Writing Abroad by Peter Chilson and Joanne B. Mulcahy

A shelf full of books with "books" written over top

I love travelling and reading about far off places, so travel writing is a genre that interests me. When I saw a copy of Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers on the Chicago University Press table at this year’s Editors Canada Conference, I knew I wanted a copy.

Writing Abroad cover featuring a hand writing in a notebook over maps

Entertainment Value: Medium-High

This book is primarily a guidebook. It contains plenty of instruction and even exercises. This could be dry in other circumstances, especially as it covers philosophical matters like ethics and responsibility. But, Chilson and Mulcahy have included plenty of anecdotes and examples, drawing on the experiences of other travel writers to illustrate their points. I especially enjoyed stories of misunderstandings and challenges that writers have faced while abroad and while writing.

The writing itself is straightforward and easy to follow, without being dull.  So if you enjoy reading travel writing, I think you’ll enjoy this book too.

Usefulness: High

This book approaches travel writing as a discovery, covering everything from pre-trip research to drafting and revising. It’s a lot to cover in just 237 pages, but Chilson and Mulcahy do it well.

There are plenty of exercises that’ll take you through each stage of writing. In fact, if you do each exercise, you’ll probably be well on your way to having some good writing samples ready. I especially appreciate that these exercises build upon one another, making you revisit assumptions and beliefs. And of course, I loved that they included revision and editing as a fundamental part of the writing process.

Take Aways

Travel Writing Is for Anyone

The semester-abroad student, the Peace Corps volunteer, the ESL teacher, the explorer, the journalist—all can write about their travels. Chilson and Mulcahy address their advice to all potential travel writers, regardless of their background or experience.

Writing About New Places Requires Novel Language

Using unique language is especially important in travel writing. This is because unique descriptions capture what it’s like to be in a new environment. It helps put the reader in the position of the traveller and helps avoid clichés (important in all writing) and the stereotypes that can arise from them.

History Is Critical To Understand Place

Chilson and Mulcahy discuss how being an informed traveller and writer is essential to writing vivid, accurate accounts of place. Being informed means knowing about the political, cultural, economic history of the area you’re visiting/writing about. Including this information in your writing creates a better sense of place and uncovering the local history can be fun and exciting.

“Show, Don’t Tell” Is Overemphasized

“Show, don’t tell” is probably one of the most often used cited pieces of writing advice, but telling, or summary, is an important part of travel writing. It provides backstory and context for scenes and is necessary if you want your work to flow and engage.

Looking In Is as Important as Looking Out

When you travel, you’ll see new things and have experiences that may be out of your comfort zone. There’s a whole chapter in Writing Abroad that discusses matters that can make travellers uncomfortable, like religion and politics. When you encounter unfamiliar beliefs or practises, Chilson and Mulcahy suggest you examine where your own ideas conflict or align. Try to understand why certain ideas make you uncomfortable and consider multiple points of view when writing.

You don’t have to adopt or agree with beliefs that differ from your own, but you should be trying to understand them and yourself.

Travel Writing Is Work

This book emphasized that good travel writing isn’t spontaneous; it requires prep work. The authors recommend doing research and taking notes before you even leave for your journey. They also suggest free writing, but they make it clear that free writes are only a first step. Final drafts need to be informed by research, experience, and contemplation—and a good deal of revision.

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