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Travel Writing by the Numbers

Markus

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  • Added on: February 13th, 2009
Am the only one that finds this trend of publishing list stories incredibly irritating? It's bad enough that the print magazines have been doing this for years, but it seems that in recent months the online world has latched onto this format as the holy grail of travel writing. I honestly couldn't care about the top 5 most romantic getaways, the 10 best places to vomit, or the 7 scariest toilets in the world.

Maybe it's just me. Does anyone really enjoy reading these, or am I missing something here?

rawjer

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  • Added on: February 15th, 2009
Hey Markus,

You are definitely not alone, but these list articles have been popular for casual reading for decades at least, so the trend isn't new. If you notice that more online publishers are doing more of them, it's only because they tend to perform better than any other category, by far.

I know this because I have written my fair share of them, and I also get to see all the statistics. Not even using BootsnAll as an example, I'm sure you've also noticed that almost the entire Matador Bounty Board is filled with list articles, even if some of them don't yet have a number in the title.

You are a good writer who is active in the community, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, or from any other person who is involved and has an opinion. The vast majority of our editorial content throughout the BootsnAll network is aimed at a specific audience who is researching a specific thing. Those pieces can do well over time, but it's a long-term investment that only works sometimes.

If we published stories about, say, touring the Australian Outback on $20 per day, it would be great for budget travelers heading in that direction, but the vast majority of people don't care because they aren't going to Oz anytime soon anyway.

I'm sure magazine publishers through the ages have tried different approaches, and I can assure you that online publishers are doing the same, but until we find anything else that can appeal to more than a very small segment of our potential audience, then you'll be seeing plenty of lists.

Seriously, if you have other ideas for general interest things that might appeal to more than just people considering heading to one destination, let me know. And please feel free to submit your specific ideas to BootsnAll. We pay $50 for feature and $30 for expert articles, which is more than you'd get most other places.

Check out our guidelines for feature articles and get involved if you can. And the same goes for any other writers out there.
http://writers.bootsnall.com/bootsnall-feature-articles-program/

jv

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  • Added on: February 19th, 2009
markus wrote:Am the only one that finds this trend of publishing list stories incredibly irritating?


No, you are not the only one. But as rawjer says, I suspect the easy scan-through reading they provide makes them hit magnets, so they're not going anywhere. They're also easy to write, involving minimal research and a rehashing of superficial cliches (which also makes them easy to read, I suppose).

Note that it's not just in the travel industry either -- Forbes online seems to run about six of these stories per week, "the world's 10 most expensive hamburgers," "the best college towns in the U.S. etc.")

Given the prevalence, I'd say the ground is fertile for a story titled "7 reasons why 'list stories' suck"!

Callilucy

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  • Added on: February 19th, 2009
rawjer wrote:If we published stories about, say, touring the Australian Outback on $20 per day, it would be great for budget travelers heading in that direction, but the vast majority of people don't care because they aren't going to Oz anytime soon anyway.


Ooh, I really, really, really want to read this article. For serious. Not only am I going there soon; I'd read it anyway because its about a) budget travel and b) a destination I am interested in and c) may actually be useful, thus giving it worth, thus causing me to bookmark it and read it several times.

I know you get loads of hits on those list stories and I've clicked on a few myself. However, I generally REALLY regret it and wish I could take my click back from the statistics. They are rarely well written and as jv mentions are rife with stereotypes and cliches. I've seen one or two that take it so far as to be downright offensive because they are just regurgitating racist/sexist/what have you stereotypes. MSN frequently fools me into clicking on such links with tantalizing headlines and then I get a crap list story. Really its more about the headline isn't it? That's the main source of your clicks, right (aside from whether the story is actually deemed worth forwarding)?
I don't want to be fearless, I want to be brave.

rawjer

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  • Added on: February 19th, 2009
Callilucy,

I totally know what you mean, and even as the person who's probably written most of the racist and sexist list articles myself, I'm not offended, and I sympathize with you. The majority of our articles-traffic comes not from our homepage, but from when someone really likes something and they link to it themselves and it goes viral. The article that you and NTFT particularly didn't like has been one of our must successful in the last month, and I'm guessing that doesn't surprise you. I still really like it and think it's interesting, which is why I wrote it.

The writers spend most of our time writing passionate advice pieces about specific destinations that are close to our hearts, and I wish we currently had an Australiablog writer to put together that Outback piece for you. As I mentioned before, those specific things just don't appeal to the masses, and we wish they did much more than you do, believe me.

This is similar to why "American Idol" (a show I admit to loving) gets 10 times the ratings of "The Wire." We could go insane trying to figure out why fewer people care about our article concerning bike tours of the Burgundy region, or we can mix those up with specific broad-appeal topics that we also like. And strange as it may sound, every article we publish was written by someone who came up with the idea themselves, and chose to spend a long time on it.

I don't blame anyone for hating list articles, or hating American Idol, but they are both popular for a reason. If anyone has any great ideas we'd love to hear them, whether you are prepared to write them yourself (and get paid) or not. Anyone have ideas? Post it here or PM me. Please! :)

halfnine

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  • Added on: February 20th, 2009
I have shifted towards list. I admit it. I certainly didn't want to but travel writing in general has become such shite it is leaving me no choice. Travel articles have simply become increasingly embellished and overly dramatic. It seems, at least to me, that authors are more interested these days in departing from reality for the sake of emphasis then in actually writing a clever piece with some actual insight.

Now with list articles.....well I certainly don't discount anything that anyone here has said that are critical of them, but at least I can quickly scan through them and see if there is anything in the list that I haven't heard of and/or that may interest me so that I can research it farther. But wading through other travel articles these days trying to try to find something actually worth reading is largely becoming a waste of my time.

itinerantlondoner

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  • Added on: February 20th, 2009
I don't mind lists per se, it's just the quality of many is so poor, and have clearly just been researched by a lazy google search rather than having visited. Just looking at the list of current top articles, the list of eleven best cathedrals in Europe contains three sites that aren't cathedrals, and the list of best beaches appears to be confusing Cavellet beach in Ibiza with the nearby Salinas beach (Cavallet is actually more a gay beach, and doesn't have that many bars, Salinas is the one with celebs and more bars). That's just picking two at random - so I generally have little faith in the other content.
Currently on a twelve month RTW trip. Read about my experiences at http://itinerantlondoner.wordpress.com

jv

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  • Added on: February 20th, 2009
Another reason they're so popular (I'm guessing) is that they stimulate discussion. Once the article is read a few times, the comments start to pile up -- mostly of the "I can't believe xxx was left off the list" and "this list is crazy" variety. The nature of list stories makes this inevitable, but some of the them seem written to bait.

Markus

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  • Added on: February 20th, 2009
I completely understand the appeal of list articles in a print medium where each issue needs contain articles with mass appeal, but what's great about the online world is that you're always looking at a gigantic catalogue of everything ever published on that site. Backpacker Magazine running the 10 best Alpine hikes, has a high chance of having one of those hikes be in the neighbourhood of a chunk of its readership. BUT… if you had the full collection of every issue of Backpacker Magazine, and they were to print a Washington issue, and an Oregon issue, and a California issue, and a Utah issue (etc, etc, etc), and I had the whole collection in front of me, I could just look up the articles that are relevant to me.

It's not the list articles per se, I've been skimming over them in magazines for many years, but the fact that I've just become aware of the massive online shift to this style of writing.

And rawjer, I get where BnA is coming from with the mass-appeal and payment for such. It makes sense that these articles would bring in traffic, and it makes sense that BnA would pay for the articles that drive people to the site.

Personally, I only tend to read travel narratives. It's a bias I'm aware of, and I was mostly curious as to what the general attitude out there was. I've submitted very little of my writing for public consumption, and never tried to put any serious effort into it, but I am looking at moving in that direction over the next couple of years. If writing list articles helps me make rent, then I'm not too proud to go there.

rawjer

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  • Added on: February 25th, 2009
Thanks for this frank discussion on this topic.

NPR published a list article today on why people like lists

And I've been thinking myself recently about why this format seems to work where most others fail. As JV points out, they can spur debate in a way that narratives can't. I've read that some writers employ tricks like leaving an obvious thing off just to get a lot of traffic in comments calling him an idiot, but we never go for such things, and I think most writers are honestly trying their best to make them as good as possible.

Speaking of that, thanks for pointing those things out, itinerantlondoner. Of course it's impossible to fact-check everything in a feature article, but still, those examples don't make me feel good about missing them, and we'll try even harder in the future.

I really think the main reasons lists tend to perform well on the internet and in casual-reading magazines and tabloids, is that most readers have a short attention span, at least for things they aren't sure they want to commit to. As others have said, you can scan through a list to see if any of it appeals to you, and there isn't any risk. It's just human nature that most people don't want to start reading a 2,000-word article if they have no idea if it'll be interesting, or turn into some political rant that they will disagree with, or will abruptly change subjects in the middle to something that bores you.

And Markus, as I mentioned before, a huge majority of the content that the BootsnAll writers write every day, is actually the destination-specific and topic-specific stuff, similar to the state-by-state hiking example you mentioned. Jessica recently completed an awesome series of articles on attending the Tour de France, and it was done by her choice and with passion. But we know from experience that it will only appeal to a very small subset of people. We've only started this new series of daily "feature" articles (mostly written by freelancers) as a way of drawing new visitors to our other content.

And please don't think these many list articles are written under duress or from financial hardship. I've written more of these than anyone on this site, and I've enjoyed researching and writing every single one of them. The fact that many have done well in traffic is a bonus.

I'd love to get even more creative with some of the articles we do, so please feel free to pitch your most interesting ideas. The weird ones often do better than the normal-sounding ones, so come up with your own theme to write about, and if it lends itself to a list format, don't get hung up on that part. We'd love to get more members and writers involved, and we'd love new ideas whether they are lists or not.

everett

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  • Added on: March 15th, 2009
My website is mainly a travel news site; but I have started writing some of my own list articles, and as others have mentioned, they do get a lot of readers, so I will be adding more in the future. I always do my own research, however, as I think an area where list articles really fail is when lazy writers use press releases for all of their content. Don't get me wrong, I love a well written press release as it can provide some great information; but in my opinion, nothing looks worse than just publishing a press release word for word - and there are plenty of PR agencies out there who are smart enough to write their own list articles, insert their product at the top of the list, and send it out knowing that it will get published all over the web.
www.jamblemag.com - green travel magazine

leftcoaster

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  • Added on: March 30th, 2009
Check out www.wendmag.com
The only story we have published that has numbers in it is called 10000 steps in peru.
We don't do anything about the 10 best or whatever.
www.wendmagazine.com

Markus

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  • Added on: March 30th, 2009
@leftcoaster, I've been a fan of Wend for a while now. Saw an issue that someone brought brack from the Outdoor Retailer show in SLC a few years back, and was really impressed. I had a trip that I was planning on pitching to Wend, but the trip fell through with a possible reschedule next summer, so we'll see.



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