It’s hard not to look at Nina Karnikowski’s life with a certain level of envy – she travels the world, meets fascinating people and gets paid to write about it. It’s a hard slog though, as anyone who has done any travel writing can attest. Here Nina shares how she became a travel writer and how she maintains her discipline.
Travelling the world with Nina Karnikowski
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I’m a freelance travel writer, who splits her time between Sydney’s eastern beaches, my husband and his family’s farm in the Hunter Valley and, well, the world. My great loves (besides travel and writing) are yoga, getting into the outdoors and connecting with nature, our dogs Minty and Milka who look more like polar bears than pooches, nourishing food and wine, and my family. Not necessarily in that order.
How did you come to be a freelance writer?
I started out nine years ago as a junior writer at Fairfax Media in the magazine division, after doing a five-year degree in journalism and international studies at UTS. Back then I mostly wrote the bits and pieces no one else really wanted to write, across titles including Good Weekend, Sunday Life and the(Sydney)magazine, but after a couple of years started getting bigger stories and columns.
Finally, I was offered a role on the travel team where I stayed for my last year at the company. I’d toyed with the idea of going out on my own a fair bit in the past, so when a voluntary redundancy program came up I took it as a sign and took the plunge. It’s been two-and-a-half years now and I’ve never looked back.
What sorts of stories/articles do you write?
These days I write travel stories exclusively, I made a decision when I went out on my own to focus on that for as long as I could. I write mainly about exotic destinations with a nature and spirituality bent, and my travel career has taken me across the wild plains of Mongolia in ex-Russian military vehicles, through the Moroccan desert on the back of a camel, tramping through the kaleidoscopic streets of India (where I lived for a year in 2013), slipping along the waterways of Cambodia and Vietnam aboard luxury ships, safariing through a clutch of east African nations and beyond.
Who do you predominantly write for?
I still write mainly for the Traveller liftouts of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, as well as for magazines like Virgin Voyeur, Paradise and YEN’s travel pages, Yahoo7’s travel site, Escape in the Daily Telegraph, and for brands including MasterCard and Flight Centre. I also appear on SKY News regularly as a travel expert, and I have my own blog at travelswithnina.com.
Do you have a favourite story?
A recent favourite is this one I wrote for Traveller about a trip to Rishikesh in northern India, and trying to find peace in an ashram. I like it because it’s honest and real and is in alignment with my passions. When I get to combine all my interests of travelling, writing, exotic cultures and exploring consciousness, I’m happy.
What does your freelancing week look like?
For better or for worse, no two weeks in my life are ever the same, mainly because I’m on the road so much. Over the past three months I’ve taken assignments to Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and Chitwan National Park, to Hobart for the Australian Antarctic Festival, to New Zealand’s South Island, to cruise the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, to trek in Peru and to explore Chile’s Atacama Desert.
Even though travel writing sounds glamorous, it also sounds exhausting.
Exhausting? Yes. And I don’t get much work done while I’m away. But is it worth it? HELL YES. I’ve learned to let go of the anxiety about when the next pay check is coming in and when I’ll get time to sit down and write, because I know that there will be periods of stillness. Like now, when I’m holed up on our farm for a few weeks just writing my butt off. In these periods I have to be a strict boss lady with myself, making self-imposed deadlines and creating pitch lists at the start of the week. With no one else cracking the whip, the days can easily slip away unless you’re strict with yourself.
How many stories are you writing at any one time?
Usually I try to write two stories a week which is a few thousand words, pitch at least two stories a week, create some form of content for my site (whether that be a story, a video, or getting pieces up on my Bazaar), leaving time to read as much as I can and do some writing exercises to keep on top of my craft.
When you said you try to pitch two stories a week … does that mean you tend to pitch before you travel or after?
I do both. If it’s a tourism board or property that’s sending me they usually want a solid commission before they send a writer, so I’ll pitch before I leave to make sure I’m not letting anybody down. At other times, you may be sent somewhere simply based on your reputation as a published travel writer, then it’s up to you to find the outlets once you’re back. These days publications are increasingly after ‘listicles’ and round-up stories too, which of course can be pitched at any time based on past experiences. That’s great news for those of us who can’t be on the road all year round!
What is your preferred way to travel?
I’d have to say it’s when I travel at my own expense. It’s obviously much more of a drain on your resources, but that way there are zero expectations, there’s no one to please, it’s just you and your authentic experiences which are always what the most unique and truthful stories grow from. Having said that, travelling with a group on a famil can be so much fun, and really interesting once you get back to see all the different angles the writers come up with, depending on which parts of the journey spoke to them.
Now that you work fairly regularly with a number of publications, do you get mostly ‘yeses’ to your pitches, or do you still get met with the dreaded editor silence?!
The thick skin is still a definite necessity. Which I’m actually ok with, I like to think of it as a way of keeping the ol’ ego in check! With publications like Traveller and YEN that I work with very regularly pitching is always straightforward and collaborative, which is great. But with other publications that I’ve only written for a few times it’s still tricky, especially when they’re monthly glossies that only run say 50 features a year. To be one of those, you really have to be great, and have sizzling ideas.
What advice would you give to a freelance writer wanting to make the leap into full time freelancing?
JUST DO IT. It might sound easier said than done, but it could also be infinitely easier than you imagine. Either way, not doing the things that matter to you and that you really want to do seems, to me at least, as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.
There will probably be a period of instability at the beginning, so try to build up a little nest egg to soften the financial blow, then just be persistent and work your butt off to get where you want to be. And tailor your lifestyle to your income: take the bus, buy vintage clothes, opt for cheaper dining options, come up with creative ways of spending your down time that don’t cost anything like hiking, ocean swimming, camping or cooking. You’ll probably find you end up much happier than you were before. I certainly am.
What’s next for you?
I’m pretty happy with where things are at right now, so mostly I’d just like to hone my skills. Keep testing the boundaries with my writing. Keep discovering new corners of the globe (Namibia, Israel and Argentina are top of the list). Keep playing with new forms of content to connect with my audiences. And, of course, keep trying to find new outlets to get my work out there.