Monday, April 30, 2007

Sally Shivnan's Top 10 Tips for Publishing Travel Writing in Newspapers

Gold! From travel writer Sally Shivan, whose essays have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2006 and Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing 2005 and in The Washington Post, Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Baltimore Sun, Washingtonian, Hemispheres, and elsewhere. Here, with her permission, are her top ten tips for publishing travel writing in newspapers:

1. Forget queries. Freelance travel writing for newspapers is all on spec. Write the very best 1500-2500 word essay you can, polish it till it gleams, then send it. You may think this a disadvantage, since you’re writing with no guarantee of publication, but it’s a benefit, since it lets the work speak for itself (better than even the sharpest query can).

2. Be literary, but also user-friendly. Eloquence (in any of its myriad forms) is what distinguishes good newspaper travel pieces. But make it clear by the second or third paragraph where you are and why you’re there—this is the so-called “nut graph,” the paragraph containing the “nut” of the piece.

3. Think structure. For newspapers you need lots of short sentences and short paragraphs (though it helps the rhythm to vary this, of course); you need a drop-dead fantastic lede (writer Tim Cahill says he typically spends 75% of his time on the lede and the closing, only 25% on the middle parts); you need a sharp ending—consider one that circles back in some way to the beginning.

4. Think narrative, angle, imagery. You need to tell a story, not just tell about a place; you need an angle, a fresh twist (the desert in winter, Niagara Falls for divorcees); you need rich sensory details. Take lots of notes while traveling—get everything—the angle may come to you later…

5. Let sidebars work for you. Sidebars—those boxes that appear alongside your piece, with info about where to fly, stay, eat, etc.—let you skip putting all that in your essay so that your essay can be a real essay. Write your sidebar and send it along with your piece.

6. Don’t be shy about the “spray-gun” approach. Only The New York Times, LA Times, and Washington Post demand first publication rights, so maybe send to one of them first. After they accept/reject you, you’re free to submit anywhere—just don’t submit simultaneously to competing papers in the same market. In theory, your piece could appear in dozens of places. You don’t need to tell editors you’re doing this—they don’t care.

7. Think regional. Especially with smaller papers, but even with the big ones, target your submissions appropriately—The San Francisco Chronicle has a natural interest in west coast destinations, Florida papers are into Florida, the southeast, the Bahamas.

8. Know your markets. Read travel on newspaper websites—different travel sections have different personalities. Consider a resource like’s Travel Publications Update, which for $39 gives you detailed submission guidelines for 200 newspaper travel sections and 500 magazines —the only source I know with this kind of info on newspapers.

9. Take good photos. You are far more likely to sell your photos to papers than to magazines; in fact it’s almost expected. The pay is not great, often $50-75/photo, but it supplements what you’re getting for the writing (also not great—anywhere from $150-$500 or a little more, but that’s why you submit to multiple markets).

10. Let newspapers take you to magazines. Even in the currently constricting newspaper business, it is possible to get a good piece in print, something an unknown writer really has no prayer of doing at a glossy magazine. Your newspaper credits will make any query to a magazine way more impressive—if you have the option to query by snail mail, take it, so you can send your clips.

Be sure to check out Sally Shivnan's webpage, which has excerpts from her writing, fascinating photos, and a page of more tips and advice, including the AWP Joblist article, "Surviving the Trip from Adjunct to Professor: How to Keep Writing Through an Overload of Teaching."