What Does it Matter if Someone’s a Professional or Amateur Travel Writer?

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Life, Travel, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Andy and I have recently been involved with two UK based travel websites, Simonseeks and Sunshine that are attempting to break the mould when it comes to online travel and travel advisory sites.

Simonseeks has come in for some flack for its bold approach with some sites claiming that the ambitious travel advisory site has not won the approval of ‘the travel writing community’.

Really? Whose travel writing community is that? Europe’s? America’s? The World Wide Web’s…or five bitter blokes in a bar in Grimsby?

A criticism levelled at Simonseeks by some professional travel writers is that it uses travel guides from amateurs and celebrities. Celebrities heaven forbid; the quality press would never stoop to that level. I’m still laughing at that one.

But it’s the criticism related to using amateur writers that’s more interesting. This comment from a professional writer on a blog about Simonseeks was quite illuminating:

‘…I feel more useful and welcome at TTE (the Travel Editor) while at SS (Simonseeks) you are just another name among all those amateurs.’

Just another name amongst the amateurs. Simonseeks has what amounts to a level playing field when it comes to travel writing and here’s the rub. It’s the general public who decide whether contributors’ articles are useful and interesting. And that little fact creates a whole new ball game.

Simonseeks lists its most popular writers in order of recommendations from readers and guess what? Its top ten writers aren’t all professional travel writers. The list includes people who are travel enthusiasts rather than professional writers and that might not sit well with some.

Online travel writing has opened up a brave new world and I have a suspicion that the root of some criticism lies not only in a concern for maintaining quality (newspapers have been dumbing-down their travel sections for years) but in bruised egos and protectionism.

To me using travel enthusiasts (let’s not use amateur) is to be applauded….as long as they can come up with the goods. I’m a meritocracy fan (I’ve never been a fan of clubs so I have to be). The only thing that matters to me when reading travel articles is that they are accurate, informative and interesting, not the pedigree of the author or who they happen to know.

Ironically, after getting hot under the collar about the apparent arrogance of some pro-writers I came across a forum topic on Simonseeks and discovered the bitching wasn’t all one sided.

A handful of amateur contributors were complaining about the pros on Simonseeks. However, what the complaints actually revealed was that those making them really were amateurs, but maybe not in the sense that the quality of their writing was amateurish.
Many clearly didn’t have a clue about writing for the web (but then I suspect that’s not exclusive to amateur writers). What really came across as amateurville was that the most ‘outraged’ complaints were based around popular holiday destinations receiving prominent exposure on the site.

Some felt articles about off the beaten track and less well known destinations were more in line with what the ethos of Simonseeks should be. This isn’t only naïve, it demonstrates a complete lack of savvy regarding the business of mainstream travel writing online.

That quirky article about milking a yak in Outer Mongolia may be fascinating, but the ten people who read it a year aren’t going to make the writer, or more importantly Simonseeks, any money.

Like it or not, those popular holiday resorts are what are going to attract the most viewers and if that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. There are always, always different angles to be found by anyone who writes about them…as any true traveller and professional writer should know.

It became increasingly difficult to feel incensed on the non-pro writers’ behalf when some were coming out with nonsense like the following.

“…what I’m really looking for when I trawl the Net for hotel/resort/destination reviews is an amateur perspective. In fact, I don’t care how badly written it is – I just want to know what the ordinary punter has experienced in a place.”

I stopped reading after that little gem.

Ultimately who cares if something is written by a professional or amateur travel writer as long as it’s written well? The answer to that is both professional and amateur travel writers apparently.

  1. Richard says:

    The point you’re making seems fair enough. The internet has indeed blurred the amateur / professional distinction in many different areas (eg music, photography, video etc). So now we can all be ‘published’ writers – and why not ? Of course if this results in less paid work for people who aim to make a living from their writing, then I can understand them getting hot under the collar.

    One thing I found a little confusing though, was the point about info / feedback vs quality eg: the “… just want to know what the ordinary punter has experienced in a place” quote. I wasn’t sure what you found wrong with that. Isn’t it just another example of the ordinary punter being the driving (market) force on-line ?

    ps “… I’ve never been a fan of clubs” really ? not even ManU 🙂

    • dragojac says:

      ‘The internet has indeed blurred the amateur / professional distinction in many different areas (eg music, photography, video etc.). So now we can all be ‘published’ writers – and why not ‘ Absolutely Richard.

      It’s harsh but writers and photographers are basically experiencing what many other occupations have already gone through (manufacturing, miners etc) so I completely understand people getting hot under the collar. But there has been a level of hypocrisy and snobbery surrounding some of the criticisms that I take issue with (the celebrity point being one) and quality being the other.

      Of course there’s a lot of bad writing on the web, but it isn’t necessarily exclusive to amateurs and Simonseeks uses editors just like any other good publication.

      Fair point about the ordinary punter experience reference. I was going to add more but was trying to keep word count down. The ordinary punter is, or should be, the driving force and there’s nothing wrong with the ‘ordinary’ punter’s view, except when it’s completely subjective…which it often is. Most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are testament to that. Joe Blogs who only eats steak (well done of course)…without any of that fancy rabbit food accompaniment…at the same time…every Friday…facing south just doesn’t provide an objective reference for others.

      I’m not saying you don’t get useful reviews from ordinary travellers. Good well rounded, balanced reviews from ‘real people’ are invaluable – but the average Joe doesn’t normally take into account a whole range of considerations before reviewing somewhere whereas writers do. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to track down badly written reviews just because they were written by Joe Blogs which was what the person I mentioned seemed to be suggesting. That was just a ridiculous notion and was really just a show of petulant foot stamping.

      Touché re Man Utd…but that is an exception 🙂

  2. islandmomma Life on a Small Island and Beyond says:

    I think the line between amateur and professional as in whether someone has taken exams to qualify as whateve,r is blurring more every day. In the sense of the words meaning competant or not it’s a different matter. Whether the general public is “qualified” to judge the standard is another different matter, but then they watch reality tv! Just look at how popular all that drivel is! They also vote, (apparently based on one viewing) on those talent shows not for the best but for the most sympathetic, which is not the same thing!

    Personally, the writing matters, very much, and I would be more inclined to believe a well written review than a semi-literate one. Doesn’t have to be Shakespeare (those are read for enjoyment and not just information) just has to contain a few fullstops, capital letters and not contain misuse of their/they’re/there etc etc and not TOO many spelling mistakes (I make allowances for those because of typos).

    • dragojac says:

      We were occasionally involved with large recruitment campaigns back in Manchester and there was a move to competency based recruitment quite some time ago by organisations that recognised that qualifications weren’t necessarily the be all and end all. In fact in some ways they can be discriminatory in modern society – e.g mothers who may have been out of the job market for some time who had the ability but have never had the opportunity etc.

      It’s probably because of my experiences with socially disadvantaged groups then that I’m a supporter of the competency based approach rather than ‘qualifications proves ability’ which is why terms such as amateur or professional are ultimately a bit of a red herring as far as I’m concerned. All that really matters is that writing is fit for purpose.

      As for reviews, I reckon you can generally tell by their content and level of detail whether they’re to be trusted or not. Whether, as you say, the general public can judge what’s trustworthy and what’s not is indeed another matter. Don´t get me started on voting patterns for reality shows 🙂

  3. David says:

    It essentially boils down to the right mix of facts and opinion.

    Amateurs tend to lack the journalistic integrity of a professional writer and you can read a lot of stuff which is just an opinionated rant. But equally facts with no feeling can be equally stale and (on an emotive level) uninformative.

    The key is striking the right balance. Back your opinions up with facts and your thoughts will be worthwhile reading.

  4. easylifestyles says:

    Great post thanks for sharing. Traveling is a hobby of mine that I truly enjoy.

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  5. Sonja Kennington says:

    In my experience you can get just as limited, subjective, opinionated stuff from “professionals” as from amateurs. To give just one example, in my Rough Guide to Tenerife it says there´s no point in going to Candelaria because it´s a boring dormitory suburb of Santa Cruz.

    To be honest, I think the whole amateur vs professional debate is a bit pointless. Each individual should be judged on their merits, based on what they write. Anything else is irrelevant.

    • dragojac says:

      True, all writing is subjective in one way or another…sometimes it’s essential to consciously try to park it, other times it suits to let it run free. The issue is if someone doesn’t recognise it as subjective in the first place and that can make all the difference between an amateurish and professional approach when it comes to reviewing destinations/hotels/restaurants etc.

      I totally agree about the Rough Guide to Tenerife. It’s not a good example of professional travel writing.

  6. ZephyrLiving says:

    Interesting…I remember being at a staff meeting years ago for the University Press, and the IT guy had the floor. He was saying that if he wanted the most current knowledge about something, like computers, he certainly wouldn’t go to a university to learn. Pissed off our director who was an ivy league grad, but it’s stuck with me.

    I think, in many respects, the web is a bizarre place to be, kind of like your carnaval. There are sites one visits because he/she believes he will get valuable information. That other people can make comments on an article there about their experiences and broaden that information is to me, tres cool. There are places that seem to be pretty much a joke, also based upon comments…if you get 50 readers saying that asshat doesn’t know what he’s talking about…you look for another site.

    I don’t like clubs either. Here we call it the good old boy network. And a person with a degree isn’t necessarily more intelligent or hard-working than a non-degreed person. Maybe they had wealthy parents who put them through college whereas the non-degreed person worked two jobs in order to take care of his disabled mom. We are all teachable, all worthy, when our minds are, as the saying goes, like a parachute–meant to be open.

    Anyone can find someone to proof read an article for them. There’s really no excuse for putting a shabbily produced article on the net. I really don’t want to read it, and I’m not even a grammar and spelling Nazi.

    Great thought-provoking article, Jack! Salute! T.

    • dragojac says:

      Thanks T. The web is completely a bizarre place. I love the almost anarchic manner in which it has shaken up the conventional way certain things have been done; although it is a real maelstrom of the good the bad and the ugly at the moment. But that’s fine…people can chose what they like or not as you say.

      I’ve never been particularly impressed simply by a show of qualifications or money or who someone’s father is (I suspect it’s a Scottish thing – suspicious of everyone until they prove they’re okay or, in a work sense, able – it’s all Willie Wallace’s fault) and believe that for too long privilege has often been mistaken for ability (our class system in some ways, your good old boy network). Your IT guy is a great example of this brave new world. I love it. J 🙂

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