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Doing desk research vs. getting off your ass & getting on the road.

I seriously contemplated not driving west to Pennsylvania to work on a series of assignments about the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Rental car rates had gone up again and the last thing I needed to do was spend cash I don’t really have on a road trip. Besides, didn’t Francisco and I just agree that it’s time to double down on saving money? Oh yes, we did.*

I also really needed to spend a good two or three days plunked in front of the computer. My brother’s getting married on June 5, and then we head off to Puerto Rico, so the plan was to spend the rest of May catching up on writing, researching some leads, and planning for the pieces I intend to work on in Puerto Rico.

I knew I’d spend more money on research and writing the Wilds articles than I’d make, even though the rental car was the cheapest model, even though Francisco packed our lunch and snacks.

I could have done perfectly acceptable pieces based entirely on desk research, but it didn’t feel right. So I plunked my debit card down on the Hertz counter, Francisco cleaned his camera lenses, we bundled up Mariel, and set off for the Wilds.


There’s a reason desk researched pieces will never have the flow and personality of a piece you’ve written about a place you’ve visited. Nothing I could read online would have compared to pulling into Ravensburg State Park and watching mist rise from the creek, which swooshed a steady white noise over beaver dams and mossy rocks. Or Francisco slamming on the brakes so we wouldn’t kill an Amish couple in their buggy, a close encounter that left me thinking how little I know about the Amish. I wouldn’t have realized that hemlock and mountain laurel and wild blackberries can all be found here. I wouldn’t have had a reason to remember how important state parks are. And I definitely wouldn’t have been able to hold the broken bird’s egg, fallen from a nest high in the canopy, in my hand, or to call Francisco over to see a nest of baby birds in the arm of a picnic shelter beam.


I know it’s not always possible to get off your ass and get on the road. Some pieces have to be desk researched; that’s just the way it is. But trust me: it won’t be the same.

[Articles on the Pennsylvania Wilds are forthcoming on Matador Trips. Photos from the road trip can be seen here.]

*As an extraordinary husband, however, he did not remind me of this when I proposed renting the car and going to the Wilds. He simply said, “Sure, I’m game. Let’s ride.”


7 responses »

  1. I think this is one of the hardest things about being a travel writer. You’re absolutely right … we have to get there to make the experience real. But it’s so darn expensive!

    • JoAnna- I actually met a writer for a major glossy travel mag at a media lunch last year and he told me about a piece he’d just finished writing about the experience of being at a great jazz festival in the Caribbean. When I asked him how the festival was, he looked at me and said, “Oh, I didn’t go. The magazine wouldn’t pay for it and they don’t allow comps.” This is one of the reasons I have a real problem with the print magazines that brag about their “ethics” policies. To me, there’s something that’s unethical about writing about the experience of being at an event you’ve never actually attended.

    • agreed! if only time and money were limitless 😉

  2. Important piece of advice, Julie!

    I recently had to turn down a travel guide update. I wanted to fly to the city itself, but the plane ticket was a little more than the pay for updating guide.

    Now factor in food, lodging…. and I was already in the red.

    Even though I’d visited the city twice before, I still wanted that on the ground research and couldn’t do it for nothing.

    As for the glossy magazines, some of them send their own editors on press trips as “research” but don’t allow freelance submissions.

  3. I’m sure this was a hard decision, especially when you factor in how you could make if you stayed home, but then at the same time isn’t this what being a travel writer is all about? Being able to have the flexible schedule so you can go places and really experience them rather than just learn about them from books and websites?

    Looking forward to reading about the Wilds! I’ve only ever driven through that area and have never stopped to check it out.

  4. Absolutely spot on, Julie! And sad but true, it is one of the hardest things about being a travel writer, at least one who strives to write from the perspective of an authentic experience.

    All that said I’m glad you had the opportunity to see that beautiful rising mist and those tiny baby birds – I can close my eyes and imagine the smiles those sights bring, just from the few words you wrote above.

  5. Pingback: Places are like people: They change. « Cuaderno Inedito

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