I've never been wholly convinced by the idea of writing classes. On my way to being a professional freelance writer, the most useful lessons I've learnt haven't been in classrooms or on webinars, but those taught by the experience of having my stories chucked back at me (metaphorically speaking, usually, in this world of emails and distance working), covered in red ink.
Of the few times I've been in an environment when I have, in theory, been 'taught' writing skills, I've come away either underwhelmed or downright traumatised. The worst experience, ironically, was of attending a class organised by Survivors' Poetry, a group which grew up out of mutual support offered to writers with experience of the mental health system. I came away from that class – lead by a well-known female writer – feeling bullied and scared, and swearing 'never again.'
I'm not sure, therefore, what made me decide to go on a weekend-long travel writing course run by Travellers' Tales, a UK outfit headed by Jonathan Lorie, a former editor of Traveller magazine. The two-day session in Granada was led by Lorie and Dan Linstead, editor of travel glossy Wanderlust. I think I had various motives; I was already a full-time freelance writer, but mainly on political and environmental topics which I am passionate about, but which I have to admit do get me down. So I wanted to broaden into the occasional bit of lighter work. I rather liked the idea of being able to do some travel that, if not paid for by someone else, was at least tax-deductable. And I think I simply liked the idea of doing something as civilised-looking as a writing class in the glorious setting of Granada, a city I'd long wanted to visit.
In the end, my mind was made up by the enthusiasm of my friend Ruth, a fellow former writer and editorial co-op member from Ethical Consumer magazine. She'd just spent a year running a marine conservation project in Madagascar, so the prospect of spending a weekend with her, catching up on a year's news, was an added bonus.
I'm not sure what Ruth and I expected of the course, but I think we were both surprised to find that we were the only two people there who made any kind of a living from writing. One other woman, who had obviously been on several of these classes with Travellers' Tales, wrote a column for her local ex-pat newspaper in southern Spain, but no-one else seemed to have had much, or anything, published before. We were also surprised to find that with the exception of the columnist, none of the others seemed to have much time for magazine journalism or other shorter forms of travel writing. Several seemed intent on being the next Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, and nothing much else was of interest.
The course itself took full advantage of the spectacular setting we were working in; while some classes perforce happened in the small classroom in the picturesque little boutique hotel we were staying in, there were plenty of practicals. We wandered the steep, narrow, jasmine-scented streets of the Albayzin and the cool courtyards of the Alhambra palace, practicing descriptive techniques and observation skills. Lessons such as 'show don't tell' were hammered into us (and then drowned back out of our heads by the evening's wine). Some of us 'got it'; others seemed mystified by the difference between concrete descriptions and abstract adjectives. Sessions on how to interact with editors were usefully practical for us wannabe travel journalists, but obviously bored some of the aspiring authors of grand narratives.
Was the weekend useful? In the end, I think so. Not in any dramatic way – I didn't learn any radical new ways of writing. But it sharpened my technique, made me think more carefully and precisely about how I describe scenes and people, and reinforced the importance of brevity. Less is often more, and paragraphs of flowery prose can be just as tedious as your cousin's thousandth digital snap, the one that makes you wish we were still constrained by the cost and bulk of camera film.
The balance of praise and criticism was finely tuned; Lorie and Linstead obviously knew that they would have to tailor their comments to people with aspirations far beyond their abilities, and seemed to manage to be realistic without trampling on people's dreams. And despite the disparate interests, skills and aims of the small roomful of people they had to shepherd for two days, the sessions were rarely boring or useless. Would I go back? Probably not; the course wasn't really, in the end, aimed at people going where I wanted to go. Should other people consider it? Certainly.

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Tags: Travellers Tales, travel writing, writing course, writing holidays

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Comment by DeLani R. Bartlette on June 17, 2010 at 8:43am
Thanks for a great, very helpful, review. Though I've never been able to afford any of these, I've always drooled over them. I think I'm in the same boat as you - I don't have much of my travel stuff published, but I do have a lot of feature stories under my belt. I need practical, professional guidance, not creative encouragement.
I just wish someone would offer a course on how to *pay* for the travel to write about in the first place!

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