Sarah Harvey is a freelance journalist, content creator, and travel writer. She’s been published in CNN, Fodor’s Travel Guide and LA Times (to name a few) all while living her dream life living on four continents and traveling across 30 countries. She also founded Manta Media, a Maldives-based media company which scaled to 15 journalists, photographers, and translators. So how does Sarah Harvey thrive as a freelance travel writer?
Kay Makishi: You get paid to travel the world and write about it. Lots of people would consider that a “dream job”. How did you start travel writing?
Sarah Harvey: I’d been working for several years as a news journalist when I managed to get a few travel pieces published, and I started wondering if it would be viable to do more travel writing because I really enjoyed it. It was the peak of the economic crisis in London in 2009, so I looked to Asia because the economy seemed stronger and I’d always wanted to try living there (having already traveled there extensively). I sent my resume to all kinds of media organizations and got an offer as a full-time news editor for a travel magazine and website in the Maldives. There were hundreds of applicants so I hadn’t been expecting to get it! I had just three weeks to decide, but for me it was a no-brainer.
Makishi: Did you have any limiting beliefs about building a career as a freelance travel writer? If so, what were they and how did you get over them?
Harvey: Yes, I didn’t know how to do it without the formal structure of having a full-time job and while I knew lots of news journalists I knew very few travel writers to ask about it, let alone freelance ones. Getting the editor position in the Maldives was also my first time working professionally abroad (although I spent my gap year exploring Australia on a working holiday visa). But after one year in the Maldives, a lot of resort general managers, marketing directors and senior executives who I knew were asking me why I wasn’t running my own show. One of them offered to be my business guru, and I gained enough confidence to go solo and started freelance travel writing in January 2011, then set up Manta Media.
“It seems like a dream lifestyle but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Makishi: How do you maintain a constant flow of work?
Harvey: It seems like a dream lifestyle but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes. You have to keep the constant hustle going and you have to be okay with that. It doesn’t suit everyone.
Luckily I’m now at a point in my career where a lot of work comes to me, especially being as I have a niche in the Maldives (very few other writers really know the destination in depth) and several other niche destinations too, such as Valencia and Sri Lanka.
The idea of living overseas seems great but to be brutally honest, I don’t think everyone’s cut out for that lifestyle, as much as they might think they like the idea of it. Luckily, I seem to be able to deal with it and all the uncertainty, upheaval and unexpected surprises it brings. You have to be very methodical, grounded and practical. Always thinking ahead. Sometimes it does feel relentless.
Makishi: Have you ever thought about going back to a regular 9-5 job?
Harvey: Absolutely. Sometimes I do go back to working full-time in an office, there are a lot of benefits and security. A few years ago, I worked as an editor at a magazine in France for a year. With freelancing, I think everyone feels like giving up sometimes. You have good and bad days.
Sometimes you get discouraged and things don’t go accordingly, or you’re wasting hours chasing up unpaid invoices. But on those days, you have to just sit back and count your blessings. I know how lucky I am to be living this exceptional life.
“Sometimes you get discouraged… but on those days, you have to just sit back and count your blessings.”
When you’re feeling discouraged, meet peers, call your friends at home and get support through Facebook groups for solo female travelers, journalism groups, etc. When I started in 2010, on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we didn’t have the huge amount of online peer support that you can find now and I felt much more alone – it’s been a massive boon.
Makishi: The pros of getting paid as a travel writer seem pretty obvious. What are some of the cons?
Harvey: There’s one element people don’t talk enough about as travel writers or digital nomads which is mental health. I’ve seen some friends go off the rails overseas in a big way, which is really sad. The lifestyle is disorienting and sometimes has a bad impact on mental health, which is something you might not expect.
“Mental health is something to be aware of overseas”
I’ve seen quite a lot of digital nomads with mental health issues including depression and paranoia that seem to be exacerbated by being thrown out of their routines, perhaps some cognitive dissonance, and not having their usual support networks around them.
Myself, I found it psychologically challenging in the Maldives to be a female boss (and to be so obviously foreign) in a male-dominated conservative society, where also 95% of the people walking on the streets of the capital are men – it feels very intimidating and they have huge problems with sexual harassment on the streets (although you wouldn’t get a whiff of that if you only visited as a tourist). Mental health is something to be aware of overseas – not to be a Debbie Downer. But it’s important to be on top of things like that.
Makishi: Thanks for sharing that. What are your keys to thriving as a travel writer and ensuring your mental health is in check?
Harvey: Have strong social ties. Build a new network wherever you are, which is not easy when you’re starting from scratch but it’s essential to find people on your wavelength. Meetup, CouchSurfing, Internations and Facebook groups are all good for networking and meetups, even Bumble BFF. Get on Skype and talk to friends at home. Try to stay grounded. Print out photos of friends and family and put them up in your room, so you don’t lose sight of who you are and where you come from. When you keep a few, simple things constant it helps you feel grounded wherever you are. You can bring a routine with you anywhere.
Sarah Harvey’s Keys to Thriving as a Freelance Travel Writer:
- A decent cup of tea in the morning – I know, it’s very English, but it’s my morning ritual that gets me focused and ready for work.
- Keeping a tidy, clean environment around you to be able to write. Your environment affects your mind so being somewhere well-lit with a nice ambience is key.
- Making your bed in the morning, every morning. I know this is also a famous Navy Seal’s advice and many business gurus also say it, but it works for me too!
- Showering and getting dressed every morning. It may seem obvious to some but the act of getting dressed puts you in work mode and as a freelancer it’s way too easy to descend into slobbing out in pyjamas all day. It’s fine to do that once in a while but I don’t think it’s good for you psychologically to always be like that. It also means you’re always ready if you need to rush out to do an interview or take a photo.
- A 20-minute morning workout of yoga or pilates to get the oxygen pumping and ensure you keep in shape.
- 10-20 minutes of morning meditation to help calm you and keep you grounded. Here is a really simple mantra that a guru (for lack of a better word) gave to me when I was living in Sri Lanka.
- Having a niche knowledge of a place e.g. if you want to be a travel writer, you probably shouldn’t go to places over-run with digital nomads such as Bali because hundreds of travel bloggers are there and it’s over-exposed.
- Building good relationships with website, blog and magazine editors. Always delivering content on time, being polite, professional and reliable goes a long way.
- Make time for networking, both face to face and online. Don’t be pushy, if you show them the real you then the value you bring will shine through. You never know, sometimes somebody you met months or even years ago wants to commission an article, needs some website content, wants help with digital marketing or wants to introduce you to a new business contact.
Sarah Harvey is currently based in Mexico/the Caribbean and is looking forward to exploring more of the region. You can see some of her work and biography on www.manta-media.com, read her personal blog on www.mantamedia.blogspot.com or follow her on www.instagram.com/sarahmantamedia