Sally Shivnan ~ ~ fiction ~ essays ~ travel


Enjoy, below, a few cheat-sheets and collections of advice of one sort or another...


  • Top Ten Tips for Publishing Travel in Newspapers
  • Top Twelve Tips for Fiction Writing: Craft for Writers Working in the Realistic Tradition
  • Questions to Ask Self After/During Revision
  • Basic Rules for Punctuating Dialogue
  • Eight Basic Uses for Commas
  • Address to the 2016 meeting of the UMBC chapter of the International English Honors Society, Sigma Tau Delta


1.    Forget queries.  Freelance travel writing for newspapers is all on spec.  Write the very best 1500-2000 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.  These imperatives are true, though, for any travel writing—you need to tell a story, not just tell about a place; you need an angle, a fresh twist on your destination (the desert in winter, Niagara Falls for divorcees); you need rich sensory details.  Take lots of notes when traveling--get everything--the angle may come to you later... Supplement written notes with a recording app on your phone.

5.    Let sidebars work for you.  Sidebars—those 300-word boxes that appear alongside your piece, with info about where to stay, eat, etc.—let you skip putting all that dreck in your essay so that your essay can be a real essay.  Write your sidebar and send it along with your piece.

6.    Do not 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’ve published you (or rejected you) you are free to submit anywhere—just don’t submit simultaneously to competing papers in the same market.  In theory, you could have the same piece 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.

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.     Get more than one piece out of a single trip.  Take those notes and find a couple of different angles, different stories.




1.  “Show don’t tell.”


2.  Detail is important—but not just any detail; it has to be detail that matters.


3.  “Only trouble is interesting.”


4.  Stories should have a really good first line, and an opening that creates questions in the reader’s mind.


5.  Start “in media res.”


6.  Stories must build to a point where something important changes for the character or the reader.


7.  Characters in stories should be complicated.


8.  Stories must involve a real choice for the character.


9.  A story should be told with the minimum number of scenes and number of characters needed to tell it.


10.  Stories that don’t happen somewhere, happen nowhere.


11.  The writer controls the “rules” for the POV but must stick to them—no accidental POV shifts.


12.  The writing should sound natural to the ear.

  • What are my goals for this story—what do I want it to do to readers—and how have the changes I’ve made in the story furthered these goals?
  • How have my ideas about my own story changed as a result of sharing it (workshopping and/or sharing with trusted readers) and revising it?
  •  What were my biggest challenges/choices/anxieties in revising?
  •  What were some of the “roads not taken”—options I opted not to take?  Why did I decide against them? 
  • What are the major changes I made to the story (substantial changes; seeing the story in new ways)?  What do I hope to accomplish with these changes?
  • What are the minor changes I made (tinkering; tweaking)?
  • How much of what I changed was major and how much was minor?  What do I think of the balance I’ve struck between major and minor changes—how deeply have I revised?
  • What was I determined to keep and not change?  Why do I feel strongly about these aspects I want to keep?
  • What surprised me in workshop/sharing?
  • What surprised me in revising?
  • What was positive about the experience of revising?  What was unpleasant or uncomfortable about it?
  • What would I do differently on the first draft if I had it to do again? 
  • What would I still do in my revision, if I had more time?


1.  If a line of dialogue ends a sentence, it must have a period (or some other type of end punctuaction).
“I’m going to Brazil.” or “I’m going to Brazil!” or “I’m going to Brazil?”

2.   If  a line of dialogue is followed by a dialogue tag, the period at the end of the dialogue is replaced by a comma.
“I’m going to Brazil,” she said.

3.  If a line of dialogue is introduced by a dialogue tag, the dialogue tag is followed by a comma.
She said, “I’m going to Brazil.”

4.  If a line of dialogue is interrupted by a dialogue tag, commas both precede and follow the tag.
“I’m going,” she said, “to Brazil.”
Note: this treatment shows the reader that I’m going to Brazil is all one sentence, even though it is interupted by the dialog tag.  Compare it with the following, which breaks the sentence into two sentences:
    “I’m going,” she said.  “To Brazil.”

Important: commas connect things into one sentence; periods divide things into separate sentences.  Compare the following:
    “I’m going to Brazil,” she laughed.
“I’m going to Brazil.”  She laughed.

 Important: at the close of a quote, the comma or period always goes inside the quotation marks.
    “I’m going to Brazil.”            (correct)
    “I’m going to Brazil”.         (incorrect)
    “I’m going to Brazil,” she said.        (correct)
“I’m going to Brazil”, she said.    (incorrect)

5.   A quote is allowed only one item of end punctuation.
    “I’m going to Brazil!” she said.     (correct)
    “I’m going to Brazil!,” she said.    (incorrect)

6.  Avoid long dialogue tags, as in the following example:
“I’m going to Brazil,” she said as she set her immaculate matching Italian  suitcases down on the kitchen floor.
    A better solution would be:
“I’m going to Brazil,” she said.  She set her immaculate matching Italian  suitcases down on the kitchen floor.

7.  Avoid late dialogue tags, as in the following example:
“I’m going to Brazil and I’m never coming back, because I plan to meet the man of my dreams, if I have to crawl from Ipanema to Copacabana and back again,” she said.
    A better solution would be:
“I’m going to Brazil,” she said, “and I’m never coming back, because I plan to meet the man of my dreams, if I have to crawl from Ipanema to Copacabana and back again.”

8.  Each change in speaker starts a new paragraph.
    “I’m going to Brazil.”
    “No, you’re not.”
    “Yes, I am.”
    “No, you’re not.”


1) In any sentence that uses a conjunction.
    Example:  I have a dog, and I have a fish.
    No comma:  I have a dog and a fish.

2) Between all items in a series.
    Example:  I ate plums, eggs, and squid.

3)  Introductory word group.
    Example:  If you cook, Elmer will do the dishes.  [without the comma, it sounds like you are cooking Elmer!]
     Exception:  a short introductory phrase, a long as the meaning is clear.
    Example:  In no time we were above the clouds.

4)  Transitional words and expressions.
    Example:  Furthermore, he is an idiot.
                     He is, furthermore, an idiot.

5)  Between adjectives that could be separated by “and.”
    Example:  You are a smart, spunky, happy child.
       You would not use commas for:  They are two nice American kids. [because “They are two and nice and American kids” would not work.]

6)  For nonrestrictive elements—“by the way” or “extra info” phrases.
    Example:  My grandmother, who is an astronaut, can’t swim.
     You could also have a sentence without the commas, which would have a different meaning:  My grandmother who is an astronaut can’t swim.

7)  To set off quotations.
    Example:  She said, “Where is my kangaroo?”
                    “I can’t find my kangaroo,” she said.

8)   Direct address.
    Example:  Mary, the dog needs to go out.  [without the comma,   Mary is the dog!]
                     I like you, old buddy.

My (so-inspiring) address to the annual meeting of the UMBC chapter of the International English Honors Society, Sigma Tau Delta, April 24, 2016:

I always think of English majors, and I was one myself, as reading and writing majors.  And the question that comes up about that—it may have come up for you, it may be coming up for you now if you’re graduating or getting close to graduating, it may have come up for your parents—is what is that about, what is it for?  Other majors and their career paths can seem more clear cut, but reading and writing majors are in what we broadly call the Arts and Humanities, and our field is not even as narrowly defined as some other arts and humanities fields that we share this building with, like history, ancient studies, dance, and music.  Our work is reading various kinds of texts and working with them, and also producing texts of our own, often in response to, and always influenced by, other texts we have read.  These days we define texts very broadly—we live in an age when texts are not just books but pretty much any kind of product across a wide range of media, and which can incorporate not just written words but also images and sounds that we “read,” and our world is so complex and rapidly changing that there is an awful lot to read and interpret and respond to and apply.  And I want to talk about that , but first I have a short digression for you about a conversation I was part of recently.

I’m in a book group of five women that meets about every six weeks, and recently we read a collection of essays called This Old Man by Roger Angell, who’s best known as a sportswriter but has also written other things, and is now in his 90s. Most of us really liked the title essay “This Old Man” which is about what it’s like to be in your 90s and touches on everything from physical mobility to mental sharpness and memory, to sexuality, to the loss of friends and relatives, while most of us did not like much of the rest of the book, which consisted of essays on a lot of different things, including authors and editors Angell has known, and various aspects of living in New York, and baseball, and other stuff.  So we asked ourselves, why did we like this one essay but not the other pieces?  What was it about this one essay that was so different?  And we decided that it had to do with the remarkable honesty and vulnerability in that one essay—Roger Angell had really put himself out there, really shared with us, in a deep way, his wide-ranging thoughts on his life past age 90.  That rawness and sincerity was what distinguished it for us from the other writing in the book.  The other writing, in contrast, seemed to us, in places, somewhat self-satisfied, or narrow and parochial, or complacent, as one of our group put it.

And somehow this discussion led our group directly to another question.  The fact that we’d had such strong reactions, both positive and negative, to different parts of the same book, made us ask: why do we read?  What is it we want when we read?

We said a lot of things that you might expect.  We talked about how we like to read to learn about other worlds, and to escape for a while from our own.  We talked about how we read to learn things we don’t know.  We talked about how we read for entertainment—which I pointed out is what my students tend to tell me, when I’ve asked them what reading is for—and we then tried to define what we mean by “entertainment,” do we mean just amusement, or do we mean engagement, absorption, the “entertainment” that comes from discovery, from being captivated by stimulating ideas and images and language?  I defended the “entertainment” idea by talking about something I had read by the fiction writer T. C. Boyle.  In an anthology he edited, he has a preface in which he says—I went back after my book group meeting and I looked it up—“My aesthetic, as writer and reader both, is to elevate the sense of enjoyment above all other literary considerations, to remind us all that literature is an art and that art exists to entertain.”

That art exists to entertain, rather than to teach us or enlarge is, seems kind of radical to me.  Kafka famously said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”  He said we should read “only the kind of books that wound us or stab us.”  I’m not sure we can’t have both—reading experiences, and writing experiences, that charm us and stimulate us and delight us but also provoke us, disturb us, shake us up, challenge us to see the world in new ways and reconsider our assumptions.  In fact, maybe a text needs to do both, because a reader is not going to be able to get to the being shaken up and challenged and awakened to the new unless the reader is first engaged, drawn in, captured.  I always think of what it’s like to read something, anything, as involving a continual asking and answering of two questions: the first question we ask, constantly, as we turn the pages (or turn the online or audio equivalent of pages) is do I get this, do I follow this?—the basic comprehension of what’s going on on the page; the second question is do I like this, is it doing it for me, am I getting into this?  We have all had the experience of being unsure of the answer to one or both of those questions.  We’ve all been there, where you try to cultivate patience as a reader, to see if your comprehension, or your engagement, or both, will improve if you stick with it longer.  You might hang in there if you comprehend but don’t engage, or if you engage but don’t comprehend, but it’s doubtful you’ll stick around too long if you don’t comprehend and you don’t engage.

So when we read that one part of Roger Angell’s book, the essay about his experience of being in his 90s, we satisfied both questions: we fully got what he was doing there, and we were powerfully engaged.  He pulled this off through lucid, graceful language and that raw honesty, that vulnerability I talked about.  He had us right where he wanted us.  He set us up to be in a position to be receptive to the ultimate purpose of reading and writing—at least, what is my belief for what that purpose is—and that is, that readers, and writers, do what they do in order to explore, to learn about, to understand human experience.  When people say that art is about the human condition, that’s what they mean—the experience of being human, what that’s all about, and of course it is so many, many different things, and books and other works of art explore that endlessly.  Roger Angell was taking my book group into his experience of being human and we were right there with him in that essay, in a way that wasn’t true when we read the other pieces in his book.

Which brings me back to you: English majors, who have been spending your college years reading and producing texts as an end in itself rather than strictly in service to mastering subject matter in a particular subject, psychology or biology or history or whatever.  You are reading and writing majors.  And I’m here to tell you that what you do is important and valuable.  You know how to make meaning from texts that you read, and how to make meaning in the experience of writing too—I know you all are familiar with that sensation of understanding something better through the experience of working it out in writing.  You know how to express yourselves in writing, you know how to approach and analyze things you read.  In whatever work you go on to do in life—and chances are you will do a variety of different things, the statistics are that adults these days change careers several times across their working lifespan—these abilities will be indispensable to your employers, but more importantly, to you, both in and out of the workplace.  And there’s a larger project of which you are a part, that goes beyond your work life, your job or career.  The important thinkers and writers and cultural icons of today and tomorrow—people who are out there right now, but whom we also haven’t met yet but we will—are shaping our culture, informing our attitudes, influencing society’s direction.  They do this through the texts they produce—written texts, spoken texts, texts that, as I mentioned when I started, include images and sounds.  They are the letters on a Black Lives Matter sign held high in the air, they are the lyrics of a song by Prince or David Bowie, they are the political ads and the stump speeches of Clinton and Sanders and Trump.  But where you come in is you are the shapers and guardians of culture too, we all are.  Every day, almost hour by hour, we are moving the great cultural conversation forward, and you, as reading and writing majors, are equipped for this, and whatever you do in life you will be part of this.  So keep your part in mind when you present yourself on social media, when you have conversations with friends and coworkers.  You are a text, that you are creating. 

This little talk is starting to sound like a Commencement address, which wasn’t what I intended when I started.  But I am kind of passionate about these ideas, and I’m honored to be able to talk about them this way.  This little speech of mine is a text, which you are hearing, interpreting, responding to.  It’s part of my contribution to the cultural conversation, and what you do with it will be part of yours.

I will close with one more little story, about the time that I think was the first time I really felt, clearly, keenly, that I was part of the cultural conversation.  I had some published short stories in literary journals, and had also published some travel writing in newspapers and magazines, and then I wrote a piece that The Washington Post bought, about the experience of becoming a naturalized citizen not long after 9/11.  Long story but although I had lived in the US most of my life, I was a British subject, and I finally took the plunge and became an American.  The essay was partly about my experience but more about what I perceived the people around me to be going through—people from all over the world who had made long, difficult journeys to get to that moment of standing before the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance.  And seeing my article in print made me realize that people were reading it, and that the ideas I was sharing there would make nano-particle-sized impressions in their brains somewhere, tiny contributions to the deluge of information and ideas coming at them all the time, but there.  And I was like: I am part of the cultural conversation!  And you are too—and it’s even easier for you—on social media, for example.  They don’t call social media media for nothing.  As I said, you are equipped to do this, because you are reading and writing majors.  You are thinking participants in your world, you are shapers of culture.  You’re not just spectators.  You are part of this thing.  And I will end my Commencement speech there!  Thank you again, and congratulations on ascending to membership in Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society.