Writing travelogues is hugely popular, often done well, and rarely tested for ethical compliance. I suppose that’s because the ethics of the piece don’t travel well, are thought to be mere baggage, and add little to the romance or thrill of the trip. There are scores of websites, classes, lectures, and promises about travel writing. As far as I can tell, no one has ever tried to catalogue the travelogue ethically. One leading “how to” site[1] offers ten tips for successful travelogue writing. I’ll test their first tip for ethical compliance.

Tip 1: Research About the Place. “Make a thorough research of it.” Not particularly good writing—but a good idea. “First and foremost you should look up all the available information related to the place.” All the available information? Really. What if you’re writing about Rome? Ethically, the test is not “all available information.” It’s enough, true, reliable information. “You could look up books available in the library or you could serf the net.” Ethically, it’s not as simple as looking up a book and doubtful if you “serf the net.” I think they meant surf the net, but that’s fussy, not ethically challenged.  “So, one must always do a thorough research and present a complete knowledgeable database for the readers.” Really? You have to present a complete knowledgeable database. A database[2] would require more than a bag—perhaps a large crate—if the destination is Rome. Clarity is the first ethical norm for travel writing.

Tip 2: Don’t Make It Up: “Travel writing is a form of creative nonfiction in which the narrator’s encounters with foreign places serve as the dominant subject. Also called travel literature . . . All travel writing—because it is writing—is made in the sense of being constructed . . . but travel writing cannot be made up without losing its designation.”[3] That’s the second ethical tip—remember you are writing creative nonfiction. You can’t make it up. You can’t write it about it unless you’ve been there or researched it.

Tip 3: Be Authentic. What else is ethically required in travel writing, besides clarity and truth? While it’s rarely a problem, authenticity may be the hallmark of ethical travel writing. People reading travelogues have every right to assume the writer is not just clear, not just truthful, but most importantly, the writer is authentic. That means the travel writer is “worthy of acceptance, or belief as conforming to, or based on fact.” They think you are painting an authentic picture of the place you’re writing about. They think you are limiting what you say so as to reproduce the essential features of the place you’re writing about. And they think you are giving them an authentic reproduction, not only of the place, but also the sense, smell, and feel of the place.[4]

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://www.freelancewriting.com/business-writing/8-tips-for-writing-a-travelogue/

[2] A database is an organized collection of data. It is the collection of schemas, tables, queries, reports, views and other objects. The data are typically organized to model aspects of reality in a way that supports processes requiring information, such as modelling the availability of rooms in hotels in a way that supports finding a hotel with vacancies.

[3] https://www.thoughtco.com/travel-writing-1692564

[4] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authentic