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‘The Market Was Bustling’ And Other Reasons Why Most Travel Writing Is So Bad

How not to use adjectives when travel writing.

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic- For some reason I glanced at the email newsletter for the post that I published last night. The post was written quickly to fill in a gap in the blog’s narrative. I wasn’t trying to craft something exquisite, but just say, “Yo, I’m staying in the center of Prague. It’s cool.” I was shooting for the fast and banal … but there’s no excuse for one of the lines that I inserted into it. I read it and I had to laugh:

“Anyway, this particular Airbnb is exceptional.”

This line looks innocuous to most people, but to me it’s about as cringeworthy as grinding a set of freshly cut fingernails over polyester. This otherwise inconspicuous line actually holds one of the keys to why most travel writing is so bad: the lazy use of adjectives.

The Airbnb is exceptional.

The woman was beautiful.

The market was bustling.

These are couch potato sentences. They don’t really say anything. They don’t paint a picture of what is being described. This use of an adjective is just a short cut on to the next sentence. As a general rule, try to avoid the Subject + To be + Adjective sentence structure. It comes off as though you can’t be bothered / aren’t creative enough to come up with a more picturesque mode of description.

There are exceptions, of course, and no hard rules here — such as when trying to make a sort of stylistically ironic point — but just keep it in mind that this use of adjectives is the literary equivalent to biting into a steak and getting a mouthful of fat.

If you do use this sentence structure, make sure not to use cliche adjectives, like exceptional or, especially, bustling — the worst word in travel writing. Instead, use something that pushes the reader deeper and better creates the chasm between what you have experienced and what the reader experiences when ingesting your story. It doesn’t have to be majestic, something like “The Airbnb was exceptionally well thought-out, with …” would do it. It’s still a little boring, but it at least gives the imagination some handholds to grasp onto.

A better way to use adjectives is to use the Subject + Verb + Adjective + Noun form.

Ex: “The exceptionally trendy apartment stood at the end of a shady sycamore-lined street in an easy going stretch of Prague 2.”

You could draw a picture of that. You can’t draw a picture of “The apartment was exceptional.”

Basically, when describing something in writing ask yourself the question: Based on what I’ve written, can I draw a picture of it?


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Filed under: Travel Writing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3723 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

12 comments… add one

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  • Rob June 7, 2019, 3:53 pm

    I read your story on the downtown apartment this morning, it was on my phone as an email (this one was listed as new blog when I went online).

    I’m not a writer, in my world “nice” is a big word for describing an apartment on a positive note! I had the impression that you liked where you’re staying, that you’ve accepted (and can afford) the higher cost of a place closer in and that maybe it was a good choice.

    This blog looks like a reminder to yourself. That’s what I saw from where I’m sitting…

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    • Wade Shepard June 7, 2019, 8:31 pm

      Haha, yes, a reminder to myself — that’s exactly what it is.

      I guess I’m getting technical here. The main point of this blog isn’t literary prowess — I don’t edit, proofread, and rarely ever even read what I write on here. I don’t believe this is a negative but a style. This is about real, off the cuff kind of writing. It’s what I like to read in a blog. If I wanted to read articles I’d go read the NY Times. However, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to share this tip. It’s a big issue that I found when I used to edit travel articles. Lame duck adjectives. We all use them every once in a while bit that doesn’t mean they don’t drive me crazy. I’m going to comb through a Theroux book sometime and count how many times he uses adjectives like this. I’m guessing zero, but I could be wrong. Maybe I will challenge someone else to do it???

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      • Rob June 8, 2019, 2:30 pm

        When you get down to it you’re a Wordsmith, I use words to try to communicate… that’s not right… you tell stories, I ramble 🙂

      • Wade Shepard June 8, 2019, 3:19 pm

        Haha, thank you … two different paths to the same destination.

  • Trav June 8, 2019, 3:25 pm

    Most travel writing sucks because it just sucks. Who cares about adjectives?

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    • Wade Shepard June 8, 2019, 3:27 pm

      You’re probably right.

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  • Elisabetta June 8, 2019, 10:38 pm

    Ciao Wade, I subscribed to your newsletter a few years ago, your blog is the only one I read without missing a post. I kept silent until now but I’d like to tell you that I like the way you write – I always feel I am travelling with you. Although my blog is in Italian, I find your advice here very useful. Thank you!

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    • Wade Shepard June 9, 2019, 9:21 am

      That’s incredible! Thanks for coming out of the woods and introducing yourself. Thanks also for reading for so many years. It’s much appreciated. Are you traveling at the moment?

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      • Elisabetta June 10, 2019, 8:41 am

        I’ve lived in Oman (Salalah) for a few months a year so far – I organize tours there but I want to change career -, at the moment I am back to Italy after spending 2 months in India. I need to give my stomach a break from spicy food 😀

      • Wade Shepard June 10, 2019, 12:36 pm

        Oman is cool. What kind of work are you looking for now? Where are you thinking of going off to next?

  • Trevor June 9, 2019, 12:47 pm

    10 readers found this post exceptional….. sounds like a booking dot come review wth

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    • Wade Shepard June 9, 2019, 12:59 pm

      Haha. That’s exceptional!

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