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Emma Thomson's travel writing tips

We caught up with travel writer Emma Thomson, who will be joining us at The Masterclasses on 1 July 2018, to find out how she started and what she looks for in a story.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 1 Jun 2018, 19:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:31 BST
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson.

Photograph by Emma Thomson

So first of all, how did you get into travel writing?
I started a travel column for the student newspaper when I was at uni, and applied for work experience with the likes of the Oxford Times, Wanderlust, and Lonely Planet. My last placement was with Bradt Travel Guides and they kindly offered me a position after graduation. I spent six and half wonderful years with them before going freelance in 2011. 

This is a hard one, but you've been all over the world with work, so which three places have stood out the most, and for what reasons?
The ultimate toughie! I'd have to say French Polynesia, because respect for nature and beauty infuses everything they do and it gets under your skin, literally – I ended up getting a tattoo! Then there's Iran because it's nothing like the headlines — unparalleled hospitality and the world's best poetry. And finally Papua New Guinea – it was a girlhood dream realised and Tok Pisin (pidgin English) is hands down one of the best lingos out there.

You're now in wherever it is you're doing your piece. What do you look for now? How do you know what's going to work (and what won't) for a story? 
I ask about local legends/jokes to get a feel for their mindset and general approach to life. I seek out local experts because people who are passionate about what they do always provide the most illustrative quotes — and voices are the lifeblood of a story. There are certain skills to make a story work, such as learning how to ask a question to get the most forthcoming response, but the approach each time needs to be fresh to make each story unique. Follow a formula and it'll show in your writing.

When you get down to putting your piece together, how do you like to tackle it? Do you have any handy tips that help you get it down on paper (or on screen…)? 
I need to nail the intro first before the rest of the piece flows. I think a good tip is to jot down all the 'stand out' moments off the top of your head. It's a great way of filtering out the mundane, so you're left with the golden nuggets that can be strung together to make a great story.

Starting out and putting yourself out there can be tricky, so what advice would you give to a budding Bill Bryson looking to get their work noticed?
Don't take rejection personally. If it's a no, leave it a month or so and try again with a new idea. Keep nudging gently and persistently. Network at events, it's always easier if an editor can put a face to a name.

Follow @emmasthomson

Emma will be joining us for The Masterclasses on 1 July 2018.

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