How to Write a Travel Memoir
Travel can be an illuminating experience, one that you want to share with others, which is among the reasons travel memoirs are so popular. There’s also that saying “write what you know,” which may be why memoirs are a starting point for many writers. Readers the world over are also interested in learning about enchanting faraway places and the adventures others have had there, so it’s a great genre to cut one’s writing teeth on.
While “write what you know” may be good advice, it isn’t a magic recipe for a great story. That’s why we’ve put together our top five tips on writing a compelling travel memoir. The best thing is that most of them can even apply more broadly to other genres.
Already finished your memoir? Great! You can get a big-picture edit where we’ll show you how to elevate your manuscript.
1. Understand why people read travel memoirs
To write a good travel memoir, you need to understand what draws people to the genre. These readers are primarily keen on learning about another person’s experience, but they also want a sense of the place and its culture, which may include the landscape, food, music, or the people the writer meets along the way.
You need to blend both of these elements (the personal experience and the place) to write a travel memoir others will want to read. The idea is to take the reader on a vicarious trip with your story, so you want to paint vividly the atmosphere of the destination.
2. Be genuine
Try not to approach your memoir attempting a specific tone (for example, funny). Readers can sense when a writer is trying too hard to achieve a certain tone. Good writing is never forced.
Instead, approach the writing with authenticity. If you’re naturally funny, then by all means be funny. If, however, you aren’t the joke-cracking type, be however you are, whether that’s sentimental, sarcastic, or poetic. Readers can sense honesty, and it enriches the memoir reading experience. So, just be you, whoever that may be.
Another aspect of honesty is not making yourself look too perfect. We understand the urge to hide our faults, but readers can see straight through a writer puffing themself up. The truth is that a reader will connect more with a regular person who makes mistakes. So, share those feelings of homesickness, your misconceptions about a location, and any faux pas you may have committed. This will help the reader identify with you, plus you won’t seem arrogant because you’re also revealing your vulnerable side.
3. Write it like fiction
By “fiction,” we don’t mean lying. You obviously don’t want to lie in a memoir, especially since we just advised you to be genuine. What we mean is that great memoirs often read like fiction. The narrative is compelling, the “characters” (you and the people you meet on your travels) are interesting, and there is conflict and resolution. In other words, tell it like a story, with all the suspense and tension a good story entails. You can even turn otherwise unassuming events into interesting adventures with the right storytelling.
A travel memoir isn’t a diary that you keep on your journey. It’s not a simple record of the places you visited and the things that happened. There needs to be a story, with characters, conflict, and suspense.
4. Edit, edit, edit
As we said, a travel memoir isn’t a travel diary. It’s the story of your personal journey, the one that happened inside your head. You’ll probably need to edit out a lot in order to focus your memoir on what’s important, on what you want the reader to take away from the story. The process is the same as with any story—your first draft goes through a ton of revisions, with scenes cut out, added, or moved until you’ve found the best way to tell your story. So, ask yourself:
How did the experience transform you?
How has your life path been altered?
What did you discover about yourself and the world?
These are the things that readers will care about.
Once you understand the key points you’re trying to express, you can decide what to edit. You won’t be able to include every anecdote, and no one would want to read that anyway. Focus on what’s necessary to get to the point and tell an exhilarating travel story.
5. Allow yourself time to process
Whatever the experience, everyone needs time to reflect on it, so don’t attempt to write your travel memoir too soon. If you start immediately, you simply won’t have a good sense of what to write about and what the takeaways should be. Give yourself time to adjust to life back home and reflect on how your perspective of home has changed due to your travel experiences.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to sit around and do nothing about your memoir. You can record a timeline and jot down notes so you don’t forget various details. You can write how you’re feeling. Most importantly, though, you need to give yourself time and space to work through your thoughts and feelings before starting on your memoir in earnest.
A memoir is an intensely personal thing to write. You have to be honest but also know when to omit private details. You need to understand how to write a compelling narrative, but you also need to make sure that your true self shines through. As with writing any book, have a clear goal for your theme and message, and carefully sketch out a rough outline to help you stay on track when you start writing.
If you need a helping hand putting your personal story together, hire an editor to polish your memoir.