What does it take to be a freelance travel writer?

How to quit your job and write about the world.
Meeting the locals, India © Lauren Bath
By Oliver Pelling

Jo Stewart is a freelance writer, editor and all-round communications wunderkind. For her work, she spends a lot of time travelling, writing about the travelling, then getting paid for travelling and writing about the travelling. If that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, that’s because it is. But like most good things in life, Jo’s profession wasn’t easily won.

Once she realised the monotony of day-to-day office life wasn’t her bag, Jo kicked off her freelance career and did whatever it took to keep the money coming in (including stints in a bakery and a yoga school). One day, she submitted a story to a travel magazine and her fate as a wandering wordsmith was sealed - she’s since visited the likes of Antarctica, Sri Lanka, India, Morocco, Vietnam, Cambodia, the USA and has trekked through Australia’s Simpson Desert, to name a few.

Most recently Jo was out in Western Australia’s Northern Wheatbelt where she was researching a story on wildflowers. “That involved doing a five-day road trip in an Apollo campervan with two botanists,” she says. “They were very good at spotting orchids. I was very good at spotting pubs and bakeries.” Now back in Melbourne, we figured it was a good time to drop Jo a line and pick her brain on all things travel writing…

Wherever she lays her swag is her home © Jo Stewart

You trekked through the Simpson Desert, right? How did that come about and how was the experience? Must have been hard! 

Yes, it was tough, but not for the reasons you’d think. I was hired to join a group of scientists from the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) who were monitoring the impact of invasive species on the desert ecosystem. I spent a month away from home, 18 days of which were spent living and working in the Simpson Desert. With the help of a caravan of camels that carried our gear, we walked more than 300 kilometres in that time, setting up a new camp site each night. While that sounds like a long way, the walking was the least problematic part of the expedition.

Living and working with strangers and not having access to toilets, showers, beds, fridges, and Wi-Fi was more challenging. It’s okay to live without these things, but working without them is different. When you’re paid to write, take photos and interview people (on top of helping out with camp life by loading and unloading of camels, collecting firewood and digging pitfall traps), having to walk a kilometre away from camp to dig a hole to go to the toilet wears you down after a while. As does dealing with desert annoyances like feral camels, spiders in your swag, sand storms at night, packing and unpacking your swag and gear every day, adjusting to waking up before 6am and managing to live and work harmoniously alongside a group of strangers with very different objectives.

A room with a view © Jo Stewart

So, the physical side of things really pales in comparison to the mental strength needed to stay switched on when you’re in such a strange position. I’m not complaining though, it’s just a really weird work experience to go through.

And then there's Antarctica. That's a total bucket list destination. What's it like down there?

Speaking of weird work experiences! In late 2012 I was hired to work on an expedition called Shackleton Epic. This involved sailing to Antarctica in a yacht, along with a camera crew who were making a documentary for Discovery Channel. Antarctica is a tough place for me to talk about because I wasn’t there for a week or two, I lived and worked there for about two months, so it became my home and office.

The expedition involved a certain amount of risk (the expedition team were recreating Shackleton’s death defying, 800 nautical mile dash in a wooden lifeboat), so it was pretty stressful at times to see them battling huge waves in a tiny boat. It’s hard to explain what it’s like working on a project where loss of life is a genuine possibility. Having said that, there were quieter moments and I’ll never forget the feeling of having a cup of tea up on the deck surrounded by glaciers, leopard seals and orcas.

Water cooler small talk, Antarctica © Skye Marr-Whelan

How does one become a freelance travel writer? What series of events led you to your current position?

I landed a job at Australia’s biggest magazine publishing company as soon as I left university. I loved writing but wanted the freedom to work independently, from any location in the world. This realisation came to me after seeing zombie hordes of office workers shuffling through the train turnstiles in Sydney. Everyone looked so dead inside (myself included). So, I decided working in an office building was a zero sum game for me, so I quit that day.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning, so I did whatever it took to pay the rent. I worked in a variety of places in between taking contract writing roles. The travel writing thing just happened to me after I submitted one travel piece to a magazine. After that more and more travel opportunities came my way and it hasn’t stopped.

Conducting interviews in Antarctica © Jo Stewart

On paper, it sounds like a dream job. Is it all fun and games, or are there aspects that make it difficult? 

It can be difficult to stay grounded when you spend lots of time on planes, buses and boats. Travel is tiring – especially expedition work which requires you to work away from home for long stretches of time, often without days off or leisure time. Regardless of the challenges, it’s also wildly fun and enriching, and any travel writer who doesn’t think so needs to get out of the game and leave it to writers who relish it.

Is it tough to make a living as a travel writer in 2016? The competition must be fierce...

Yes and no. While there is a lot of competition, we are currently living in an age where there are an unprecedented number of ways to get published and paid for your work. To think that only 100 years ago, I would have struggled to get published at all as a female writer, not a day goes by that I don’t realise what a fortunate position I am in to have been born in the 1980s and not 100 years before. It helps that I write about other topics too. I don’t derive 100% of my income from travel writing, but it’s possible.

Certainly beats the 9-5... © Jo Stewart

What do you think the trick is - if there is one - to a successful career in travel writing? What advice would you give to anyone who'd like to find themselves in your position?

I am loathe to give advice on this because what works for me may not work for someone else. But essentially, I operate off ‘the world owes you nothing’ credo. If you want to do something, go and do it. Read widely so you have a good handle on the scene. Don’t wait for stories to come to you, go out and get them. Ask lots of questions and listen deeply to the answers you get. Do things that are genuinely interesting so that editors can’t say no to your pitches. Their inboxes are full of ho-hum story ideas, so give them something they haven’t seen before.

Meet all your deadlines. Steer clear of nasty or unsupportive people – what other people think of you is none of your business. Support other people in the writing community. Don’t be afraid to share and promote your work. Value yourself enough to put a fair price on your work and never, ever write for free if you expect to forge a career out of travel writing (or anything for that matter).

All aboard the camel train... © Jo Stewart

What, in your mind, is the definition of adventure? Is it possible to have adventures in everyday life?

You can absolutely have adventures in everyday life. You don’t necessarily need to base jump off Everest to be adventurous. I’m not a particularly adventurous person. I’m kind of hopeless at adventure sports and not super fit. I was a very timid child who was pretty much scared of everything, so adventure doesn’t come naturally to me. Over time, I learned how to be more comfortable with risk and as a result most things don’t bother me so much these days.

What's in the pipeline for you for the rest of the year? 

I’ve got an awesome trip on a luxury superyacht up in Hamilton Island coming up soon. After that I’ll be in Eastern Canada and USA. I just recently signed a book deal so the manuscript will be in its final stages by the end of the year too.

Want to work with Jo? Get in touch via her website.

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