|The appeal of personal essays stems from our fascination with the lives of others. The best essays help readers gain insight into their own lives by catching a glimpse into the life of someone else. |
At first glance, essays seem easy to write because they’re just your individual opinion and experience. In reality, they can be much more difficult to write than journalistic articles. In an article, you can distance yourself from the subject. In an essay, you are the subject, which is why essay writing takes not only talent but also fearlessness. You have to be willing to really look within and write down what you see. Since essays are short—most publications want them to come in under 1,000 words—every word has to count. Think of them as long-form haiku, and you’ll be off to a good start.
What should you write about?
Just like your writing teacher always taught you, write what you know. Personal essays are just that—personal—and the more personal the better. In a culture that has become accustomed to celebrities who reveal their secrets on late-night TV or in the tabloids, it can be hard to come up with an essay about a personal subject that seems fresh or original. But if you write about the very thing that is hardest to admit about yourself, that is the one that’s likely to get published. For example, Daylle Deanna Schwartz wrote a controversial essay for Newsweek’s “My Turn” about how she left her young daughter to be raised by her father because she wasn’t ready to be a mother.
“Editors these days are looking for essays that are deeply moving, not light and breezy,” says Susan Shapiro, who teaches essay writing in New York City and has published essays in publications ranging from Cosmopolitan to The New York Times. “Do ‘the night that changed my life,’ ” she suggests, or “ ‘the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me.’ Whatever is gut-wrenching is the most fascinating.” Wendy Shanker, one of her students, wrote about having an autoimmune disease and finding a guru to help her. Another, Abby Sher, wrote about how she overcame obsessive-compulsive disorder, which got her a book contract.Breaking in
The good news is that you can more easily break into markets with an essay than a news story. To get a news story assigned, you need a track record. Anyone can write an essay and get it published. You just have to come up with a sharp, original piece that catches an editor’s imagination. Most essays are not sold through query letters, unless you’re a known quantity to a publication. You send in the finished essay, which an editor either accepts or rejects. The editor may want some changes, but total rewrites are rare.
The bad news is that placing essays is harder and harder these days. Many magazines have bitten the dust due to the economy, and the ones that remain have cut back pages due to reduced advertising budgets. The first section to go is often the essay page. It’s not impossible to get an essay published, but patience is required. Essayist Lisa Samalonis decided to give herself a year to publish an essay in a national magazine. As soon as one rejection arrived, she sent the piece out again. In the meantime, she sent pitches to her local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and had numerous essays and commentaries published. “Toward the end of the year, I received an e-mail from Pregnancy asking to purchase my essay. This was followed by more essays in Pregnancy, Women’s Health, Fitness and ePregnancy.com. Later, I published an essay in Shape, which had been a goal market for me.”
Today’s market makes it even more important to do your homework before sending out an essay. Read back issues of the publication you’re pitching, and make sure the piece fits its guidelines. How to write a great essay
Kate Walter, who teaches personal essay writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, makes these suggestions:
• Grab the reader in the first paragraph. Use a catchy lead. For example, Walter wrote this one for a story in The New York Times: “I might have to commit suicide or at least attempt it to remain in therapy.” Her piece discussed how her insurance company wouldn’t pay for therapy because she wasn’t depressed enough.
• Find a news hook, and put it as close to the beginning of the piece as possible. It could be a new study, new law, upcoming holiday or anniversary of an event. Editors are always looking for pieces with a newsy angle.• Establish yourself as a reliable and confident narrator. Do this by slipping in biographical information relevant to the essay, and have fun developing your idiosyncratic character. Walter gives this example from one of her own essays: “I was a nice Catholic girl who grew up in New Jersey and now I’m a gay metro-spiritual living in the Village.”
• Make sure the piece has conflict and tension. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to figure out or resolve?” Be sure you really care about the subject matter. The tension could come from attempting to understand why your marriage broke up, or wrestling with a dilemma such as whether or not you should turn in a relative who’s stealing. • Include real scenes with action and dialogue. The narrator must be doing something. For example, if you’re writing an essay about home renovation, include a scene where you’re shopping for paint. In my essay about how my foster daughter was willing to care for me in my old age, I included dialogue in which she said, “Erica, you’ll always have a home with me.”
• Avoid excessive summarization. Instead of writing “and then my husband and I rented a summer cabin and we repaired our marriage,” describe the cabin and show how you revitalized your marriage. • Don’t generalize. Always be specific. Don’t write “everyone knows”; talk about your own experience.
• Don’t send it out before it’s ready. Show your essay to other writers, and preferably to your writing teacher, before you send it out. Keep revising. Listen to criticism without getting defensive.• Include what editors call the take-away. This is an analysis of what happened that gives readers an insight or way of looking at the world that might not have occurred to them before. The insight might be a universal truth that readers can connect with even though they haven’t shared the same experience as the essayist.