How to Write a Travel Memoir | NY Book Editors

Some of the world’s best literature exists in the form of travel memoirs. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Julia Child’s My Life in France, Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth, and John Higham’s 360 Degrees Longitude are all examples of critically acclaimed and universally loved travel memoirs. What makes each of these memoirs so aspirational? Each contains a clever mix of vulnerability, connection, and exoticism.

To create a compelling travel memoir, you must be a great storyteller, first and foremost— and we can help with that. What follows is a list of tips to help you engage your reader with a spellbinding travel story.

Let’s get started.

Travel Writing Isn’t The Same As a Travel Memoir

Let’s draw an important distinction right away: A travel memoir is not the same as writing a guide book or a generic book on how to travel.

While the latter two may provide the travel-minded tourist hopeful with generic advice on what to see and do, the travel memoir is focused on the writer’s experience and takeaway. A travel memoir may appeal to the reader with wanderlust, but a love of and a desire to travel is not a requirement. The only true requirement for a travel memoir is a good story.

On the other hand, a reader isn’t likely to curl up with a non-narrative guide book.

Blogging, guide books, tutorials, and other forms of travel writing certainly have their place, but they aren’t the same as a memoir. A travel memoir isn’t just a list of experiences in a unique location. It’s a written documentation of the author’s awakening or evolution.

So, unless you’re being sponsored by the visitor’s bureau to write a marketing pamphlet on the destination, your travel memoir should be intimate, honest, and focused on the emotional takeaway.

Give Yourself Some Time

You can’t write a travel memoir while you’re actually on the journey. At best, you’re writing field notes or a travel journal. However, a memoir must have a deeper meaning that’s only evident after you’ve come to the end of your journey.

Before writing your memoir, you must take time to reflect on your travels and to contemplate your story’s overarching theme.

This past summer, I went on a month long adventure to the American West. Although I’d love to write about it one day, I’m still parsing through the experience and figuring out what I’ve learned. The best stories emerge after they’ve had an opportunity to breathe and you’ve gained much needed self-awareness.

To write with self-awareness, let it settle. Realize how the experience has changed you, and then write from that informed perspective.

You may not have it all figured out. Like me, you may be the type of writer who understands their thoughts while writing, but it’s still important for subconscious processing to give yourself space after an event and before writing.

Define Your Voice

When crafting a memoir of any type, you must define your voice.

Your voice is a combination of the following:

  • Your unique perspective
  • The type of language and cadence you use when writing your story
  • The way you choose to tell the story (i.e. humorous, relatable)

Many travel memoirists choose a voice that’s either friendly, self-deprecating, or conversational, however remember that you’re not bound to this type of voice. You can be aloof, formal, or matter-of-fact. Your voice will impact how the reader experiences your memoir, so choose a voice that carries the sentiment you’re hoping to convey.

We’ve tackled voice before. Check out this post for a thorough guide on finding your writer’s voice.

Focus on the Meaning

The most important part of your travel memoir is the takeaway, or the moral of the story. This advice applies to any memoir, by the way. Creating a travel log of what happened and when it happened is boring. It’s the literary equivalent to showing slide show pictures of your vacation.

But if you dig underneath the surface and discuss not only what happened but what you learned from what happened, you’ll forge a stronger connection with the reader.

Find the universal takeaway that any human over the age of 12 can understand. To do this effectively, you’ll need to take the reader on two separate but parallel journeys. Those two types of journeys involved in your travel memoir are the physical journey and the emotional one. It’s relatively easy to write about the events you experienced on your trip. It’s harder to write about what you learned from the trip.

There are 2 types of journeys involved in a travel memoir: the physical & the emotional one.

The meaning of your book is tied to its theme. Whether you go with a popular memoir theme like self-discovery, coping with loss, or coming of age, your theme will help you connect with readers who identify with your struggles.

Pick and Choose the Right Stories

I’m one of those weirdos who believes there’s no such thing as a mundane story, just a mundane way of telling it. This is why it’s crucial to edit yourself and get edited by professional readers.

Without editing, you’re likely to prattle on and on about every event during your journey. And not just you— we’re all prone to rambling. This why we need editing.

When editing yourself, always keep the theme in mind. This will help you include the stories that support your theme and cut the stories that are nice, but ill-fitting. You must be a slave to theme. It’s that important.

Don’t try to tell the entire story blow by blow. Instead, piece together the story that fits in with your overall theme.

Don’t Make Yourself Look Too Good

Sometimes you’re going to sound like a jerk. You’re human. Your reader is human and they’ll understand. In fact, embracing your raw stupidity is what will make you endearing to the reader. It will also make your experience real and relatable which is the entire point of reading a travel memoir. Readers like to travel with you on your emotional journey, and hopefully observe your growth.

Unfortunately, self-preservation dictates that we try to look good at all times. Avoid that urge when writing your travel memoir. Or, at least, edit it out.

You must be willing to look foolish if this is ever going to work. When traveling to different places you’ve never been before, the reader won’t expect you to be completely prepared and perfect. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to offend people. You’re going to hate some of the food. You’re going to pack your preconceived stereotypes right next to your socks and undies. But you’re also going to connect with the reader because your honesty will be relatable.

Have an open mind when you hit the open road.

The story may not go as you’ve anticipated. You’ll be surprised and changed in ways that you never expected but that’s the gift of travel. To document how you’ve changed for the better, you’ve got to show the cringe-worthy before.

Titles Are Crucial

For a travel memoir, especially if you’re an unknown author, so much of your initial success will depend on a clear, catchy, or promising title. While I may not judge a book by it’s cover, I always judge a book by its title, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals wins my award for “Best Travel Memoir Title”. I purchased the book without even reading the first page just because it had a killer title (no pun intended).

That title was catchy, but your title need not be clever to be effective. Cheryl Strayed’s one word title, Wild, sets you up for the type of journey you’re about to take.

Then there’s the promising title, I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside. The reader knows going in that the book will be about France and some rather misfortunate experiences.

Whether you choose a title that’s descriptive or intriguing, at the very least, make it memorable. It should be a title that your reader will remember when they’re recommending your memoir to friends.

Additional Resources

Before you go, check out these related posts:

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