The Ugly American: How to Win a Travel-Writing Competition, You Idiots

Travel Features How To

I’m a mean and angry writing-contest judge. Following are some tips to win me over. All idiots please take them to heart so you can stop raping my eyes with your boring entries.

1. Do not start your entry with the weather—the weather is not interesting. Even if the it’s torrential, even if it’s violent, even if you think it’s interesting, it’s not interesting. If you have to include the weather in any way, then begin with a result of it, as opposed to a description of it. For example, start with, “It felt odd to collide into a sea creature with my car,” and then get around to describing how the hurricane in Grand Cayman caused abnormally high ocean levels to deposit sea life on the highway that day. Just an example, but seriously, anything is better than, “The gusty wind was strong and caused the waves to crash and oh my God please drive a spike through my eye right now.”

2. Do not include any numerals whatsoever in your first sentence. If I pick up an entry and read first thing something like, “It was January, 12, 2014, and I was driving down Florida’s Hwy. 212 in my vintage 1969 Mustang . . .” I am going to incinerate your entry with the heat of my hatred. None of these numerical details are so important or interesting that they have to take up prime real estate in your first paragraph. You should incite my curiosity from the very first sentence, so say something that makes me want to read further in order to sate that curiosity, something like, “As far as shallow mass graves go, I thought the place was pretty peaceful.” Something that makes me think, What the faaack?

3. Do not use any platitudes at all. A sentence like, “St. Thomas is known as the Holy Grail of the Virgin Islands,” just shows me that you’re an unimaginative asstard. Think of your own goddam descriptions, don’t rely on boring trodden-on platitudes to get your point across. Likewise with sentences like this one: “Last Tuesday is a day I’ll never forget for as long as I live.” Really? I wish I could forget ever opening your entry. Rather than preface something interesting with a total toilet-load of mendacity, just get straight to the interesting part. Just say, “Last Tuesday, Slappy McDaver was found at the bottom of a well, stabbed in the neck, or at least that’s what the Skagway newspaper said.”

4. Don’t begin with an ornate description of how something looks, tastes or smells. I don’t really have a justifiable reason for this point other than all judges have their idiosyncratic preferences, and this one is mine. I know the ocean air tastes salty. I know the mountain air smells clean. I know the fall leaves look like an explosion of color. Unless it’s completely unexpected (“I found the flavor surprisingly bright for fried donkey meat”) avoid these kinds of banal descriptions like you’d avoid a sweeping disease of epic proportion. (Notice I didn’t say “the plague,” because that would have been a platitude).

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, which hit bookstore shelves July 22. Follow her on Twitter.

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