Project: Lonely Planet Travel Writing
I was a contributing author to four Lonely Planet travel guides. My Portuguese language skills and cultural familiarity landed me gigs covering areas of Brazil three separate times, and my final gig involved covering an island and a half of Hawai’i. My claim to fame is that I was the first woman to cover the Brazilian Amazon region for Lonely Planet.
For each job, I was assigned a geographical area, given a word count and deadline, and paid a lump sum. The rest was completely up to me.
Step #1 – Pre-Research
Most of my pre-research involved gathering tips from trusted personal sources who had visited the places I would be covering. Another resource was the readers’ letters received since the previous edition had been published– authors were required to read through what felt like hundreds of them. Information available online was often outdated or incorrect, which was especially true for ever-changing Brazil.
Step #2 – Map the Route & Make a Plan
Next I would choose my route and set it to a calendar based on my deadline. I would pour through the current edition of the guidebook I’d be updating, estimate how many days I would need in each place, and calculate how long it would take to travel between them. I’d buy my round-trip plane ticket home at this stage, but aside from that I made as few reservations as possible ahead of time, knowing that flexibility was crucial and most decisions were best made while on the road.
Step #3 – Carry Out Travel Research
My periods of travel research lasted anywhere from a manageable 4 to a brutal 13 weeks. Instructions about what to cover came in the form of demanding, 70-page briefs and had to be adhered to closely. I favored traveling quickly and cheaply in order to make the most out of the lump sum I was paid for the job. Depending on the type of guidebook I was updating, I was either covering a large territory at a shallow depth, or a smaller area in more depth. Covering large territories required insane amounts of travel. In Brazil, I exclusively used public transportation which made travel much more arduous.
Travel research required that I:
- fly by the seat of my pants (adapt quickly)
- be resilient (giving up was not an option)
- be creative (constant problem solving)
- think on my feet (solo operator)
- be strategic (limited timeframe)
- be extremely observant (gather accurate information quickly)
- be excessively outgoing (every person was a potential information source)
Doing travel research was a massive undertaking and at times seemed like an impossible task. It was exhaustingly intensive. I was on all the time, with 14-hour days the norm. I covertly interviewed every traveler I met in order to understand the needs and perspectives of a diverse set of readers.
Step #4 – Write it Up
Next I had to capture the essence of each place I’d visited in a way that was both useful and fun to read, completely unbiased, and in as few words as possible. Easy as pie…?
I would spend 4-5 weeks synthesizing the mountain of information I’d gathered down into concisely worded prose and carefully structured data. The text had to remain within the confines of the chapter’s word count (which was always restrictively low) and also had to adhere to guidelines laid out in a 25-page house style guide. Submitting updated maps that contained all of sites mentioned in the text was also part of the job. Being attentive to detail and able to follow direction well, I always submitted clean materials and met my deadlines.
Praise from my editors included:
You’ve done a top job on this chapter: your writing style is evocative, your knowledge broad and your research and write-up very thorough. Well done, there don’t seem to be an ‘weak points’ in your work at all!
Well done with getting an amazing amount of info into a tiny space, and making it read so well!
Step #5 – Respond to Author Queries
After the book content had been assembled, and the text and maps had been edited, my portion of the book would be turned back to me peppered with questions from the editors. Though a couple of months may have passed, it was crucial to reengage with the project and get responses back quickly. Communication with editors and cartographers was limited and exclusively in writing, so expressing myself clearly enough to be understood the first time around and politely enough to establish a good working relationship was extremely important.
Step #6 – See My Words in Print
I’d get my first glimpse of my writing in print when advanced copies of the book arrived in the mail. It was always a treat to see the books on bookstore shelves, but seeing the book in readers’ hands while on the road was a special, if nerve-wracking, thrill. I just recently pulled a copy of the Hawai’i guide off a friend’s bookshelf, only to discover that she had used my section while traveling the Big Island on her honeymoon.