Working in the online travel writing community means that sometimes you feel like you know people without having ever met them. Such is the case with Tim Patterson. A well known name on the Matador Network, he’s the editor of Matador Trips and a contributing editor at Brave New Traveler. I’ve been following his work for a couple of years, and he’s even edited some of my own articles, so I was excited when he agreed to do an interview with me, albeit via email. At such a young age — he’s only 26 — Tim is definitely an inspiration to travelers and writers just starting out on their own creative paths. Keep reading for his thoughts on breaking into the travel writing scene, his tips for pitching articles and the things he misses most while on the road.
WR: How did you decide you wanted to start travel writing?
TP: Ha, I can remember the exact moment. I was on the roof of a ferry boat off the southwest coast of Cambodia and we were passing islands – big, beautiful islands. I opened my Lonely Planet, but there was barely a mention of the archipelago. This was virgin territory. I decided then and there to come back the following winter, explore the islands and write about what I found. And I did.
WR: What was your first “major” assignment/article and how did you get it?
TP: “Cambodia’s Undiscovered Islands” was my first magazine feature, published in Get Lost, an Australian adventure travel mag. I was put in touch with the Get Lost editors by Chris Ord, a travel journalist whose website I stumbled upon while reading up on ethnically Nepali refugees from Bhutan. The feature got published in large part because of stellar photography by my travel partner Ryan Libre, who in all honesty is one of the ten best photographers in all of Asia.
WR: In the beginning, how much time did you invest in writing for free or for very little pay?
TP: A lot of time, but I never thought of it as an investment, exactly. Writing can be a joy, and I wrote for years before the thought of getting paid ever crossed my mind. I kept a blog called Sleeping in the Mountains for two years before the Cambodia expedition, in which I wrote about hikes in Hokkaido, where I was living at the time. I wrote for the pleasure of telling stories and sharing my experiences.
WR: Would you recommend that other aspiring writers write for free? Why or why not?
TP: Yeah, definitely. No question about it. Just write. Write all the time, write on everything, blog, e-mail, send letters to Grandma, sign petitions, scratch haikus into the undersides of tree fungi and leave them like signposts in the woods.
If you see writing as a real job from the beginning, you’ll never get anywhere. If you write for the joy of story-telling, you just might find yourself with a new career. Writing is sort of zen that way – the only path to success is to abandon all thought of success and just do what comes naturally.
WR: How have the internet and social networking sites like Matador played a role in your experiences as a travel writer?
TP: I love the community aspect of social sites like Matador (which, by the way, I first found through Written Road). Travel can be a lonely pursuit, and to share insights and discoveries and frustrations and revelations with a genuine community of like-minded people is simply a joy. Moreover, the ability of sites like Matador to connect people instantaneously is mind-boggling, and opens a whole world of possibility. Right now I’m typing in a mini-bus on a curvy mountain road in Northern Thailand, and I know that tonight – if I don’t puke all over my laptop – I’ll send you this interview from a border town in Laos, chat with Julie, a Matador editor reporting from Guantanamo Bay, and check in with editor David Miller about this week’s publishing schedule while he sips his morning coffee in Seattle. It’s pretty freaking amazing
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WR: What are your thoughts on print vs. online media? For writers starting out today, what would you recommend they begin working with?
TP: Online is a better option for new writers, because the potential audience is infinite. If you write well, people WILL notice. Once you’ve built an online audience, you can start to pitch print editors.
WR: You’re now an editor at Matador, what are your tips for pitching articles?
TP: Don’t waste my time. Show me you can write. Butter me up by complimenting my writing.Match the format of your pitch to the format of our articles. Submit links written out in html. Get established in the Matador community – we only accept submissions from Matador members. Did I mention buttering me up by complimenting my writing? Here’s a terrific article by David Miller – How To Get – and keep getting – Paid Online Travel Writing Gigs.
WR: If you could pick one key piece of advice for someone trying to break into the travel writing industry, what would it be?
TP: Go live somewhere cheap and interesting, like Laos or Bolivia. You can live on a few hundred dollars a month in much of the 3rd world, and as an editor, a pitch that starts out with “Greetings from Luang Prabang” is going to hold my attention longer than a pitch that starts with “Greetings from 51st street”.
WR: In the day and age where we could spend all of our time sitting in front of a computer screen, what are ways that you keep your creativity going?
TP: That’s a really good question, Anna. I should be doing a better job of inspiring myself in creative ways, because travel does get tiresome sometimes.
This past summer I led a rugged travel program in Cambodia for a terrific youth travel organization called Where There Be Dragons. This was an immensely challenging and rewarding experience. Traveling with teenagers – and being responsible for their well-being – demands total engagement and self-confidence.
In the future, I hope to balance travel writing gigs with more work for Dragons.
WR: What is your dream assignment?
TP: Last year I scored a free cruise to Antarctica on a ship called The Antarctic Dream. At the last moment, I turned it down, because I couldn’t stand the idea of promoting travel as a commodity. I decided that although I could “live the dream” as a travel writer, I would rather live a real life, in the real world – writing truthfully about things that matter. So, there are no dream assignments for me. At the moment I’m intrigued by the idea of pitching a book about a travel writer who returns home and lives for one year without leaving his hometown, reconnecting with his local community.
WR: What do you miss most about home when you are out on the road?
TP: This is a timely question for me. Just yesterday I became a landowner – 2.4 gorgeous acres just west of Craftsbury Common, Vermont – and last night I dreamt of cabin designs that will take advantage of passive solar heating. I miss my family and friends, of course. I miss the changing seasons. I miss the stability and routine of home. Most of all, I feel an intense desire to ground myself in one place, in own community. This year will mark five straight Christmases I’ve spent on the road. It’s time to go home, plant a lot of sunflowers, build a cabin with a big front porch, shoot deer in November, catch brook trout in August and read good books all winter in front of the woodstove.