Have Listicle, Will Travel

Dear Mr. Reed,

Thank you for your interest in writing for our magazine. Unfortunately your pitch Inside the Walls of Lima’s Gated Communities doesn’t meet our needs at this time. We encourage you to write again in the future.


An Editor Who Has Way Too Little Time For This


Dear Editor,

Are you kidding? You just ran an article on the science of flatulence. Literally. You called it “Why Do People Fart.” There’s the budget for that, but an inside look at people who get walled in for being too poor doesn’t merit attention? Perhaps if I added a breakout stop at the local strip club with some witty banter about trying to get cash without speaking Spanish? Then I could have a misunderstanding with the bouncer, flee into the city and describe a harrowing night spent trying to find my way back to the hotel while rediscovering the joys of my youth and watching the sun rise over a majestic Pacific coast?

Would that “meet your needs at this time”??

Okay… actually that would be pretty great. I probably should have done that. Or at least interviewed a few more people to get some outside perspective. One or the other.

Thanks for your time and attention and I look forward to hopefully working together in the future.

Yours truly,

A writer who now has to find some other way to pay for that damn trip


Writing for a living means dealing with a lot of rejection, choking down snarky replies and then learning how to use it all to make your stories worth reading. Make them great even, if you’re lucky, because here’s the dirty little secret freelancers won’t tell you: the editor usually has a point.

We writers may take a lot of pride in our work, but nine times out of ten the reason a piece doesn’t land starts at home. The lead may be weak, or it may need more interviews. Maybe you just didn’t have the story to begin with. Whatever the reason, it leads to almost constant rejection; and when your optimism comes from “at least they wrote back this time,” it’s tough not dream up e-mails like the above.

But I should start over.

Four years ago after leaving practice as a lawyer I started writing my way around the world, picking up on stories that seemed worth noticing and working my way up to something like an actual reputation. It was no small transition. As a lawyer I’d managed to do relatively well for myself. My berth in Big Law came with the nice salary, high rise office and (marginal) job security for which the industry is famous… along with long hours, stress and more than a few grey hairs before age 30.

Also something the industry is famous for.

Still, it was an accomplishment. Getting there took years of hard work. It meant I’d grown up and become somebody. A toil over the client’s brief on Saturday, put up with coworkers who could make juries vote for death in a civil case kind of somebody, but somebody nevertheless. I’d gotten to a place worth going. Then I chucked it all over to start again as a journalist.

I could have held out and tried to apply for more glamorous media jobs out of the law, but years ago, working on carpentry crews as a student, I picked up two philosophies:

First, the guy who can’t be bothered to do the little things can’t be trusted to do the big ones.

Second, when in doubt just do the work. In other words, don’t look for shortcuts or easy solutions. If you’re not sure where to start, the option that involves the most hard work is usually the right one.

So I started small. I wrote listicles and pop culture pieces. I pitched to anyone who’d have me. The first article I wrote for my current regular site was an app review.

Today, I still get to write anything… as long as it’s worth saying. Last winter alone I bounced from covering the violence in Paris to a top ten list about Christmas markets around the world. But at heart I’m a beat writer, albeit one who often lives out of a backpack, and my work reflects it. I write about human rights and economic policy, and often where the two issues intersect. I even get to do some travel writing from time to time.

The truth is that there are a lot of good stories to tell, and they don’t always come in the same form.

Sometimes this job is about telling the truth to power or shining a light on things unseen. Many of us in this industry consider it public service. We don’t do this job for money or glory. Celebrities aside, there are no successful journalists who couldn’t make more money doing something else, usually with better hours. We often receive threats from strangers, contempt from family members think we’ve got the wrong politics and a heaping helping of financial insecurity to tie it all off.

But we do this because someone has to. We write because if journalists stopped working there would be no one to give voices to the voiceless and, as hyperbolic as that sounds, that’s the job.

Happily, for all of the high minded reasons we write, that’s also not the whole job. I think we’d go insane if it were. A chef might live for his chance to craft the perfect duck confit, but it’s also fun to whip up a great grilled cheese sandwich. For a journalist, sometimes it’s just about making the reader smile or sharing a laugh.

To crib the famous quote from Stephen King, any writing that pays the power bill and buys the next ticket forward is probably worth doing. Maybe I won’t get a Pulitzer for listing off the five cities I miss most around the world, but I damn sure had fun doing it.

Sometimes, that’s more than good enough.


Eric Reed may be the only living travel writer who's afraid to fly. A freelance journalist, reformed lawyer and accidental expert on economic policy, he launched Things Dangerous as a place to tell the ups and downs of a beat writer's life on the road.

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