are, from Animals to Weapons, you’ll discover such dandy subheads as Clothing of Ancient Greece (under Clothing and Fashion); Mafia/Organized Crime Terms (under Language), and Publishing and Journalism (under Occupations). A “drake” is a dragon-like ogre that hunts and travels on horseback; it lives in a place and eats humans. Handy info; I wish I knew where the place it lives is.

Dictionaries (Here are some favorites.)

Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary with CD-Rom

The Oxford English Dictionary

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English

Travelers’ dictionaries for French-English, German-English, Italian-English, Spanish-English, Russian-English (There are several of these; my favorites are by Larousse when available)

Dictionary of Problem Words & Expressions; McGraw-Hill

Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend; Thames and Hudson

A Dictionary of Symbolism; Hans Biedermann

A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms; Dutton

Almanacs, Books of Facts

The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2010

Webster’s New World Book of Facts

National Geographic Almanac of World History

Chambers Book of Facts

The New York Public Library Desk Reference

Quotations, Chronologies

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature

The Big Book of Dates: A Chronology of the Most Important People, Events, and Achievements of All Time

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

The New York Times Public Library Book of Chronologies

Encyclopedias, Atlases

The Encyclopedia Britannica (in full, 32 volumes, or concise form). (Happily, this entire wonder is available on-line in various forms.)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press (full or concise)

The New Lincoln Library Encyclopedia (This great two-volume set has been around for 86 years, originally entitled Lincoln Library of Essential Information.)

The Oxford Atlas of the World (This is a good choice, largely because its maps don’t run into the gutters; good ones also available from National Geographic, Rand-McNally, Hammond, DK, etc.)

The Penguin Atlas of World History (two volumes, from the origins of civilization to 1990)

The Atlas of Early Man (Jacquetta Hawkes, St. Martin’s Press)

A Walk on the Wilde Side

“The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate,” Eugene Ehrlich; HarperCollins

“The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate,” Eugene Ehrlich; Harper Collins

“Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? The Place Names That History Left Behind,” Harry Campbell; Anova Book Company, Ltd.

Georgia Hesse,


Don’t Mind Your Language…

By Stephen Fry

Language. Language, language, language. In the end it all comes down to language. I write to you today on this subject as a way of welcoming you to 2.0 and because, well, it’s a subject worth thinking about at any time and because fewer things interest me quite so much. There are so many questions and issues jostling, tumbling and colliding in my mind that I can barely list them. Is language the father of thought? There’s one. Somebody once said, “How can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’m going to say?” Is language being degraded, is it not what it was? Is there a right way to express yourself and a wrong? Grammar, does that exist, or is it a pedantic imposition, a kind of unnatural mixture of strangulation and straightening, like pleaching, pollarding and training pear-trees against a wall? Can we translate from one tongue into another without irreparable loss? And many, many more. “Language is the universal whore that I must make into a virgin,” wrote Karl Kraus or somebody so like him that it makes no odds. One of my favourite remarks. T. S. Eliot said much the same thing in a different way: “to purify the dialect of the tribe”. But is there a “higher language”, a purer language, a proper language, a right language? Is language a whore, used, bruised and abused by every john in the street … is the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe a poetic ideal or nonsensical snobbery? I suppose we should remind ourselves of the old distinction made by the structuralists and structural linguists. I wrote a sketch about this years and years ago and if you know it, you’ll have to forgive the similarities between what I found to be a source of humour and what I am now apparently taking seriously. Actually the one doesn’t cancel out or refute the other. We can make fun of this kind of language about language and we can value it too. So bearing in mind that I am fully aware that I sound like the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, let’s look at that distinction. There is language, the thing itself, the idea of language. And then there is this or that example of language in praxis, in use. There is Chess and there is this or that game of chess. The Game of Chess and that game of chess going on over there. There is language, the human capacity – ‘competence’ as Chomsky calls it, The Game of Language – and there is utterance, the actual instance of its use – this sentence for example. Of course aside from both of these, there is the local tongue, English, French, Cantonese, Basque, whatever.

50 Ways to Promote Your Book

Ideas to Help You Get Started! – By John Riddle, Founder of I Love To Write Day 1. Letters to the Editor: Newspapers, newsletters, trade journals, Websites, etc. 2. Get a Website with the name of your book. 3. Sell copies of your book from your Website. (Offer several chapters free so people can see what your book is about.) 4. Offer a “premium” if people purchase your book: a poster, a bookmark, a free e-book, etc. 5. Ask people who read your book to start posting messages on book related Websites. 6. Register your Website with every search engine you can find. 7. If you have written a book and are still waiting for a publisher to offer you a book contract, set up a Website and start selling it as an e-book. 8. Make sure you accept credit cards; use Pay Pal, the second most recognizable Web site behind E-Bay. 9. Offer a free weekly or a monthly electronic newsletter to people interested in reading. 10. Send out a press release to your local newspaper and magazines. 11. Call your local radio stations and offer to do an interview. Give away a few copies of your book. few copies of your book. 12. Contact local freelance writers and let them know you are available for author interviews. 13. Let the media know you are an “expert” in your field. 14. Contact your local bookstores and offer to do a signing and a free lecture. 15. Contact all bookstores within 90 miles and offer the same as #14. 16. When making bookstore appearances, have flyers people can take away with them. Let them know more about your book, and how they can order it later if they didn’t purchase it that day. 17. Contact your local library and offer to do a free lecture. (Don’t forget the flyers….) 18. Contact all libraries within 90 miles and offer the same as #17. 19. Get a magnetic sign made that features your book and attach it to your vehicle. 20. Make sure you have a media kit available; include a photo (digital), an author bio, a Q & A info sheet, etc. 21. Send an e-mail to every book review editor on the planet. (A good place to begin collecting names is to look in Literary Marketplace.) 22. Search the Internet for additional book review names and contact info. (A good place to begin is the Book Zone Pro Co-op Reviewers Database; 23. Ask other authors to mention your book on their Website. 24. Collect editorial calendars from publications and Websites; see when editors will be using author interviews and book reviews. 25. When mentioning your book on the radio, make sure you repeat the title a few times, along with the name of your Website. 26. Join “expert source” publications and Websites (Radio & TV Interview Report, Profnet, The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons, and Expert Magazine, to name a few). 27. Co-brand your book to increase your book’s exposure. Attempt to tie your title to a related and successful product or service that not only shares your book’s target audience, but has a powerful brand image. (For example, a book about pet health tips could be sold at pet grooming businesses, or animal hospitals.) 28. Look for “alternative” book distribution channels (search the Internet) 29. Search the Internet for “Independent Distributors/Jobbers” They can be found in nearly every state. They can get your book into places you never thought about (convenience stores, etc.) 30. Look for publishers that also distribute books (do a Yahoo search); a few that come to mind include First Glance Books in CA, Free Spirit Publishing in MN, and Pen Notes in NY. 31. Get your book into the Wholesale Clubs: Costco, Sam’s, etc. 32. Look for “Marketing Outlets” that might be interested in carrying your title (computer stores, department stores, discount stores, etc.). 33. Make sure every book club on the planet knows about your title. Start with Literary Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, etc., then do an exhaustive Web search. 34. Contact Home Shopping TV shows; most feature several book segments a week. 35. Read “Jump Start Your Book Sales” by Marilyn & Tom Ross. (And follow their suggestions and ideas!) 36. Read “Time Management for Creative People” and learn how creative people can do more in less time. 37. Create your own “Guerrilla Publicity Plan” for promoting your book. Consult with your publicist, and see what they are doing. 38. Talk to everyone about your book: your doctor, your dry cleaner, even telemarketers. 39. Carry business cards with the name of your book and pass them out. 40. Carry bookmarks with the name of your book; strike up a conversation with that stranger on the bus, train, or plane. (FYI: Most people have never met a “real author,” and will really be impressed.) 41. Carry stickers with the name of your book; and post them everywhere. 42. Have a button made of your book cover that you can wear, or create a name badge that says “Author,” your name, and book title. 43. Offer to speak at local community organizations: Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus, etc. 44. Start speaking at writers conferences; you can promote and sell your own titles while you are there. 45. Buy a copy of “How I Made $66,270 in 9 Months Writing for Websites,” by John Riddle. When you do, you’ll get a free copy of “Getting a Book Contract in 30 Days or Less.” But more importantly, you’ll learn about “marketing, marketing, and marketing.” (Available at this writer’s conference, or you can order at 46. Make sure your publisher sends you on an author tour. If they have no money in their budget, offer to drive at your own expense. Or do a “virtual tour.” 47. Search the Internet and look for “book and author” chats; offer to be a guest. 48. Find out who your target audience is for your book: and brainstorm new and creative ways to let them know about your book. For example, if you have written a “How-to” parenting book for new Moms and Dads, how can you reach them? Flyers at child care centers; children’s clothing stores, toy stores, etc. 49. Hold a contest and offer a free autographed book as the prize. Contact local media outlets; publicize it on your Website, etc. 50. Research how other books have been promoted, and follow their lead. “Success Leaves Clues!”

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