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by Barbara Weddle
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What are road-trip articles?
Road-trip articles are two- to three-page features that outline a single- or multi-day journey taken by car, RV, or bike, describing things to do and see along a particular route. They can be as ordinary as a Sunday drive near home or as extraordinary as a weeks-long drive in some distant land. They can be a themed round-up of the best antique stores along Florida's I-95 coast or a mish-mash of unrelated things to do and see. They can be as short as an eleven-mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or as long as a nearly-fifteen-hundred-mile drive along the Alaska Highway. In all instances, however, a good road-trip article lures a traveler to the open road.
Who can write one? Anyone who has a love for the open road and has decent grammar and writing skills.
Where does one begin?
Start with a road trip that is familiar to you. You must have some first-hand knowledge of the featured area or route you intend to write about. This doesn't mean that you have to drive the route on a daily basis; obviously, if you're featuring a road trip you took in Sierra Leone, you very likely will never drive it again (unless, of course, you live there). Having driven your proposed road-trip-article route at least once, however, gives you a feel for it that you'd not have otherwise.
Also, choose a route that appeals to you personally; if you find a particular route awe-inspiring, educational or just plain fun, it is likely that others will also. When I lived in Kentucky, I often made a couple of back-and-forth drives between Midway and Versailles just because I found the rolling landscape of the aristocratic horse farms and the narrow winding Midway Road, bordered by ageless oaks and blossoming red-bud in spring, beautiful beyond belief.
Choose a particular magazine to write for. Using as a guide one or more of the road-trip articles therein, pick them apart paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, paying special attention to the magazine's tone, style, audience, mission and editorial priorities. For example, are stories told through itinerary alone, or does the magazine require a little of the local culture also? Ask yourself what makes that particular magazine's articles work. Apply those strategies to your own article, modifying it here, molding it there, to fit your own particular style.
A great idea is to obtain brochures, road maps, visitors' guides, historical information, etc. from the visitors' centers or chambers of commerce of the area in which your road trip takes place. These will supply you with added information that you may not have discovered during your online research or your actual drive. Study the printed materials thoroughly, concentrating on those places that fit into your route, particularly those you intend to use in your article. Keep in mind, however, that it's the little-known facts and destinations, found only by your physical presence, that takes your article beyond just a "good" road-trip article.
What does a good road-trip article require?
It must first inform travelers how to get to the place of origin. If the trip begins near Lexington, Kentucky, for example, travelers from other locales should know what airport to arrive at and then be given directions to the location where the road trip actually begins. Anchoring the start of your trip with an interesting town or city, especially one with much to offer in the way of things to see and do, is a good way to begin your road trip.
A good road-trip article must have authenticity. The article must not only show that the writer is thoroughly familiar with the itinerary, but that he is alert to its subtle nuances and those of the people along the route. An author must hold the traveler's hand. An eye for strong images and the ability to commit those images to paper is also essential.
Tell the reader how long a particular road trip is, both in mileage and days; if the trip will take longer than one day, suggest what hotel in what town travellers might spend the night or nights so as to break up the trip into workable chunks.
The article must give step-by-step or mile-by-mile directions in which you highlight points of interest, eateries, shopping options, hotels or B&Bs and other attractions or amenities along the route, all woven seamlessly into the article along with evocative descriptions of scenery and tidbits of local culture and history (all depending upon the particular requirements of the publication you're writing for, of course). For example, you might mention that a small Kentucky hamlet, included in the road trip, was sold to the Lexington and Ohio Railroad Company in 1835, thus becoming Kentucky's first railroad town. Or, if writing a themed road-trip article on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you may want to include the fact that 95% of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky because Kentucky has the perfect mix of conditions and climate to produce bourbon.
A basically lineal road-trip route is the norm; however, it may occasionally digress slightly so that travelers can check out something especially noteworthy away from the route. Bear in mind, however, that it's best that digressions be within approximately a five-mile radius of the main route, give or take, and that precise instructions for returning to the main route be given.
A good road-trip article provides accurate information. All directions and locations must be precise: route numbers and names of highways, etc., as well as cardinal points (. . . then double back south into Arizona along U.S. 191 for 32 miles . . .) must be dead on. Times of tours, events, etc. should be coordinated with itineraries so that travellers don't miss them. Fees for such events should be given as well as all other pertinent information. Misinformation on the part of the writer can disrupt or even ruin a traveler's trip. Finally, the article must be written clearly so that the traveler will find the itinerary easy to read and understand.
Service information (often given as a sidebar) such as a printed map of the route, what is new along the route, emergency information, safety tips, handy apps to take along, tips on where to get money-saving coupons for restaurants, hotels, entertainment, etc., special items you might need to take along for extreme environments, etc. are also essential. Other information such as back roads too narrow and winding for RVs, what type of vehicle to consider for that rough drive in the mountains, warnings or safety precautions such as road conditions, torrential rains, fire danger, steep elevations, etc. are also helpful.
The article must inform a traveler where to obtain further information (chambers of commerce, web sites, welcome centers, national- and state-park maps and/or ranger stations, etc.).
The article should include suggestions on the best time of year to make the road trip. For example, a traveler would get more from a trip to Kentucky in early or late spring during foaling season or when the red bud (a small tree with purple-pink flowers) is in bloom, or an event like Keeneland (horse racing) is taking place. Tell the reader when a particular location might be extremely hot and humid or bitterly cold, so that the reader can plan travel around personal comfort.
What is a travel article without photos? Take copious photos of your road-trip itinerary; photos are usually required, and, in any case, they make your article more salable. [Editor's Note: If you have not taken photos or find that they didn't turn out, consider contacting those same chambers of commerce and tourism offices, which can often supply photos for your piece at no charge.]
The completed article
Ideally, you should drive your subject route one final time after your article is completed but before you send it in. This is the time for you to verify locations, mileages, directions, etc. Do route numbers, highway numbers, names of interstates still match those given in your article? Is that "down-home" little restaurant still located in that rambling, wood-frame building in Keene, population 80, or has it closed its doors? Highway construction or natural disturbances may have altered routes. [Editor's Note: In instances of construction, or when an attraction may be temporarily closed for renovations, consider when your article will actually be published. In many cases, the repairs or construction may be completed before the piece sees print, but it's always a good idea to mention that an attraction is "scheduled" to reopen at a certain time -- quite often, they don't.] If re-visiting your proposed road-trip route is not possible, the skilled teams at the local visitor's centers and chambers of commerce will be more than glad to assist you in your verification process.
Finally, keep copies of all your research and printed materials, references, sources, notes, quotes. An editor may ask you for verification of something during the magazine's fact-checking process.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
Barbara Weddle has had travel articles and essays, book reviews, service articles and personal essays published in more than 250 publications, including Travel Smart, The Missouri Review, Chelsea, Chicago Life, Writers Write, The Writer and many more.