What You Should Know About Travel Writing

travel writing
"What raises travel writing to literature," says William Zinsser, "is not what the writer brings to the place, but what the place draws out of the writer. It helps to be a little crazy" ( The Writer Who Stayed, 2012). (ArtMarie/Gettyy Images)

Travel writing is a form of creative nonfiction in which the narrator's encounters with foreign places serve as the dominant subject. Also called travel literature.

"All travel writing—because it is writing—is made in the sense of being constructed, says Peter Hulme, "but travel writing cannot be made up without losing its designation" (quoted by Tim Youngs in The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing, 2013).

Notable contemporary travel writers in English include Paul Theroux, Susan Orlean, Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Rory MacLean, Mary Morris, Dennison Berwick, Jan Morris, Tony Horwitz, Jeffrey Tayler, and Tom Miller, among countless others.

Examples of Travel Writing

Observations About Travel Writing

Authors, journalists, and others have attempted to describe travel writing, which is more difficult to do than you might think. However, these excerpts explain that travel writing—at a minimum—requires a sense of curiosity, awareness, and fun.

Thomas Swick

  • "The best writers in the field [of travel writing] bring to it an indefatigable curiosity, a fierce intelligence that enables them to interpret, and a generous heart that allows them to connect. Without resorting to invention, they make ample use of their imaginations. . . .
    "The travel book itself has a similar grab bag quality. It incorporates the characters and plot line of a novel, the descriptive power of poetry, the substance of a history lesson, the discursiveness of an essay, and the—often inadvertent—self-revelation of a memoir. It revels in the particular while occasionally illuminating the universal. It colors and shapes and fills in gaps. Because it results from displacement, it is frequently funny. It takes readers for a spin (and shows them, usually, how lucky they are). It humanizes the alien. More often than not it celebrates the unsung. It uncovers truths that are stranger than fiction. It gives eyewitness proof of life’s infinite possibilities."
    ("Not a Tourist." The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010)

Casey Blanton

  • "There exists at the center of travel books like [Graham] Greene's Journey Without Maps or [V.S.] Naipaul's An Area of Darkness a mediating consciousness that monitors the journey, judges, thinks, confesses, changes, and even grows. This narrator, so central to what we have come to expect in modern travel writing, is a relatively new ingredient in travel literature, but it is one that irrevocably changed the genre. . . .
    "Freed from strictly chronological, fact-driven narratives, nearly all contemporary travel writers include their own dreams and memories of childhood as well as chunks of historical data and synopses of other travel books. Self reflexivity and instability, both as theme and style, offer the writer a way to show the effects of his or her own presence in a foreign country and to expose the arbitrariness of truth and the absence of norms."
    (Travel Writing: The Self and the World. Routledge, 2002)

Frances Mayes

  • "Some travel writers can become serious to the point of lapsing into good ol' American puritanism. . . . What nonsense! I have traveled much in Concord. Good travel writing can be as much about having a good time as about eating grubs and chasing drug lords. . . . [T]ravel is for learning, for fun, for escape, for personal quests, for challenge, for exploration, for opening the imagination to other lives and languages."
    (Introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2002. Houghton, 2002)

Travel Writers on Travel Writing

In the past, travel writing was considered to be nothing more than the detailing of specific routes to various destinations. Today, however, travel writing has become much more. Read on to find out what famous travel writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux say about the profession.

V.S. Naipaul

  • "My books have to be called 'travel writing,' but that can be misleading because in the old days travel writing was essentially done by men describing the routes they were taking. . . . What I do is quite different. I travel on a theme. I travel to make an inquiry. I am not a journalist. I am taking with me the gifts of sympathy, observation, and curiosity that I developed as an imaginative writer. The books I write now, these inquiries, are really constructed narratives."
    (Interview with Ahmed Rashid, "Death of the Novel." The Observer, Feb. 25, 1996)

Paul Theroux

  • - "Most travel narratives—perhaps all of them, the classics anyway—describe the miseries and splendors of going from one remote place to another. The quest, the getting there, the difficulty of the road is the story; the journey, not the arrival, matters, and most of the time the traveler—the traveler’s mood, especially—is the subject of the whole business. I have made a career out of this sort of slogging and self-portraiture, travel writing as diffused autobiography; and so have many others in the old, laborious look-at-me way that informs travel writing."
    (Paul Theroux, "The Soul of the South." Smithsonian Magazine, July-August 2014)
    - "Most visitors to coastal Maine know it in the summer. In the nature of visitation, people show up in the season. The snow and ice are a bleak memory now on the long warm days of early summer, but it seems to me that to understand a place best, the visitor needs to see figures in a landscape in all seasons. Maine is a joy in the summer. But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter. You see that the population is actually quite small, the roads are empty, some of the restaurants are closed, the houses of the summer people are dark, their driveways unplowed. But Maine out of season is unmistakably a great destination: hospitable, good-humored, plenty of elbow room, short days, dark nights of crackling ice crystals.
    "Winter is a season of recovery and preparation. Boats are repaired, traps fixed, nets mended. “I need the winter to rest my body,” my friend the lobsterman told me, speaking of how he suspended his lobstering in December and did not resume until April. . . ."
    ("The Wicked Coast." The Atlantic, June 2011)

Susan Orlean

  • - "To be honest, I view all stories as journeys. Journeys are the essential text of the human experience—the journey from birth to death, from innocence to wisdom, from ignorance to knowledge, from where we start to where we end. There is almost no piece of important writing—the Bible, the Odyssey, Chaucer, Ulysses—that isn't explicitly or implicitly the story of a journey. Even when I don't actually go anywhere for a particular story, the way I report is to immerse myself in something I usually know very little about, and what I experience is the journey toward a grasp of what I've seen."
    (Susan Orlean, Introduction to My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere. Random House, 2004)
    - "When I went to Scotland for a friend's wedding last summer, I didn't plan on firing a gun. Getting into a fistfight, maybe; hurling insults about badly dressed bridesmaids, of course; but I didn't expect to shoot or get shot at. The wedding was taking place in a medieval castle in a speck of a village called Biggar. There was not a lot to do in Biggar, but the caretaker of the castle had skeet-shooting gear, and the male guests announced that before the rehearsal dinner they were going to give it a go. The women were advised to knit or shop or something. I don't know if any of us women actually wanted to join them, but we didn't want to be left out, so we insisted on coming along. . . ."
    (Opening paragraph of "Shooting Party." The New Yorker, September 29, 1999)

Jonathan Raban

  • - "As a literary form, travel writing is a notoriously raffish open house where different genres are likely to end up in the bed. It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality. It freely mixes narrative and discursive writing."
    (For Love & Money: Writing - Reading - Travelling 1968-1987. Picador, 1988)
  • - "Travel in its purest form requires no certain destination, no fixed itinerary, no advance reservation and no return ticket, for you are trying to launch yourself onto the haphazard drift of things, and put yourself in the way of whatever changes the journey may throw up. It's when you miss the one flight of the week, when the expected friend fails to show, when the pre-booked hotel reveals itself as a collection of steel joists stuck into a ravaged hillside, when a stranger asks you to share the cost of a hired car to a town whose name you've never heard, that you begin to travel in earnest."
    ("Why Travel?" Driving Home: An American Journey. Pantheon, 2011)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What You Should Know About Travel Writing." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/travel-writing-1692564. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What You Should Know About Travel Writing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/travel-writing-1692564 Nordquist, Richard. "What You Should Know About Travel Writing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/travel-writing-1692564 (accessed June 4, 2023).