Nell McShane Wulfhart has bounced from Vietnam to Seoul to Montevideo, writing whenever she can for whoever says yes (and pays her). Her stories pop up in outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, and many others. She talked about the value of being where other writers are not, paying her own way, and how "Gangnam Style" helped launch her career.
How did you end up as a travel journalist?
I have been living abroad for most of the last 15 years, and I was in Vietnam from 2006 to 2010. I had always been interested in writing. I was looking through one of the ex-pat rags, and I had an idea for an article, so I pitched the editor. He commissioned it. I started working for the magazine. I started pitching ideas to different publications like airline mags. There weren't that many stories coming out of Vietnam, so it was a good niche for me.
I moved to Seoul. Do you remember "Gangnam Style"? That made me a lot of money because all of a sudden people were really interested in Seoul. I sold my first article to the New York Times about kitten cafes. That was a great opportunity for me to write for publications I hadn't written for before because I had this Korea expertise. I was working a full-time job as a Web editor but thanks to Psy and "Gangnam Style," there was enough interest in Korea that I could start full-time freelancing. That was about three years ago.
Did you go to Seoul because you thought there would be more opportunities to be a travel journalist there than there were in Vietnam?
I went out of interest. I was living in Israel, and that was really expensive. My boyfriend at the time was teaching English, and he could make a lot of money in Korea. It sounded interesting. That's really my only motivation for going anywhere.
And why Montevideo?
A different boyfriend got a job here, which was super lucky for his career and my career. I travel a ton around South America to countries like Colombia and Argentina. You can write a lot of stories about all the things that are happening in Colombia right now.
When you moved to South America, you lost that Seoul expertise. Were you established enough as a travel journalist that it was an easy transition even though you were in an unfamiliar city and country?
I feel like I had built up enough contacts by that time. I knew editors were going to open my emails. I knew I was going to be able to sustain it. Colombia is close. Buenos Aires is right across the river. There are plenty of stories.
You travel a lot. Do you have a story already assigned when you go or do you go, find ideas, and then pitch them when you return?
I try and travel as much as possible, but I always try to get at least one article commissioned in that place before I go to offset the cost of the trip. That's how I pay for the trip. I've done five or six of the "36 Hours In..." features for the New York Times. Those are great because they give you money for expenses. That will cover a ticket and some spending money. When I'm there, I'm taking notes and learning what I can for the "36 Hours" piece but also taking notes for other potential articles. I try to absolutely maximize every single trip.
I was in Medellin in November. I did a "36 Hours in Medellin" and a piece about the city for the Times' "52 Places to Go in 2015." I have a piece on Medellin coming out in Travel + Leisure in October. I'm collecting ideas on every trip and then trying to pitch them afterwards, but I'm also pitching before I go in case there's anything specific people want me to research.
When you do a Times piece, do you spend more than 36 hours in those cities?
[Laughs] I was meeting a friend in Medellin, and he thought the whole thing had to be done in 36 hours. That would be insane. I was in Medellin for like 10 days. That was more than enough time to do that article. The itineraries are supposed to be possible if someone wanted to follow them, but I'm not sure anyone ever has.
You said the Times pays expenses. Do other outlets or is it a flat fee and you pay your own way?
Most places do not give you expenses. I almost always try and ask, even if it's for $100. Sometimes people will cough it up, but most of the time they don't. It's usually a per-word rate, and that's it.
I was talking to an editor at a big food magazine about doing an article for them. He said it had to be somewhere that I'd been already or where I was going because they weren't going to cover any travel cost. They would pay for the food while I was there, but that was it. And that was a good gig because they covered the food expenses.
All my money goes into travel. I don't have any savings. All the money I earn gets spent on new trips and hopefully discovering new things that turn into articles that pay for more trips.
What's next? Being a freelance travel writer sounds like a fascinating job but also one with a time limit.
I've been thinking about that a lot recently. The work is really fabulous, and I have an incredible lifestyle where I get to travel all the time and live in South America. But I don't want to be hustling for every article five or 10 years down the road. Pitching, getting commissioned, and chasing down the check isn't sustainable in the long term.
I've started a couple side projects, partially to diversify the work day and partially to bring in different sources of income. One of them is decision coaching. I talk to people over Skype and help them make decisions so that they can move on with their lives. I'm also trying to write memoirs for people. That's a business I'm just starting. In the long-term, I think those things might be a good way to have different income streams.
I have a great idea for a travel book, but I'm not sure if I want to pursue that sort of thing. I don't know if it will pay off in the long term. Unless I get a staff position at a magazine or something like that, I don't think freelance travel writing is going to ever let me retire. I would love to meet a freelancer who has actual savings. That's my goal: to have a savings account.
Do you have a set amount of money that you try to make each month?
This year, I set a goal for myself of trying to make $5,000. I was doing it for the first six months of the year because I was hustling really hard. Then my grandmother died, I had to go back to Philly to help my mom move her house, and I dislocated my finger [holds a splinted finger up to Skype video chat]. The last five weeks, I haven't had any work. The goal is $5,000 a month, but it doesn't always happen.
Has your per-word rate increased as you've become more established?
Definitely. I've started doing front-of-book pieces for Travel + Leisure. They pay $2 a word, which is great. The New York Times pays pretty well when you factor in expenses. It's more than $1 per word, although you're not taking that home. I used to write a lot for between $0.30 and $0.50 per word, and I will still take those assignments to fill in the gaps, but for the big names, you can get more.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.