Understanding Personal Essays: A Traveler’s Tales

Abigail Green

By Abigail Green

How could you not be enticed into reading an essay titled “In the Land of the Surfing Hippos” or “Hemorrhoids in Holland”? Of all the genres of essays, travel essays are among my favorite to read. I enjoy reading about places I’ve been or am going, but essays about exotic destinations I’ll never visit are even better. I get to be an armchair tourist for a little while, experiencing a true-life adventure through the writer’s eyes.

Travel essays can range from first-person destination guides to literary non-fiction pieces that never mention a hotel or restaurant. As with any essay, you’ll want to tailor yours to the publication you’re targeting.

I’ve had the most success publishing travel pieces that are a combination of first-person essays and practical information. For instance, I wrote a piece for a newspaper travel section on do-it-yourself “babymoons” for expectant parents after I’d planned one myself. My essay about a trip to Costa Rica, which ran in a business magazine, included a sidebar with travel tips and resources.

No matter what format your travel essay takes, it’s essential to paint a vivid picture for readers by using active, sensory words and descriptions. Here’s an example I use in my class, “Personal Essays That Get Published”:

I could have started my essay with this perfectly acceptable lead:
Much of Costa Rica is covered by dense rainforest. Average rainfall ranges from 75 to 120 inches a year. Thick, towering trees and foliage form canopies high above ground, home to such animals as howler monkeys and sloths. Canopy tours give brave tourists an up-close-and-personal view of Costa Rica’s flora and fauna.

But isn’t the one I actually used so much more descriptive?
The sloth is giving me the eye. From his dry perch beneath a canopy of leaves, he’s taking in the view of a sopping-wet tourist-me-dangling above the Costa Rican wilderness. I am harnessed and hanging from a cable strung through the treetops of the country’s rainforest. I can see what he’s thinking: “There’s a reason we call this a rainforest.”

If you aspire to write travel essays, get your hands on The Best American Travel Writing anthologies. Not only can you study the best writers, but also you’ll get a good idea of where travel essays are published. A recent issue reveals not only the usual suspects like National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times, but also Runner’s World, Slate.com, and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Don’t think your destinations are exotic enough? Remember: “exotic” is subjective. How else do you explain how I once sold a travel essay about visiting Hershey, Pa., the chocolate capital of the U.S., to a newspaper in South Africa?

Sources: “In the Land of the Surfing Hippos,” by Michael Fay. First published in National Geographic, Aug. 2004. “Hemorrhoids in Holland,” by Suzanne Lafetra. Published in Whose Panties Are These? More Misadventures from Funny Women on the Road (Travelers’ Tales, 2004).

Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com.
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1 Response to “Understanding Personal Essays: A Traveler’s Tales”


  1. 1 Holly Bowne May 15, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I’ve written some humorous and personal essays, and just recently have been blogging about our family trip to Rome. It never occurred to me to use my experience to pitch travel essays. Hmmm…you’ve definitely given me something to think about!


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