Let's get personal.
I've published dozens and dozens of personal essays in multiple publications, over the years, including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Penn-Franklin News Publishing Company newspapers (of which I had my own essay column entitled "A Little Bit of Life"), and My Outer Banks Home Magazine, among others.
As a newbie essay writer, back in the mid-1990's (yikes, that seriously dates me), it took a while to get my first "yes" from a Pittsburgh press whose ink has since gone dry. I made plenty of cringeworthy mistakes, when first submitting stories about being a parent, wife, and independent woman who always seemed to attract the quirky in everyday life. Most of those mistakes were forgivable and, with a bit of constructive feedback, easily fixable. Eventually, I began to gain regular bylines and a check in the mail.
For writers interested in submitting to magazines or newspapers, here are a few tips of what NOT to do when writing for the personal essay market.
1. Don’t vent on the page. Using an essay to express a moralistic stand and/or to rant about a controversial issue or family situation will likely lose a reader the moment she or he gets the gist of your agenda. Instead, share how your experience made you feel, allowing readers to form their own opinion. You may, indirectly, sway a reader’s viewpoint.
2. Don’t overlook the minor in life. One doesn’t have to pull a child from a burning building to have a story worth telling. Take day-to-day life experiences, major or minor, and present a universal meaning through the telling. Whether it’s a decade-old story about the day you lost your favorite cookbook or something “bigger,” the goal is to make readers feel, to think about everyday life differently, or to motivate them to act. No matter the event, the story should include personal transformation, allowing you and your reader to see the world differently.
3. Don’t forget the point. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, but there should be a point to a personal essay. If your family takes a vacation, what’s the point of the retelling beyond enjoyment? Was it the first time three generations vacationed together? Was the trip a lifelong dream of the 90-year-old grandparent? Did being sequestered in a hotel room for two days during a hurricane lead to family bonding? There should be a life-changing point in there somewhere. Don’t write about a pleasant slice of life with no meaning.
4. Don’t take the joke too far. Being able to laugh at yourself is incredibly popular in personal essay writing. Funny sells. However, writing a funny personal essay still must serve a purpose and, again, have a point. If you’re going to clown around, be sure the serious side of your story still shines through, giving your reader a take-away. If you make fun of yourself, you (and your reader) must learn something in the process.
5. Don’t start too late. Early drafts often come with “set-up” sentences of superfluous throat-clearing that could be eliminated without hurting the piece. Every story needs a beginning, but don’t waste valuable space getting to the hook. After writing your first draft, try reading your story from the fourth sentence on. If the story’s point did not change, get rid of the early throat-clearing.
6. Don’t overwrite. Essayists can benefit from an old marketing rule: K.I.S.S. — Keep It Simple, Silly. Editors looking for “slice of Americana” stories typically want to hear a simple story with a simple point, but told in a thought-provoking way. Flowery writing, intended to show you are a “real” writer with a weighty vocabulary and lofty ideas, may put distance between you and the “everyday (wo)man” reading the story. Revise … and revise again, eliminating unnecessary words or phrases. Essay column writing for a newspaper or magazine almost always requires editing to a certain word count. Short is sweet as long as your edits do not change the flavor and feel of the writing.
7. Don’t use lazy, passive language. Circle or highlight all adverbs/adjectives. Are there words or phrases used multiple times? Is each adverb/adjective the strongest choice for that sentence? Change or delete, as needed. Use the same exercise for verbs. Are there repeats? Did you use action verbs or passive “be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)? When possible, go for the action.
8. Don’t avoid dialogue. An essay is about your personal experience and perception of events. Sprinkling a couple of direct quotes into an essay can help the reader feel they are there with you during your slice of life moment. Using dialogue may be more effective than telling the reader, through exposition, what transpired. Worried your memories are hazy? Quotes don’t have to be exact … only exactly how you remember them.
9. Don’t censor yourself. Let go. Keeping it safe and only scratching the surface may mean you are not yet ready to write that particular story. To write essays, you must be vulnerable and allow others to see your truth ... your hopes, fears, and regrets. If you feel yourself holding back, maybe you need more distance from the experience before you can take the leap and write about it openly and honestly.
10. Don’t assume your story is unique. Everyday life experiences happen to most people. We get up. We take a shower. We go to work. Impactful, life-altering experiences — hitting menopause, going through a divorce, fighting breast cancer, losing a spouse or parent, and so on — do saturate the essay market. These events are not as unique to the general reader as one might think. When writing about these experiences, be sure you can present what makes it your own story, not one of many. What makes it unique?
11. Don’t ignore directions. When submitting an essay for publication, check the publication’s website for exact submission requirements. Many publications ask for 700-800 words. Others may take less or much, much more. Publications plan months in advance. Note the publication calendar indicating deadlines for holiday pieces or specific themes. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES.
12. Don’t expect the editor to edit. Be sure to present your cleanest submission possible. Submitting an error-free, grammatically fine-tuned piece presents you as a professional and may help you get that byline and/or additional future work. Editors have a lot on their plates. Don’t make more work for them by expecting them to clean up your grammar. Submit your absolute best work and give them an attractive reason to say “yes.”
13. Don’t take rejection personally. It requires bravery and a thick skin to publicly share your personal feelings and experiences. In doing so, you invite a reader or publisher to reject you through your story. Ultimately, it’s his or her choice, and reading a writer’s work can be a very subjective affair. Don’t take an unfavorable response personally. It’s your story. Regardless of public opinion, through the telling, you have, hopefully, learned something about yourself and maybe even slayed some personal demons. That’s what makes personal essay writing worth it.
Good luck, and write on!
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