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Travel Guide Writing: is it all Glitz and Glamour? Plus we review Marco Polo’s London Guide

3rd October 2016

Have you ever wondered what it is like to write a travel guide? Here Dorothy Stannard, editor of the Marco Polo Guides to the UAE and Lisbon shares her insights… we then review Marco Polo’s Guide Perfect Days in London/Travel with Insider Tips.

Can there be many jobs as enjoyable as writing a brand-new travel guide? Being paid to be on holiday must be one of the top dream jobs.

Twenty-two-year-olds with a passion for travel and an aversion to 9–5 office work might view it that way. But as anyone who has ever written a travel guide will tell you, it’s rarely about staying in drop-dead gorgeous beach resorts, journeying down Route 66 on a Harley Davidson or travelling through Russia in a first-class compartment of the trans-Siberian Railway. It’s much more about sheer hard work.


Photo credit Michelle Collier

What three main qualifications do you need to be a travel guide writer?

  1. Knowledge of the Destination

Gone are the days when writers with no prior knowledge of a destination were parachuted in for a six-month all expenses paid trip. These days, fierce competition between the travel guide publishers, and the mass of online information that is free, if not very accurate, mean that to have the edge writers must already know the destination inside out. Ideally, they should live there. Then they will have eaten in all the restaurants, sampled the nightlife and be familiar with the one-off shops. They will also be on the spot for rapid updating – the key to the long-term success of any guide. If the writer doesn’t live in situ, he or she must be able to demonstrate a thorough, up-to-date knowledge.

  1. A Sense of What is Interesting

Fundamental you would think, but missing from a lot of travel guides, a sense of what is interesting is what sets the best guidebooks apart. Thorough on-the-ground research uncovers all kinds of absorbing details – from interesting historical nuggets to unusual experiences, hidden beaches, great little bars and independent hotels. In spite (or because) of the growth of global chains, readers yearn for what is individual and different.

  1. Determination

This is a job you do for love rather than money. Contrary to its glamorous image, it requires a slightly nerdy personality who enjoys pinning down elusive information. However hot, cold or late it is, the writer is determined to visit one more hotel/temple/museum/quiet cove. The temptation to just give up and have a beer is never as appealing as the satisfaction of nailing a fact and passing it on to the reader.

What else do you need? To be fearless, flexible and organised, to have a robust constitution and a digital camera. You also need to enjoy travelling alone, as budgets rarely stretch to a companion.  It also helps if you can write.

Once you’ve got the gig, how do you go about writing a travel guide?

  1. Immerse yourself in the destination before you’ve even left home

Buy or borrow all the travel literature you can find on the destination, from the early travellers such as Ibn Battuta to the modern greats such as Leigh Fermor, Theroux, Chatwin and Bryson. Gen up on the destination’s food, history, politics and geography, and subscribe to the websites of its national and local newspapers, relevant Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Listen to its music, and check out its films. The more you absorb, the more the writing will flow.

  1. Carve up the destination and draw up an outline

Buy a range of large-scale maps to the destinations, arm yourself with different coloured highlighter pens, and find a large flat surface, usually a floor, on which to spread out. Carving up the destination into logical areas that make sense to the reader, and identifying key sights and attractions, is the first step in drawing up a detailed outline. List all the places you wish to cover and allocate word lengths.

  1. Listen to your editor

Almost all guidebooks form part of a series with its own format. Very often, this will dictate content and writing style. Follow this closely if you don’t want your work returned or rewritten. All editors are tired and overworked. The easier you make their job, the more likely they are to commission you again.

  1. Have a good trip

Plan your research trip thoroughly, apportioning your time and budget carefully. Make contact with people who can help. Contact tourist boards in advance for museum, gallery and transport passes; write to airlines and car hire companies.

  1. Get writing

Write on the road, as you go along (back up onto a USB each night and guard it with your life); refine the text when you get home. But take notes too. Deadlines are often surprisingly tight, and must not be missed. This may be because the guide has to be in the shops in time for high season. If you bring out a guide to the Greek Islands in November, you’ve missed the hydrofoil.

Thank you to Dorothy, it sounds like a huge amount of hard work but fun if your are passionate about travelling!

Back to TripFiction. We set off recently for London with “Perfect Days in London/Travel with Insider Tips” from Marco Polo.

Reading books/novels that are set in your chosen destination is of course the driving force behind TripFiction, but guide books naturally help get under the skin of a place in a very different and informative way. We let Marco Polo be our guide to London…..

marco polo guides

Perfect Days in London/Travel with Insider Tips” is a good format, as the spiral binding is much easier to use than some other guidebooks. There is a handy pull-out map and bound-in maps which detail the locations mentioned in the guide. It is also a good size for a handbag or backpack, not too bulky. It’s robust, which is important for a guide book.

This guide is ideal for visitors who are new to the city. The central areas are divided into bite sized pieces and the guide offers “perfect days” to get a feel for each part of central London. For those who know the city a little better there are some restaurant suggestions that will “do” – however there is a heavy reliance on eating places within visitor attractions and I guess this is because they don’t change a lot, whereas other eateries come and go at breakneck speed and can inevitably make a guidebook redundant well before its time. They are in the main safe suggestions but personally I prefer something that takes a bit of finding, and that is what I want my guidebook to help me do. Amazing however to discover that Harrods has 30 places to eat!

The Guide pops up at Kew

It was off to Kew Gardens – as we were attending the literary festival Write On Kew – with guide in hand.It mentioned the coral tower which I made a point of visiting. Apparently coral is extremely hard to grow outside its natural habitat. We discovered on our own an amazing little collection of paintings and sketches by explorer and traveller Marianne North which have been brought together in a gallery. This for me was one of the highlights of the visit, and which would be a fantastic addition to the guidebook.

Restored Marianne North Gallery Interior

Marianne North Gallery


Eating with the Guide at Tibits

And  finally we decided on a restaurant recommendation from the guide book. Heddon Street off Regent Street is just bursting with buzzing eateries and we chose to eat at Tibits, which was an Insider Tip. The ethos is vegetarian food and offers a buffet of around 40 different dishes that can be mixed and matched. Being of Swiss origin, it has clearly taken its inspiration from the Alpine buffets set out in ski resort hotels. A reasonable eat, some interesting dishes, but with rickety outdoor tables and slow table clearing it feels only a little above “average” and because of location, it is on the pricey side (to my mind, it isn’t a patch on, for example, Pix Pintxos which is where I would choose to eat when in London – this has interesting food and a really buzzy atmosphere). But overall some good eating recommendations throughout.


Literary London at the British Library

This guide provides a very safe pair of hands for a trip to London and will steer you in the right direction to get as much as you can out of the first few days.

And what did I take as literary accompaniment? “Literary London” by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison and you can read our review here:

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: JustRetiring

    Posted on: 30/11/2016 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks Dorothy & Tina, for an interesting article on travel guidebooks. I’ve just met Tim Burford, a prolific writer for Bradt and Rough Guides, and he confirmed it was hard work rather than a glamour gig!
    I’ve always found printed books useful as background info, in advance of a trip, but I fear they’re in danger of being obsolete almost as soon as they’re published, relative the real-time digital info.
    Whereas a novel about your destination is timeless 🙂