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5 things a personal essay needs to succeed (and sell)

Here are the five components that should be in any truthteller's toolkit.


5. Never forget to provide a takeaway for your reader.

We often begin an essay for ourselves. We have a moment in our lives we wish to process on paper. We want to know what we truly believe. We want to see what insights lurk in our hearts and minds, what might be revealed when we prod a memory on the page.

As the essay progresses, however, from first-draft embryo to a walking, living manuscript, it’s time to remember your reader. To remember the person sitting on the other side of the screen or magazine, taking in your work and responding to it. Because they will respond to it if you leave them the room to do so.

We tend to think of the essay as a monologue, a work spoken in one voice and delivered to the masses. But the very best essays – the work editors love to publish – are actually the ones that work as a conversation between writer and reader. These essays leave space for readers to ask questions, to follow the author’s clues, to process their own meaning as they read between a writer’s lines.

Your very worst nightmare should be a reader walking away from your work with nothing more than they started with.

Your very worst nightmare should be a reader walking away from your work with nothing more than they started with. Imagine: You offer your whole heart to a reader on the page, only to have them read your entire essay, reach the last line, and feel absolutely nothing new. Learn nothing new. Have zero reactions to your work. They close the magazine or browser and walk away, utterly untouched by the story you poured out on the page.

No editor wants to publish a piece that will have that effect. Our job is to look for pieces that not only please us but also will resonate with our larger audience.

A few examples of what an essay can offer a reader in exchange for their time and attention include:


Humor, which serves as a brief respite from the stresses of our everyday lives

A triumph over hardship, in which we learn from the writer’s struggles and ultimate success

Empathy toward a subject or group of subjects, which encourages us to foster our own empathy in return

A heartfelt display of emotion, which lets us access and evoke feelings we might have buried

A new way of seeing or expressing a concept, which allows us to view the subject in fresh light


Ask yourself: What can I offer the reader by telling this story? How can I include my reader in my narrative?

If those questions fall flat, my bluntest question for better including your audience in your writing is this: If you were telling your story to some belligerent stranger at a party, and they interrupted to say, “Why should I care?,” what would you say to that person? And how can you graciously incorporate that reader into your next draft? How can you acknowledge that person in your query?

There are so many ways a writer can reach an audience. The only way to fail to do so is to forget they’re there in the first place.


Six ingredients that will make your essay stand out from the slush pile

Timeliness. Why does this essay need to be told right now? What does it add to the current conversation? Include all this in your query letter.

Originality. Maybe you know how to turn a phrase better than any wordsmith you know. Perhaps you wrote an essay about loss styled as a series of recipe cards. Or maybe you’ve got the rare ability to keep your sense of humor when writing about the saddest of subjects, which serves as much-needed comic relief. Find your strengths and lean on them – originality can easily make your essay rise to the top of the slush pile.

Authenticity. Why are you the only person who can tell this story? What essential information in your bio lends credibility to your essay? Tell an editor all about it in your query.

Completion. It’s much easier to say yes to a fully written, wonderful essay than a riskier pitch or story idea, especially if you’re new to a publication.

Professional format. Please choose a professional 12-point font that is not, say, Courier New, Comic Sans, etc. Double-spacing is your friend. And be wary of giant blocks of text in your essay, especially if you’re pitching for an online publication – separate them into short paragraphs for a reader-friendlier look that will appeal to editors.

Correct grammar. Sorry, folks, there’s just no getting around this one. It may be an editor’s job to catch a typo here or there before it goes to print, but it’s not on us to do the lion’s share of grammatical work. Proofread your work incessantly before you pitch. It’s not just politeness, either: Errors pull us out of the world you’ve worked so hard to create on the page, and you want an editor to feel transported by your essay, not annoyed by errant commas or missing punctuation.



Nicki Porter is the editor of The Writer.

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