I return to Prague in a few weeks to update the Fodor's guidebook to the Czech Republic again, and I must say that I'm looking forward to it. On the surface, guidebook writing is kind of horrible. It's very repetitive and there are lots of capsule reviews where you don't get to say anything. Oh, and you're also quite limited by the "intended audience" of the book in question, whether they're middle of the road, jetsetting hipsters, or smug backpackers. Plus, of course, the pay isn't great.Still, I like guidebook work, at least for a few weeks a year. You get more than a surface impression of a place. It's less than you'd learn as a resident, but that's also the point--guidebooks, for the most part, shouldn't be fully written by residents, since their view of a city tends to come with a set of assumptions that visitors don't have. (I say that as someone who had to answer questions about the safety of New York's subways for many, many years)
There's a zen quality to seeing that many hotels or restaurants in just a short amount of time. In fact, one would hope that a newly hired restaurant critic would do the same thing, sending him or herself to a restaurant boot-camp to get snapshot of how things are at the moment. Places slip very fast; I'm sure that in the two years since I last updated the restaurants some have closed, others that were great are now terrible and, I hope, there will be plenty of surprising new spots as well. Restaurants (and hotels) never stay as they are; it's a new day, every day. Just look at the Gansevoort or The Hotel on Rivington to see that something that seemed edgy a few years ago now feels dated.
Guidebook assignments are just about the last part of travel writing that creates a level of expertise. You do end up learning something during the writing process, and that's less and less the case these days. The economics of freelancing make it very hard to spend time with any subject unless you're Michael Lewis or Mark Bowden. There will come a time when guidebooks don't make sense in their current form. Perhaps there will be a full-on switch to crowd-sourcing; I don't know. But for the time being, let's try and support a genre of travel writing that forces the writer to learn something in the process.