I’ve mentioned it here before, but I am currently working on a full-time Master’s degree in Creative (Non-Fiction) Writing. I also have a job that mostly involves writing and editing. I also have this blog, and other freelance assignments, so… you guessed it, more writing. Across the board, everything I write has some sort of connection to travelling. While I hesitate to call myself a travel writer – that’s not exactly what I do – I sure as hell do a lot of travel writing. And the more I do, the more I realise I’m not very good at it all the time.
Over the last year and a half, my degree and my job have taken up most of my life. I have sadly had to let this blog slip behind a little bit, which breaks my heart. I love writing blog posts. Sometimes I go back and read old blog posts for inspiration for the book I’m writing, and once in a while I feel really proud of what I’ve written. A lot of the time, however, I cringe. I’m totally guilty of doing some really lazy travel writing. Lock me up and throw away the key, because I have definitely described a city as a “fascinating blend of the ancient and the modern”.
So, mostly out of sheer self-shaming (in the hopes that I never blog/write using these words again… or at least minimise my use of them) here are the words I think are overused in travel writing and travel blogging. This list is purely my subjective opinion, snark and all, so I’d love to hear your thoughts and your additions in the comments!
1. Amazing… and all those other superlatives. I wrote a strange introduction to this art museum in Cyprus in which I describe how often I use superlatives. I’m sure many of us are guilty of it. Think about it: how often do you say the words amazing, cool, awesome, or brilliant? And, because we think we need to be just a bit classier when we write, how often do you write the words fascinating, interesting, fantastic, stunning, gorgeous, wonderful, terrific, and the best? I don’t think that using these words in travel writing is awful… the problem occurs when they’re the only words that are used at all. I’ve read so many pieces about places that – if literally taken word for word – would mean that that place is undoubtedly heaven on earth, it is so mind-glowingly amazing (see: half my blog posts). Now what I do after each blog post or article I’ve written is a word search for words I know I’m guilty of overusing. I recently wrote an article only to discover I’d used the word beautiful six times in eight hundred words. Okay, yes, the place really is ridiculously beautiful, but using that word that many times is just being negligent. Be creative with your vocabulary choices, but don’t go overboard with the thesaurus, either. If the reader can’t immediately figure out what it is you’re trying to say or trying to describe, he’ll tune out completely. Big words don’t equal great writing.
2. Quaint. I find this word a bit patronising, as if you’re patting the town you’re describing on the head. I’ve used it before on this blog: “My favourite places are tiny Pai and quaint Popayan, sleepy Kampot and relaxed Mendoza.” Whoops. It just strikes me as a lazy word, though I understand the desire to use it – there aren’t that many words that mean the same thing that aren’t as overused, too. Picturesque? Charming? Whimsical??? Yikes.
3. Hidden gem. From my searches on this blog, and through my (shaky) memory, I am pretty sure I’ve never written the words hidden gem on here. Why? I think it’s a phrase that once carried a bit of weight, but now seems quite clichéd. I recently saw an article that listed Florence as a hidden gem. What?! This is the kind of phrase that should make a writer use her imagination: how else can this idea be explained? Off the beaten path falls into this category, too.
4. Delicious. I have nothing against using this word to describe food. Food can indeed be very delicious. The problem I have with this word is when it is used to describe something other than food. Same goes for scrumptious, tasty, and for… *and I gag*… yummy. Whoever first uttered the phrase yummy mummy should be forced to never eat anything scrumptious, tasty, or delicious again.
I found this list of words that can help describe food (it also has a good list of synonyms for the dreaded “amazing”).
5. Must-see. I’ve always found this phrase to be a trifle bossy. Oh really? I simply must see it? Or what?? To be fair, I’ve used it on this blog before: “The best places to see street art in Berlin are Mitte, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain; another must-see is the alleyway off of Rosenthaler Straße, where many different artists have worked together to create a spectacular, ever-changing gallery.” I definitely could have come up with another phrase there.
6. Exotic. To describe something as exotic, by pure definition, means that the thing you’re describing is from a foreign land. Pretty simple and straightforward. I’ve used it on this blog before: “One Friday I walked through Antigua Market, caught in the chaos and the exoticism: the ripening fruit spilling into the aisles, the fluttering paper wisps of piñatas, the air perfumed by bunches of lilies and fly-covered meat.” The problem I have with this word is when it is used to describe a person. “Exotic locals” don’t exist. Similarly, I despise when people describe a person’s looks as “exotic”. No – you’re just presupposing a shared cultural context. Technically speaking, if you’re in a foreign country, you’re the exotic one.
7. “Real”. I can’t stand when people say they’ve discovered the “real” Thailand or the “real” Paris or whatever it is that people think real means. If you’re in Thailand, you’re in Thailand. Whatever you see around you is real, and whatever you see around you is now a part of the Thai culture. Just because something doesn’t suit your assumed image of a place doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. I also shudder when I read or hear the word “authentic”, which I wrote a whole blog post about here.
8. Meander. Did you meander through that quaint village that was nestled in the countryside?! It just comes across as quite clichéd to me; when I write, I try to think if I would use that word in an everyday sentence. Yes, okay, I’m guilty of writing it: “We head back to the beach to finish up yet another novel. We meander back to the hotel room, have another cold shower, put on our best clothes (the best meaning the least wrinkled from our backpacks). We walk back along the water, searching for happy hour deals and barbecued fish.”
9. Love. I use the word love so much on this blog that it shows up in a search on thirty three pages with an average of ten posts per page. Damn. A rough count saw that I have used the word love in the title of over thirty posts. I just really love a lot of things, okay guys?? But yes, I should try to cut it back. We can’t truly love every place we visit, just like we can’t love every single person we date. Besides, the opposite experiences usually make for the best stories anyway… both with places and with dates.
10. Adverbs. I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing – a book I recommend for all writers, fiction and non-fiction alike – and one of the things he emphasised was to cut out as many adverbs as possible. I had heard that before, but for some reason it stuck with me this time. And it’s true… why do we need to say she ran quickly, or that he shouted loudly, or that she pleaded abjectly? These are all presumed by the verb you used. This is also connected to that classic adage in writing, show, don’t tell, which I try to implement in my writing every day. Don’t tell us how she felt… show us, through her body language and her dialogue.
Oh yeah, and I’m also trying to cut out almost every “very” and “really” from my writing. I’m not really angry, I’m furious. I’m not very happy, I’m elated. Here are a few more good ‘feeling’ words to use.
Just a few edits to go through
Bonus overused words: epic, sun-dappled, nestled, friendly locals, bucket list, foodie, magical (I’m totally guilty of that one), “I’ll be back one day” (also guilty of that a lot) and, let us not forget, a “fascinating blend of the ancient and the modern”. One of the best books I’ve ever read on travel writing is Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson. Gritty and hilarious, it will make you think twice about using some of these words again.
What do you think? Do you agree with this list? What else would you add?