YVONNE VAN DONGEN has been a travel editor and writer for over 20 years. She’s edited the travel section of the largest newspaper in New Zealand as well as the country’s first dedicated glossy travel magazine. She’s worked at Conde Nast Traveler in New York. Yvonne has won over 19 prestigious travel writing awards including a fellowship to study travel writing at Cambridge University.
Q. How did you become a writer? Tell us a bit about your development as a writer.
A: I’ve always been an avid reader, which I believe is critical for anyone wanting to become a writer. In fact I think loving your work is essential for anyone aiming to do their job well. My writing arose out of a desire to create something as wonderful as the prose I’d read. I’ve never achieved that to my satisfaction so that’s what keeps me going. It seems a worthy aspiration and will take me all my life.
Q: What has been your greatest writing achievement?
A: Writing has allowed me in to people’s homes, to travel and it has given me opportunities to study via a scholarship – all of which I value immensely. I guess my most astonishing writing achievement was working at Condé Nast Traveler in New York. I’d expected that to remain a dream forever.
Q. How do you decide what to write about? Where do you get ideas?
A: Ideas are everywhere but my tried and true way of getting them is simply to talk to people from different walks of life. They’ve almost always got something to offer, another perspective, a new angle, a story you’ve never considered. Having said that I’ve also been guilty of not seeing the story under my nose. Sometimes it’s easier to look at things from the outside – which is why I love travel writing.
Q. How easy is it to make a living as a writer?
A: It isn’t. Everyone knows that right? The easiest way is to be employed by a newspaper or magazine or publishing house but then you lose your freedom. It’s either freedom or money and every now and then I switch my choices.
Q. What general advice would you give aspirant writers/journalists just starting out?
A: Read read read. Write write write. Talk with friends keen on writing about writing. Discuss the great or terrible articles you’ve read and what makes them work/fail miserably. Develop a writing community. Become part of a writer’s group. Immerse yourself in writing. It’s never a chore if you love it.
Q: What do you consider to be the most important writing tip you ever received?
A: Hook the reader from the beginning – without sacrificing your integrity i.e. resorting to cheap sensationalism.
Q: When you mark your students’ work, what are key qualities you look for in their work?
A: Structure is critical. Good grammar is even more important. It’s darn near impossible to become a good writer if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar. By that, I don’t mean deconstructing a piece in terms of verbs, adverbs and the past continuous tense. I mean a strong sense of what sounds right, what reads right. If you’re mangling the language it’s painful to read.
Q. Any tips particularly for travel writers?
A: Don’t be too polite. Excessive courtesy leads to cliché. No bed and breakfast is totally charming, not every local is friendly or every village quaint. Travel writing isn’t a diary. It involves dissembling – condensing time, omitting events, in short, crafting a good story.
About the Writer: