New Travel Writer of the Year – what are the judges looking for?

The best writers grab your attention so subtly that you are beguiled without being aware of it.

Travel writing is no different from any other sort of writing, in that the author needs to grab the reader’s attention and hold it. The best writers do this so subtly that the reader is beguiled without ever being aware of technique.

But it’s always there, especially in short, newspaper-length articles – and in an 800-word competition piece. Nor has it changed over the long life of this competition, as you’ll see in the quotes from much earlier entries that we give below.

The opening sentence

Get this right and you have the reader’s – and judge’s – attention. He/she wants to continue reading to see what happens. Here are some opening sentences from previous entries which caught our eye:

“There’s an old man in a bar on the Costa de la Luz who says he can run faster than the sun.”

“‘OK,’ I said. ‘You look after him. I’ll be back in a week.’”

“Everything looked fine, which wasn’t at all reassuring.”

“I never intended to decapitate the old woman.”

The shape of the piece

Some of the most successful articles start with an eye-catching sentence or two, as above, and then go back to set the scene and explain how the writer got to that situation.

Assuming there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, the middle is where you generally find the best descriptive writing. All good writers have the ability to “paint the picture” so that the reader visualises the places and people described while moving forward with the narrative. And finally, as well as rounding the piece off neatly, the ending is what will linger on in the reader’s mind.

The power of the individual sentence or phrase

With only 800 words in which to impress the judges, every sentence carries weight. The following are a few from a winning entry to our travel-writing competition, A Wolf in the Mountains by Julia Bohanna:

“The donkey has sides like an over-stuffed purse, a trembling mouth and the dark, hopeless eyes of a depressive.”

“My donkey has stopped. In a strange hoofy tiptoe he moves – not forward – but sideways towards the edge. Stones flake from the side and give me an indication of his wish to die.”

“That’s what wolves do… they separate the weak and the sick, surround them, and tear off strips of flesh like liquorice. Don’t they?”

Here are some others that we particularly liked:

“He can’t see those hills, green with cacti, clenching like giant grass-haired knuckles as they punch their way down to the riverbed.”

“As acrid as the decomposing innards of the bull that came off second best to a road train, and yet this smell is different. It’s the wafting stink of impending death to all those who cannot run fast enough.”

“[The cave’s] antechambers have the terrifyingly pristine feel of recent abandonment – say a couple of million years.”

“Something that snagged at the very stitches of your soul…”

“A tray of upturned lettuces shook out their frilly petticoats.”

“The Bay of Kotor, a hoof-print filled with water the colour of after freeze, was a pleasant reprieve.”

“The wind picked up our wet hair and slapped it against our salty, sun burnt cheeks.”

“It was a grumpy, ugly, noisy manoeuvre. The engine screamed. There were ropes and anchors and curses. Everyone had an opinion about the tides and the currents and the wind.”

“You know how in certain circumstances the hairs on your neck can crawl? No, no you don’t – not as mine now did in that tomb.”

The closing sentence or paragraph

This is all-important. It sums up the preceding story, often returning to the opening sentence. Ideally there is something surprising, shocking, moving or amusing about it.

To see how authors handle the final sentence you really need to read the whole piece, but here are the final paragraphs to Meeting the Challenge by Elizabeth Gowing, a past winner of the competition; the challenge in this case was setting cultural scruples aside to befriend rubbish scavengers in Kosovo.

“Ahmet looked uncomfortable. ‘Actually’ he said, ‘when we met and you held out your hand it was the first time I had ever touched the hand of a woman who was not in my family.’

I thought about all the Ashkali men who had made me feel welcome in their homes, about the sticky, unwashed feeling, the belief of contamination; and about the triumph of basic human connections, and who it was who’d worked hardest to make them.”

Another great ending, or near ending, which includes a twist is by Stephanie Stafford in The Bulls of Ontinyet, a tale about bull running that was shortlisted in one of our competitions:

“…this man scrambles up the side of a wall. Tugging onto drainpipe and a shop sign he hangs. The bull grunts below. Mesmerized we watch behind the safety of the barricades. What if he fell? He mustn’t. Not for fear of the bull – his horns are padded and the seven cord-bearers are on alert. No, he mustn’t fall because if he does, so will we. We will descend into delight at a foreign misfortune, into lust for another’s calamity. He hangs, legs dangling, and so too do our principles, that veneer of empathy sailing on a thirst for gore… He doesn’t fall, and we escape the unpalatable truth of human nature.”

And the following is the conclusion to an outstanding entry by Zoe Efstathiou, A Stranger’s Smile.

“An automated woman’s voice is saying something. I realise she is announcing our arrival at the next stop. The train pulls into the station and I leap off and practically run down the deserted platform. I look back and see him walking briskly after me, his knife flapping at his side.

I jump back on to the train to confuse him but he follows. He is standing at the end of the carriage and casually loops his hand into an overhead handle. He looks right at me.

The doors begin to close. My heart is racing. I make a dash for it and throw myself through the narrowing gap. I scan the platform. He’s not there. The doors are closed. The train is pulling away. And then through the window I see him and he smiles.”

It’s the last three words of this piece that are so effective, along with the strong narrative pace. It sends chills down the spine to read it.

A few golden rules

  • Adhere to the theme and the word count
  • Avoid over-writing. If your story is strong enough you don’t need all those adjectives.
  • Avoid clichés
  • Take immaculate care over your grammar and spelling
  • Vary the length of your sentences
  • Cut and polish over several days
  • Read your entry aloud to pick up awkward phrasing