Painting a picture with a thousand words

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I’m forever fascinated by the crowds that gather at popular tourist places and the combined obsession with taking thousands of photos of pretty much the same thing. Was it really like this back in the days of film, when 2 rolls of 36 photos would last for a fortnight’s holiday and even allow a token photo of the cat when we got home? What is the point of so many photos of the same view? Pretty it may be, but when it appears on your computer screensaver six months later you’ll have no idea where in the world you saw that green valley, blue sky and old stone bridge.

Some of the photographers at these busy places are busy snapping shots of family and friends: funny poses, serious poses, solos, couples, groups. These are the photos that bring a smile years later to those in the picture and transport them back to that time and place; but apart from those in the photo and their nearest and dearest, no one else will really care.

Then there are the serious photographers, who look around and try to find a photo that does more than simply record the mere presence of the scene. They look for the local people for whom the site is more than just a tourist attraction; they find the unusual angle from which the view takes on a very different appearance; or perhaps they sit in the shadows and capture the behaviour of others as they experience.

And so it is with writing too. In many (perhaps most) instances, the description of a city or a tourist attraction might have easily been written by someone who had never set foot anywhere near the place in question. Research on Wikipedia and from other people’s accounts can get you far these days, at least in providing the hard facts on what you can see and do in a particular place.

For others, the main purpose of writing is to record their personal experiences, what they did with their family and friends while travelling and their personal impressions on each place they visit. Having recently re-read my own travel diaries that I scribbled as an innocent teenage backpacker I can vouch for the pleasure it brings to do this and would encourage everyone setting off on their travels to record their experiences – even if the number of people who care about your musings is very small.

For those who want to create a memorable account of their visit, regardless of whether it’s for a newspaper, a magazine or their own blog (or even their old-fashioned notebook) a simple description, devoid of human interference, doesn’t even tell half a story. While the clever adjectives, similes and metaphors can paint a little of the background, it is the interaction with the people who are living, working or just visiting the scene that will add the necessary detail to make a compelling story and make it undeniably clear to the reader that the author was actually there.

Why am I writing this? If for no other reason then to remind myself of this very simple advice when I’m setting off to research a story that I hope will not only satisfy my editor, but also make an impression on those who happen to read it. As you were.


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Freelance travel writer

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