Sell your work: Personal essays
Is the writing in your piece concrete--and does something happen?
Published: August 2, 2010
|When you feel there’s not another word or thought to add to your essay, nor anything to edit out, put it away for at least a week. You need perspective, and only time can give you that.|
After a week, try this checklist to see if your essay is ready for submission.
Does your opening get right to the subject? Does it draw the reader into your essay? Is there a hook, a sentence or two, to immediately engage the reader’s interest and curiosity?
Does the first paragraph set up accurate expectations for the rest of the essay, show clearly what it will be about? If not, cut or rewrite. Often it’s necessary to write your way into an essay to find out what it’s about, but now is the time to recognize where your story begins. An essay is such a short form that you don’t have room to explain and describe. Jump in, and cut to the chase. Trust your readers; they’re smart.
Is your writing specific and concrete? The more specific your details are, the more your reader will identify with your essay. So be careful about generalizing. Cut all adjectives and adverbs that don’t give essential information. Remember, verbs carry the energy in your writing.
Does something happen in your essay? Is there forward motion to it? Is there action, not musing? Is there at least one specific incident or anecdote?
Are your own specific feelings in the essay? Readers want to experience something emotionally when they read, and this only can happen when the writer cares passionately about the subject.
Is there a theme? Does the essay have a conclusion? Make a point? Is there new awareness or change at the end (even if it’s only the awareness of things not changing)? Or did you find humor in something frustrating? Or perspective in your anger? Remember, a personal essay is your journey through an experience, and sometimes we discover our destination through the writing.
Have you read your essay aloud? Often our ear will pick up something the eye misses.
Have you found another writer you trust, either in a workshop or online? (Rarely will this be a friend or loved one.) Ideally, this person will be someone whose work you respect and who knows how to critique in a nurturing but honest way. Have the writer read your essay and tell you what she specifically likes about it, as well as anything that is unclear or could be improved.
Is your essay in proper manuscript format? Trust me, you do not want to send out your work typed in a miniscule or curly font, lacking indented paragraphs or not double-spaced—it’s too difficult for editors to read, and it distracts from your essay. (As a teacher and editor, I lose all interest in an essay I have to struggle to read, no matter how wonderfully written.)
So be sure you have indented paragraphs, and don’t double up space between them unless you want to indicate a break in time and narrative. Use 12- point type and Times New Roman or a similar plain font. Be sure your name, mailing address, email address and phone number are on the first page at the top, single spaced. Number your pages and put your last name in the top left-hand corner of every page.
Have you done your market research? Do you know which publications (print or online) are interested in your subject? Have you studied their guidelines to learn the preferred word count and how they want essays sent in?
Do you know where you’ll send your essay next if it’s rejected? It’s easier to come up with Plan B when you still have the optimism of Plan A, so now’s the time to address the envelope or write down the email address of where you’ll send your essay next if it’s not accepted. This is especially important if you’re new to marketing your work because rejections—even when you’re a published writer—will always be a knife in the heart. We all feel this; the difference is that established writers pull the knife out and send their work somewhere else. And it helps if you’ve got the envelope all set to go.
Finally, write a brief cover note, take a deep breath, and mail it off. Then start writing another essay immediately.
Barbara Abercrombie is a multi-genre writer whose most recent books are Writing Out the Storm and Courage & Craft: Writing Your Life Into Story. She is editor of Cherished: 22 Writers on Animals They’ve Loved and Lost, an anthology due out in April from New World Library.||