Peter Chilson & Joanne B. Mulcahy’s Writing Abroad

A book, Writing Abroad, on a table with a notebook and passport

Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers is exactly what it says it is—a guide. It’s for those who feel compelled to share their travel experiences, and it features tips, exercises, and information to help them do so.

Overview

Cover of Writing Abroad, showing a pair of hands with a pencil writing in a notebook on top of a map

Title: Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers
Authors: Peter Chilson and Joanne B. Mulcahy
ISBN: 022644449X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press

  • Entertainment value: medium
  • Usefulness: high
  • Recommended if you:
    • love travel and want to know how to write about it in an ethical and responsible way
    • want to practise by doing exercises
    • value multiple perspectives

Review

Writing Abroad is a guidebook for travel writing. It uses straightforward prose and includes plenty of instruction, covering everything from pre-trip research to drafting and revising.

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 on one another, making you revisit assumptions and beliefs. And of course, I loved that they include revision and editing as a fundamental part of the writing process.

While memories of school textbooks might have you thinking this kind of guide might be dull, I assure you there are lots of anecdotes and examples to keep the pages turning. Furthermore, Chilson and Mulcahy draw 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.

Of particular value, in my opinion, is the inclusion of ethics and responsibility in travel writing. In a genre that has a history of perpetuating colonialist thinking and stereotypes, it is important to be aware of how to convey countries and cultures that are new to you without causing harm. I even think some of this advice would be good for fiction writers, especially those writing journey quests or building worlds with multiple cultures and settings.

Lessons from Writing Abroad

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. This could also be applied to the new places your characters visit in fiction writing.

History Is Critical In Understanding 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 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

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 practices, 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 emphasizes 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.

Is there a writing book you’d like me to review? Let me know in the comments.

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