Thursday, March 31, 2011

10 Tips for Writing a Good Travel Post

Many of us have read travelogues by Bill Bryson ('Down Under' about Australia is my personal favorite) and William Dalrymple ('The City of Djinns' about Delhi has won a million Indian hearts). No doubt these are extremely well written and very well-researched travelogues. I love Bill Bryson's wit as much as I appreciate William Dalrymple's depth. But this article is not about them. This blog post is about those short travel posts that appear on various blogs adding to a wealth of authentic information available about travel destinations worldwide.

I have come to trust these blog posts more than I trust travel agents, 'Places to see' posts on tourism websites, and, I am sorry to say, even the painstakingly compiled travel guides published by reputable travel companies. How many times have you visited a place at a popular tourist destination and been completely disappointed by it? Or you have missed going to a beautiful, 'must visit' place because the travel guide did not mention it or your hotel-wallah said "Wahan kuch nahin hai dekhne ke liye." I have been through this many times.

One reason why I find individual travelogues more reliable is that the short travelogues published by actual travellers are their own experiences of the place. And most of the times, these blog writers do not have anything to gain from writing the blog except sharing their experiences. And the other reason is that someone who travels and then puts a considerable effort in writing about their travel experience is often passionate about travelling and after reading their posts, if you have any questions, these blog writers are most of the times happy to answer them. They are reachable and approachable and, hence, more helpful.

But what makes a good travel blog writer (term used to differentiate from the likes of Bryson and Dalrymple) and what makes a good travel post. Following are some tips that may prove helpful if you are already writing travel blogs or are planning to write them.

Tip 1: Strike the right balance between talking about the place and talking about yourself.

While it is not a sin to talk about yourself in a travel post, you need to strike the right balance. Too much can distract the user from the place that you are talking about and too little can make it sound like the emails we receive from tour operators. In most cases, your reflection about the place you have visited will tell the reader a lot about you. And also a description like "As the bus plied on the risky mountain roads with breathtaking view of the river on the left side, I felt quite motion sick and had to request the bus driver to stop the bus for some time. I was already regretting the heavy breakfast of aalu-parathas with Dahi." can serve two purposes. It tells the reader to be vary of heavy breakfast en route. And has a considerable bit of your personality in it.

Tip 2: Support Your Story with Photographs with suitable captions

Photographs serve three purposes. They provide a perspective to readers so that they can see through their own eyes the place that you are trying to describe and form an independent opinion of it. If your photographs have suitable captions, you create the image of a place in the readers' minds. Readers are more likely to visit a place if they have seen the photographs of the place. The second purpose is that photographs give credibility to your post and you as a travel writer. Readers are more likely to trust you if you have something to show for your trip. They need proof. It is human nature. And good photographs add visual appeal to your post. While browsing through websites, users are more likely to pause on the ones that have good pictures.

Tip 3: Refer to Your Notes

For this, the first step is to take notes. Believe it or not, human mind is trained to sieve information as time passes. So if you depend upon mental notes, there are good chances that you will miss some important detail or the other. The notes will also prove to be of help to you later if you plan to visit the same place again. And notes also serve as a proof. You can even scan or take picture of your notes and post as an image in your post. Something about paper with striped lines and words written in author's own handwriting, however bad it is, gives your writing a personal touch. Your readers will love it and will be more likely to view your post again and will watch out for new posts by you.

Tip 4: Do your research both before and after you come back from a trip

I will not go so much into why it is important to do research about a place before you plan your trip as that is self-evident. It is the same reason for which your reader is reading your blog. One thing that we usually do not do is to research about a place once we are back from the trip. It is not humanly possible to remember all names that you have heard when you visited a place (unless you have been taking notes!). And in every trip, something about some place would have struck you a unique. For example, a particular type of tree you saw or some particular cuisine of the place would make good candidates for a research. Find out as much information as you can them and write the interesting bits in your post. Your reader will thank you for this. As you will not only be informing the reader about a place, you will also be helping in increasing their general knowledge.

Tip 5: Describe the place as you saw it, not how you want the reader to see it

Readers read your blog to make their mind up about a place, whether it is worth visiting or not. So it is important that you tell them what you thought of the place. Call a spade a spade and the reader will be grateful to you. The travel blog has all the right to be opinionated so give it to them. At the same time, tell them clearly what you did not like about the place so that they can make up their own minds about it. For example, if you are a party animal and do not like serene, unexplored places, make sure that you mention that this was the reason you did not like the place. If possible, describe the place in clear words or even better, post a picture of it. Your readers are then free to take their own decisions.

Tip 6: Add stats

Data such as Money spent on the travel, distance from the nearest bus station, weather, best time to visit, average temperature, ticket prices, equipment allowed etc. can make and break decisions. Therefore if you are adding stats, make sure that you get them as correct as possible. And hence, you may need to go back to your old friend ‘research’.

Tip 7: Split the post if it is too long

From the speed with which we flip TV channels, there remains no doubt that humans have a very short attention span. So if your post is too long and the readers needs to scroll down more than twice, chances are that that they will not read your whole post. So if your post is too long and can easily, without making it look unnatural, be divided into two or more posts, go ahead and do it. It also helps to give readers an idea about what the next part is going to deal with to keep them interested. And don’t forget to link the posts to one another because if it takes some time for readers to locate the next part, chances are, they wont make the effort.

Tip 8: Use Audio and Video Files

If you think that photographs and written words cannot do justice to some experience, feel free to upload audio or video files. For example, if you are in a park and some birds hidden in the trees are singing beautifully, pull out your mobile phone and record the sound. Another situation can be the sound of a waterfall. And imagine if you are in the hills and clouds are rapidly covering the hill across the river, go ahead and take a video. And add them to your blog post. No picture or words can ever explain such experiences. At the same time, don’t go overboard. Only use this media if something is spectacular and the quality of your recording is good. Otherwise, it’ll be a massive waste of your readers’ time and they may lose interest in your blog.

Tip 9: Provide helpful contacts and sources if available

If you know a reasonable and reliable hotel or if you know a taxi company that gave you the best service or even if you feel that there was a blog post by another writer who had inspired you, do mention them and share their contact details, it they are OK with it. This will help two people, those who ensured that you have a good time during your vacation, those who will make their plans depending on your blog.

Tip 10: Run Spell Check and Grammar Check

Always run spelling and grammar check on your post before publishing it. Read it out to yourself. While readers are more than happy to ignore a few, small mistakes, too many of these will make your blog look non-serious, which you don’t want. Even if your blog is written in the most breezy, humorous tone, you would like to be taken seriously. So do pay attention to this old-school concept.

You can make you travel post shine by using some of these suggestions. And at the end if you feel that all this is too overwhelming for you, just chuck it all aside and write. That is the first step towards writing your travel blog. Rest is all secondary. Hope this will help all you enthusiastic Ghumakkars out there who are getting ready to don their writer's hats. Feel free to post your stories to for an instant feedback from the enthusiastic and encouraging readers.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Places to see before I die

Inspired by Kelsey Malia Chapp's post, I decided to put down the list of places I have to see in my lifetime. I have been talking about these pretty much all the time but probably writing them down will make the dream more substantial. So here goes:

1) New Zealand

I know it is beautiful and I know that you not only have to see it but also experience it. So I would like to spend a year of my life there walking, trekking, hiking and just breathing in the New Zealand air. Perhaps soon. Keeping my fingers crossed. :)

2) Iceland

Another place I would love to go once. A short vacations (2 weeks) would perhaps do. There are two reasons I want to go to Iceland. The most important one is the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Watch this video to see the amazing natural phenomenon:

and the other reason is this article by Vir Sanghvi.

3) The Grand Canyon, US

And when I get there, I want to walk on this skywalk:

4) Alaska, US

Need I say more? I looked at the world map the other day and was shocked to find that Alaska is almost a swimmable distance away from Russia. Wow and I used to think that if Russia and US bomb each other, the missiles will need to fly over Europe. I still find is tough to accept that the world is not flat. Guess they should use globes more often than maps in schools.

Anyways, back to the place. It was featured in the movie "The Proposal" which I watched recently so my fascination with Alaska is fairly new.

5) North-East India (Particularly Shillong in Meghalaya)

I have heard about this from so many friends that I am dying to go there. Being in India, this should perhaps be the easiest to do.

I am glad I have put this down. It'll help me stay focussed :)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An Extraordinary Prequel - A review of David Almond's 'My name is Mina'

When requested by his publisher to write a sequel to his award-winning book Skellig, David Almond chose to write a prequel instead. And what a prequel it has turned out to be. The book is beautifully fresh, both in appearance and content. Almond uses it as a device to challenge basic beliefs about almost everything in a playful, light-hearted way. The book is unusual. The peculiarity starts right from the beautiful cover, which is gold and white with some words from the beginning of the book embossed on it. It continues inside where a variety of fonts and layouts are used without any inhibition. And it does not stop here. This is a book in which “nothing barmy happens at all”. In the name of plot, there are only a couple of mild twists, the first on the day of SATS and the other towards the end when Mina, the lead character, goes up to say hello to the boy whose family has just moved into Mr. Myers house. This sets a very nice tone for Skellig.

The best way to describe Mina is to use the same word that she uses to describe various things that fascinate her – “extraordinary”. Mina is an intelligent, clever, and witty girl who has an extremely believable voice for her age but a maturity far beyond her years. This practically makes her a “misfit”. She has a warm, inquisitive and open-minded approach towards everything. World is beautiful from her point of view. Even in this, the book is unusual in being remarkably clear of clichés. Mina finds beauty not in butterflies, flowers, clouds, and rainbows but in night, bats, blackbirds, owls, owl pellets, eggs, and black cats. Her affinity towards the so-called dark side of the world and her reflections about the possible tediousness of heaven tugs at readers’ prejudices without making them feel resentful.

Mina is “strange” and through this strangeness Almond takes a jab at the stencilled approach towards schooling. “I was told by my teacher that I should not write anything until I had planned what I would write. What nonsense! Do I plan a sentence before I speak it? Of course I do not! Does a bird plan its song before it sings? Of course it does not!” Similarly he questions the usefulness of SATS – “And did William Blake do writing tasks just because somebody else told him to? What level would he have got anyway?” One can very well imagine Almond chuckling while writing this clever book, which seems more like an experiment that went well.

A creature of the night, Mina dwells in the nature among trees, blackbirds and owls. She comfortably dabbles in the spiritual beliefs of Plato, Hinduism and Buddhism. Her effortless wondering about complicated concepts such as metempsychosis and her exploration of the underworld in search for her deceased father bring to light the main theme of the book, her coping with her father’s death. The book deliberately stays clear of mundane details about the death and focuses, instead, on her subtle longing for her father. Nothing exemplifies it more beautifully than her remarks at Mr. Myers’ daughter’s callousness. “You had him until he was old! You had your dad till he was old and you didn’t care!”

Mina and her mother share a friendly, affectionate relationship. They understand each other’s strangeness and deal with it lovingly and empathetically, whether it is about Mina ruining her SATS or her mother dating a man. And towards the end of the book, holding hands and talking about walking and drawing and Wordsworth and meditation, they accept their loss and its irrevocability. “I do shed a tear. I do know that wherever he is or whatever he is now, there’s no way for him to come back again. There’s no underworld to go to. There’s no Pluto to go to.”

And, by the time you reach the end of the book, as Mina embarks on a new friendship, you fall hopelessly in love with this strange book and this strange girl and hope that they never go through the “destrangification operation” ever. Extraordinary!