Welcome to Location Independent Success Stories!
In this series, I’ll be introducing you to inspiring men and women who are using their unique skills and talents to live the location independent lifestyle of their dreams.
This week, I’m excited to introduce Steph Dyson, a UK native who has some incredible advice on how to become a travel writer and get paid to do what you love.
Steph Dyson is a freelance travel writer originally from the UK who now spends a lot of her time in Santiago, Chile. Having traveled and volunteered across South America since 2014, she now writes about beyond-the-beaten-trail adventures, using her extensive experience of exploring (and getting lost in) this continent. A former teacher, avid cheese eater, and famous Bolivian TV personality (well, almost), she never says no to an adventure.
First, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background and what are you doing now?
I’m a former secondary school English teacher from the UK turned travel writer, guidebook author, and blogger.
I left the UK and my job back in October 2014 with the plan to volunteer in Bolivia for a few months before continuing on a two-year journey around the world.
Over three years later and still based in South America, I now write travel articles for websites and magazines, author guidebooks and blog about beyond-the-beaten trail adventures on my website, Worldly Adventurer.
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How often do you travel? Do you have one city that you consider a home base?
I’m now based out of Santiago where I live with my boyfriend, but as a result of all the guidebook research I’m doing (I’m currently working on three different guides) I spend about 80% of my time on the road.
Where are you now, and where do you plan to travel next?
Once I finish this trip in mid-February, I’ll head home and start preparing for a two-month research trip (this time for Moon Chile) to Patagonia.
It’s my third time exploring the region and I’m excited to be heading to some of the lesser-visited parts, all in the name of research!
How do you typically choose your destinations?
When I started out, I moved depending upon volunteering roles that I found (I’ve volunteered for a number of educational NGOs in South America).
When I arrived in Chile, I met my boyfriend who is from Santiago, and that has dictated my base ever since.
Nowadays, my destinations revolve around the demands of the guidebooks that I’m writing, something that has actually thrown up some really wonderful destinations that I would otherwise not have visited, such as the north of Peru on this trip.
When did you realize you wanted to become location independent, and what were the reasons behind that decision?
It wasn’t ever a conscious decision, but one that I gradually adopted as a) I found myself able to work from wherever I wanted and b) I ran out of money and didn’t want to go back home!
For me now, I love the thrill of arriving in a new place and the fact that I can move on the next day to somewhere new and just pick up where I left off.
I definitely enjoy having a home base, but this lifestyle allows me to scratch my travel itch and earn at the same time: the ultimate combination!
What were some of the first steps you took toward achieving this lifestyle for yourself?
I started out by entering a writing competition run by Rough Guides and Gap Year back in 2015, never expecting to win; but I did.
It opened up doors with both sites (I still write for them now), allowing me to build up a writing portfolio and pitch and write for even bigger websites.
Starting my blog in 2015 and focusing on the niche of South American travel, as I’ve now travelled extensively or lived in 5 countries here, helped to focus my skills and to make a name for myself as an expert on the continent, a strategy that has been successful in bringing me lots of work.
Of all the places you’ve lived and worked so far, which one was the best suited for people living a location independent lifestyle and why?
Santiago is definitely best suited for location independent people.
Not only is the internet 100x better than in any other place I’ve lived in South America, but there’s a strong network of expats, many living a similar lifestyle, and it’s got excellent transport links so it’s easy to nip off somewhere else when you want to escape the city.
Tell us about your work. What is your primary source of income?
At the moment, it’s guidebook writing, which ranges from updating information (revisiting destinations, hotels and restaurants to check the information is accurate and sub in new places) to writing from scratch, which is a lot more work and doesn’t pay any better!
When I’m based in Santiago, my income is from article writing, copywriting and from my blog, the latter of which I’ve been monetizing over the past year.
How did you find this kind of work/get started doing what you’re doing?
Having got the initial contact with Rough Guides and Gap Year, it became a case of applying for travel writing jobs online (using websites such as Ed2010.com and the Problogger jobs board and joining Facebook travel writer groups), reaching out to editors with pitches and also attending a few writing workshops.
I’ve learned that the industry is partially to do with getting the right contacts but also, more crucially, based upon your understanding of how to write a strong pitch and convey a story idea that you have in a compelling–and ultimately irresistible–way.
What does the average workday look like for you?
When I’m on the road, I get up about 6:30 am, send emails and do some writing or editing of the guidebook chapter I’m working on for a few hours or so.
After that, I’ll head out to the destination I’m in to visit hotels, museums, parks, restaurants, cafes; anything that’s already in the guide and with an eye on anything that’s not but should be.
I’ll be out for the day, probably trying to visit as many as 20 or 30 places before getting dinner somewhere, possibly heading to a bar (both of which will be spent either chatting to local people to get insider information or researching using the internet) and then going back to my hotel room to write up notes and conduct research for the following day, before going to bed about 11 pm.
When I’m in my office (aka the spare room in my flat), I’ll start about 9 am and work in chunks of time (I use Toggl to record what I do and keep me focused), splitting articles into slices of research, planning, writing and editing to keep me focused. I’ll also spend some of the day replying to emails, working on my blog and pitching new articles.
I’ll have an hour for lunch and then generally continue until about 7:30 pm when my boyfriend gets back from work.
If someone else wanted to follow a path similar to yours, what advice would you give them?
Focus on becoming the best writer that you can and on uncovering the most fascinating stories: the internet is full of mediocre writing and dull articles.
Knowing when to take courses and invest in yourself is also critical
I’ve learned so much about pitching and travel writing from Gabi Logan, the author of The Six Figure Travel Writing Road Map and mastermind behind Dream of Travel Writing, as well as the residential course that I attend in New York last year.
Finally, grow a thick skin: half the time editors don’t even respond to your pitches and the real battle is just opening up a line of communication with someone at a magazine or website who will take a chance on your idea.
How much could someone expect to earn when just starting out? How much do you earn now?
Travel writing is a notoriously difficult industry to break into and this isn’t helped by the fact that so many wannabe writers work for sites that offer $25 per article, thinking that the experience (and the “exposure”) will benefit them in the long run.
Perhaps it will, but it’s far better to aim high and start earning a decent amount from the off. This is something else Gabi has written about at length; I strongly recommend anyone looking to break into the industry to read her stuff before pimping themselves out on low-paid writing gigs from Upwork and the like!
It is possible to earn over six figures a year with travel writing, but I think it’s more normal to earn $3,000-4000 a month, once you’ve got steady clients you work with, although I don’t yet earn this.
They say you write guidebooks for love, not money!
It’s also important to note that most travel writers have several strings to their bow; some work as copywriters, bloggers, social media managers etc. in addition to travel writing.
Do you have other income sources as well? What are some of the other ways you earn a living?
I’ve done a lot of work as a travel copywriter, which was a good ongoing source of income and I’m prioritizing my blog at the moment with the aim to earn enough passive income from that to pad out my pay cheque!
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about living a location independent lifestyle?
Moving around all the time, especially on your own, is very draining and I struggle with the lack of privacy that you get in hostels and hotels.
Trying to get internet that works is also a serious pain in the arse, but also means I can switch off and write shorthand (something that often sees me at my creative best) when I can’t get online.
The lack of stability can also be tough; research indicates that only half of your brain goes to sleep on the first night in a new place, and given I change hotels occasionally more often than I change my underwear, I can only begin to imagine how sleep deprived I now am!
I’ve also lost touch with a lot of friends back in the UK, partly through the difficulty of staying connected but also because a lot of people don’t really understand what it means to be location independent or to choose to live on the other side of the world.
My closest friendships are now with people who have lived abroad or who work in a similar way to me as we can identify and support each other when faced with the challenges that this type of lifestyle brings.
What are some of the things you like about it the most?
The freedom that means I can move wherever I want and know that I’ll be able to keep myself financially solvent.
I think living in one place for a period of time gives you such a different insight into that country and culture and I’m a real fan of slow travel (as you’ll notice given how small a distance I’ve covered over the past three years!).
And for me, being location independent allows me to pursue that lifestyle.
How did becoming location independent change your relationship with travel? Do you do things differently now?
I never feel like I’m really “travelling” now as I’m always on the road for work, which is a positive and a negative thing and certainly means I, ironically, meet fewer travellers and get the chance to do fewer things than I would do if I was travelling as I’m constrained by having to cram in work and research.
But how many people can say they get paid to explore the world? I’m always so grateful for the job that I have, even when I’m exhausted and longing for my own bed!
Do you have any great money-saving travel tips to share?
I’m rubbish with money so I’m not the best person to ask!
What I would suggest, though, is that learning the local languages where possible, will save you tons of money.
From not getting overcharged by taxi drivers, to being able to navigate airline websites in the local language (which, more often than not, has cheaper flights than the English version), to even just understanding what is going on and if you’re being ripped off will save you more than you can imagine.
Plus it’ll enrich your travel experience tenfold and see you chatting to a wealth of random people–and ending up on plenty of adventures as a result!
What do you think are some of the necessary traits or skills someone should have if they plan to pursue a location independent lifestyle?
As most location independent people are freelance, the most important trait is self-discipline.
Not having a boss or sometimes even deadlines is tough and unless you’re really committed, it’s easy to spend a week sat watching Netflix and getting nothing done. If you need someone there to kick you into gear, this is not the job for you.
You also need to really love what you do. I earned a significant amount more at my old job and while I aim to return to that level of income at some point in this one, starting what is effectively your own business is hard work.
I thrive on the challenge of working for and relying entirely on myself but that is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
You also need some seriously thick skin to cope with the ups and downs of the freelancer life, particularly as you’ll likely go weeks without getting a response to your emails and start wondering if you’re going to have to live off baked beans for the next month.
Persistence and self-belief are the only things that get you through those hard times.
Productivity is a major challenge for many digital nomads. Share with us one of your best tips for staying motivated and getting sh*t done.
Toggl (a timer that logs the time I spend on each project) is my freelancing best friend. It’s a great boost when you can look back on the week and see how many hours you’ve clocked up on a project, while it’s a great motivator when you’ve had a slow week.
You also need to learn which hours best suit your body clock. I’m very creative and productive in the morning and at night but have a horribly lazy period after lunch, so I’ve had to learn to work around that and be conscious of when I’m timetabling certain tasks during my day.
And yes, I obsessively write out task lists each morning with expected timescales to keep me on track; I think it’s a hangover from my teaching days but it really helps me get things done!
Do you have any location independent role models who have helped you or motivated you to achieve your goals?
I don’t have any specific role models but I do think being part of various Facebook groups for digital nomads has inspired me by the stories and successes of others and has really helped to keep me on track when I’ve had a rough day.
They’re also a great forum for sounding out ideas and getting advice; it’s a great way to always feel part of a community.
What’s one of the most valuable purchases you’ve made for your business–something that wasn’t necessarily expensive, but provided you with a lot of value?
Attending one of Gabi Logan’s courses helped me confront some of the gaps in my travel writing strategy and also allowed me to meet other writers in a similar situation, something hard when you’re on the road in another continent than most people who are doing something similar!
I also attended Inflow Summit, a blogging conference last year in Turkey courtesy of Jared and Alesha of Nomadasaurus who I was writing for at the time and that really helped expand my network of other bloggers, something invaluable in this industry.
And learning Spanish (I spoke very little when I first moved to Bolivia) has given me a competitive edge over a lot of other travel writers. I certainly wouldn’t have got the guidebook jobs without fluent Spanish.
Editor’s note: Ready to take a travel writing course? Check out How to Become a Travel Writer
Tell us about one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and how others can avoid it.
Not planning financially! Freelancing is either feast or famine and you have to prepare for those slim months.
I’m very good at spending money but not so good at saving it, so making sure you always have a safety net of cash at your disposal is essential.
Finally, if you could offer your younger, less experienced self one piece of advice for this journey, what would it be?
If only I had planned for this transition into a new career while I was still earning, my life would have been so much easier!
I think those looking to adopt a location independent lifestyle need to lay the groundwork before they give up their previous job.
Taking relevant courses or reading up on the industry, establishing a network of other people pursuing the lifestyle you wish to attain, having some savings for desperate times and starting tentatively working in the field you want when you’re based in one place and with reliable internet will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run!
Still have questions about becoming a travel writer? Ask Steph in the comments!
Read More Location Independent Success Stories:
- How to Travel the World as a Freelance Social Media Manager
- Working from Anywhere as a Self-Taught E-Commerce Marketing Specialist
- Living the Digital Nomad Lifestyle as a Professional Translator
- Freelance Your Way to Location Independence: A Copywriter & Copy Editor Tell All
- How This Blogger Built Her Dream Location Independent RV Lifestyle
- From Freelancers to Course Creators: Scaling a Business While Traveling the World
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