Writing Personal Essays Markets

“Write what you know,” Mark Twain supposedly said. Here’s what I know: A fantastic first-person essay is the best way for an unknown writer to see print fast.

As a memoirist by day and creative nonfiction teacher by night, I am constantly thrilled and astounded by how far a heartfelt three pages can take you. Not only can a brand-new author receive a prominent byline and a big check, but a single piece that strikes a chord can lead to radio and TV appearances, film options, and calls from top literary agents and major publishers clamoring for the book you haven’t written yet. I’ve helped students of all ages, fields and backgrounds get it right. But in a sea of submissions—you’ll be writing these columns on spec, not merely pitching an idea—it’s also easy to get it wrong. Here’s how to frame your own story for top newspaper, magazine and Web markets, in nine simple steps.

—by Susan Shapiro

1. FOCUS FROM THE FIRST WORD:

Don’t write a vague essay in hopes that you can pitch it everywhere; attempt a piece that’s a perfect fit for a specific market. Every section of a newspaper, magazine, Webzine and literary journal has a different voice, style, word count and raison d’être, and there’s nothing efficient about crafting catch-all prose that won’t get published. The editors of TheNew York Times’ Modern Love column require a six-page unusual romantic saga, while the same paper’s Sunday magazine Lives column editors look for narratives that are shorter, timely and global. So before picking up a pen or turning on your computer, ask yourself: Where am I aiming this?

2. STUDY THAT TARGET AUDIENCE:

When I hoped to break into The New York Times Magazine’sLives column, I carefully read 100 installments that had already run. It turned out my idea—how as a bride I’d worn all black—was too frivolous by comparison. So I revised, throwing in that my mother was an orphan who had only one daughter, as well as (violins in the background) the lingering ghost of my dead grandmother. The editor bought it on my first try. “You’re so lucky,” a colleague told me. Well, the harder you work, the luckier you get.

When I sold three pieces in a row to MarieClaire, a magazine for younger women, I did not write my age or say, “Thirty years ago, when I was in college….” I merely used past tense. Nobody had to know how long ago my crazy carnal coed days were. On the other hand, for a piece I’m about to submit to AARP The Magazine, I am shouting my age—and my father’s!

[Craft Tip: Here’s how to bring your voice to life in Personal Essays]

3. GO FOR THE JUGULAR:

The first mistake I often see new writers make is to pick lightweight topics that have already been everywhere. Sorry, but no editor I know wants a mild-mannered slice of life from an unknown scribe on how cute your kids or your cats are. Think: Drama. Conflict. Tension. The worst experience of my life.The day I got held at gunpoint. The first assignment I give my students is: Write three pages about your most humiliating secret. Ask yourself the Passover question: Why is this night different than all other nights? If it’s not, pick a more compelling true-life tale to tell.

Here are some intensely intimate subjects tackled by authors I know that led to big bylines: Liza Monroy chronicled marrying her best gay friend for a green card in PsychologyToday. Abby Sher cured her OCD with prayer in Self. Cat Marnell confessed her longtime pill addiction in Vice. David Itzkoff went to therapy with his cocaine-addicted father in NewYork magazine. Aspen Matis hiked 2,650 miles to walk off a rape in Modern Love. Maria Andreu confessed in Newsweek to being an illegal alien. Julie Metz even paved the way for her debut memoir Perfection with an essay in Glamour on how she found proof of her late husband’s infidelity on his computer.

I personally don’t have a dramatic, international life-more like dumb relationships and addictions in Michigan followed by psychotherapy in Manhattan. Luckily, my weekly writing group, tough editors and even my therapist help push me to go darker and examine my motives, pain, problems and regrets. In more than 100 publications and nine books, I’ve mined my interior dramas and ramped up the humor and emotional panic. With practice, you can learn to dig deeper, too.

[Ever wonder what “based on a true story really means? Find out here.]

4. FIND A TIMELY HOOK:

A smart way to a quick sell is to use newsworthy pegs to frame your foibles. I found that no editors were interested in my macabre childhood obsession with my Barbies (where I’d change their heads instead of their clothes)—until, that is, the popular plaything’s 35th birthday became my lead. I had so much success exploiting my old Barbie adventures that I revised them for her 40th and 50th—and wound up in The New York Times, Daily News, The Daily Beast, Vogue Australia and on TV documentaries on ABC and Oxygen. My student Melanie Gardiner recently utilized this technique, riding buzz about a hit TV show’s series finale to frame her essay about her one attempt at trying meth: “How a Breakup Inspired My Attempt at Breaking Bad” was published on Nerve.com. As an editor once drummed into my class: “It’s called newspapers, not oldpapers.”

5. BE UNUSUAL, PROVOCATIVE OR CONTROVERSIAL:

Even students who choose extreme topics and traumas tend to pick obvious angles that editors still see too much of: Tales of alcoholism and horrible dates proliferate, along with “the creep who divorced me” and “the creep I should have divorced sooner.” To tackle overdone subjects like these, you’ll need a surprising take or an unexpected happy ending. Consider Ophira Eisenberg’s Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy or Sophie Fontanel’s chronicle of 12 years of celibacy in The Art of Sleeping Alone.

“There’s a moratorium on dead parents and grandparent stories,” a top editor recently told my students. So my student Bryan Patrick Miller twisted his theme. Instead of chronicling his mother’s death, he focused on how he followed her deathbed wish for him to go meet their family in Ireland. It turned out they weren’t quite as well thought of as she’d told him. That flip side of the story led to the terrific Lives essay “Return of Glavin” that opened, “My pilgrimage to my mother’s ancestral home in Ireland began with the wrong bus, to the wrong village.”

6. TAKE ACTION:

Often I see pieces by beginners about a conflict that isn’t resolved. They are stuck in a bad relationship or lousy addiction that has no ending or solution in sight. It’s hard to write well about drinking or drugging unless you’re sober and drug-free, and it’s hard to have perspective on your dating woes if you’re still single. Instead of staying stuck, chronicle your plan to change. I’ve written humorous essays and even books about visiting my worst old boyfriends to get their take on why we broke up, interviewing my mentors for advice, quitting all my addictions, and seeing eight shrinks in eight days (going speed shrinking instead of speed dating). A.J. Jacobs famously spent 12 months getting healthy, and another year “living Biblically.” Gretchen Rubin searched for happiness. Ryan Nerz traveled around the country trying to win eating contests. Maria Dahvana Headley said yes to any nice single guy who asked her out (and met her husband along the way). My student Kayli Stollak joined JDate with her divorced Jewish grandmother and wound up with a blog, book and TV pilot called Granny Is My Wingman.

7. GET FEEDBACK:

It’s rare that someone finishes an essay on his own, nails it, presses “Send” at 3 a.m. and gets an acceptance. After you’ve reworked your pages several times, and before you submit, get feedback—and I don’t mean from your spouse or your mom, who’ll tell you how brilliant you are. Instead, try a critical workshop, an in-person or online writing class or seminar, or even a hired editor (this is one of my own secret weapons). If you have a friend or colleague who has published similar work you admire, offer to pay him for a serious critique. Then, don’t argue or disregard the comments. If they are hard to digest (personal essays are personal, after all), take a week off and read them again. I often find that the difference between my writing students who don’t get published and the ones who do comes down to their ability to incorporate criticism. After one essay class, an 18-year-old student who didn’t like my suggestions asked, “Why should I listen to your take on my story?” I said, “Because I’ve been doing this for 30 years and you’ve been doing this for 30 minutes.” He took my advice and had a published clip by the end of the term.

8. COVER YOURSELF:

Craft a very concise cover letter (think six lines). If possible, address the acquiring editor by name (to find it, check mastheads, search online or call the publication and ask). Start by mentioning something similar she wrote or published that you admired. Describe your piece in a succinct Hollywood movie pitch. Don’t overdo your bio—just add a line or two. If you’ve published before add one link (not 10 with four attachments). Most editors want you to paste your piece in an email, as well as attach it, but seek out and follow submission guidelines for that specific market. In the subject line, put “Submission:” and the title of your essay. If it’s timely, help the editor out by saying “Submission: Celebrating Yom Kippur With Bacon Cheeseburgers Oct. 3” (which Danielle Gelfand sold to TheNewYorkTimes in 24 hours). Unless it’s a very timely piece pitched to a daily or online news magazine, wait a month to follow up. After you send it, take a breath, then start your next piece.

9. LET EDITORS EDIT:

If an editor expresses interest in your essay but requests a revision, be willing to revisit your words or structure. It’s an editor’s job to know her audience better than you do. More than a few have changed their minds about publishing a new writer who is giving them a headache with a “You can’t change a comma” attitude. If, after your piece runs, you hate minor changes you didn’t OK, write her a long letter detailing the stupidity of her every cut or punctuation change. Then tear it up and send her a note saying, “Thank you so much for the beautiful clip. I’m so honored you published me.”

Want to write better (publishable) essays?
Get Crafting the Personal Essay, a hands-on,
creativity-expanding guide that will help you infuse your
nonfiction with honesty, personality, and energy.
Order it here and get a big discount!

Susan Shapiro (susanshapiro.net) is a writing professor and the author of nine first-person books, including Lighting Up, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, and the new co-authored memoir The Bosnia List.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

*********************************************************************************************************************************

Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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Want to get paid to write personal essays?

It’s the romantic version of being a freelance writer.

Take a vacation, and write about your adventures. Survive your toddler’s terrible-twos and share your advice. Dabble in online dating and tell others the good, the bad, and the ugly about your experience.

Sounds pretty good, right?

If you have a unique perspective, experience, thoughts, or advice from your side of the fence, you can get paid to write personal essays…in just about any niche.

But you need to know where to look to find these gigs, and how to pitch an editor when you do. Note: There are still plenty of opportunities to write personal essays, but not all are well-paying assignments.

Have something to say? Check out these 16 markets for places to get paid to write personal essays:

1. The Alpinist

Are you an experienced mountain climber or new to the sport? Are you on a mission to bag as many peaks around the world as possible? Know a climbing destination every serious adventurer needs to visit? The Alpinist wants to hear from you. Pitch an idea for a personal essay to Senior Editor Katie Ives for The Climbing Life or Off Belay.

Rate: Pays $0.25/word for 250 to 500-word essays.

2. Brain, Child 

When writer Penne Richards lost her daughter in a car accident, she struggled to deal with the loss.  Writing about the difficult experience for Brain, Child, proved to be a powerful way to help her grieve. Not every essay in this magazine covers such heavy-hitting topics. But it is a place where you can write long-form essays on a wide range of subjects and topics. Send your pitch to editor and publisher Marcelle Soviero.

Rate: Pays $300 for 1,500 to 4,500-word essays.

3. The Bold Italic

Live in San Francisco, or have a connection to The City By the Bay that’s changed the way you see the world? The Bold Italic Editor-in-Chief Keith Spencer wants to hear from you. This online magazine has published personal essays on the gig economy, online dating, mental illness, and many other topics with a San Francisco angle.

Rate: $50 per essay

4. Bugle Magazine

If you want to write a personal essay about elk hunting, land-use issues, conservation, wildlife management and exploring the Rocky Mountains, pitch an idea Bugle Magazine Assistant Editor Kasey Rahn. Here’s the catch, the section where you’re most likely to land an assignment is for the “Women in Outdoors” column. Submit a pitch or send a personal essay on spec for review.

Rate: Pays $0.20/word for 1,000 to 3,000-word essays.

5. Buzzfeed

Looking to score some serious exposure? Write a personal essay for the popular site Buzzfeed, which gets an estimated 168 million unique visitors per month. Pick a topic and tell readers about what you know, what you’ve learned, or share your point of view. “Whatever that experience is, it should offer insight into an ongoing and relevant cultural conversation for readers,” says BuzzFeed Editor Rachel Sanders.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.13 to $0.27 per word.

6. Christian Science Monitor: Home Forum

Mark Sappenfield was promoted to editor at TheChristian Science Monitor earlier this year, after a decade of writing for this well-known publication. He says “The Home Forum” section is the best place to pitch personal essays, which can cover a wide range of topics.  Current interests for essay topics include travel, parenting, home, family, gardening, neighborhood, and community. Submit completed essays for consideration.

Rate: Pays $75 to $150 for 400 to 800-word essays.

7. Dame Magazine

This edgy women’s magazine likes to push the envelope with witty, irreverent, and provocative content, which includes personal essays. “Our objective is to move the conversation forward around trending and topical subjects most relevant to women—that is, when we’re not starting the conversation,” says Dame Magazine Editor Kera Bolonik. Query first, before submitting a completed essay.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.13/word.

8. The Establishment

This online magazine run by women has a lot in common with Dame Magazine. It’s edgy, quirky, and was created to provide a place for people to share their ideas. Need a dose of inspiration? Check out the recent essay written by Rachel McCarthy James: Can you make Donald Trump resign from your nightmares? Have an essay idea? Reach out to The Establishment Editor Nikki Gloudeman.

Rate: Pays $125 per 800 to 1,500-word essays.

9. Extra Crispy

Your mother always told you not to skip breakfast. This is why: You can get paid to write about it. Extra Crispy is all about what people eat for breakfast. Recipes are a must, along with the story that goes with them. But it has to be smart, fun, weird, or have a fresh angle on the typical breakfast, says Extra Crispy Editor Ryan Grim.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.47/word for 800 to 1,000-word essays.

10. Motherwell 

Not everybody experiences parenting the same way. And not everybody has the same opinions on raising kids. And that’s why Randi Olin and Lauren Apfel created Motherwell magazine. “We’re looking for evocative first-person narratives that have a unique focus, or take a novel angle, on a slice of the parenting experience,” says Olin. Submit completed essays up to 1,200 words for consideration.

Rate: Pays $50 for up to 1,200-word essays.

11. Narratively

If you want to get paid to write a personal essay for Narratively, you need to have a story to tell that offers readers a glimpse into whatever makes your life different, interesting, or even abnormal. Like lawyer Amy Bond’s recent essay, “Twitter trolls outed my porn star past. So I embraced it.” Be sure your essay includes a “takeaway” or lesson for readers. Submit a pitch or completed essay for consideration.

Rate: Pays $200-300 for 2,000 – 2,500-word essays.

12. New York Times – Modern Love

Think writing for The New York Times is out of reach? Think again. You don’t have to be an established writer to land an assignment to write for the Modern Love column. You just need to have something fresh to say about relationships, marriage, dating, and parenthood. For more on how to break into this market, check out the advice from Modern Love editor Daniel Jones.

Rate: Pays $300 per 1,500 to 1,700 word essays.

13. The Penny Hoarder

This frugal-living, money-saving website covers a wide range of topics meant to provide people with practice ways to earn and save money. Pitch an idea to The Penny Hoarder Editor Alexis Grant and find an angle for an evergreen topic.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.08/word for 700 to 900 word essays. Negotiable.

14. Slice

Working on the next great American novel? Writing a non-fiction book? Or wondering where you can publish poetry? There aren’t a lot of markets for this type of essay writing. But Slice magazine, created by Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson, happens to be one of them. “We’re looking for anyone with a fresh voice and a compelling story to share—basically any work that really knocks our socks off,” says Gagliano.  “We simply look for works by writers who promise to become tomorrow’s literary legends.”

Rate: Pays $250 for essays up to 5,000 words.

15. The Smart Set

Magazines were a different breed in the early 1900s when H.L. Mencken and George Nathan published the literary magazine The Smart Set. And while the magazine folded in 1930, it’s literary focus on covering culture, arts, science, and world affairs wasn’t forgotten. The magazine was reincarnated at Drexel University in Pennsylvania and publishes personal essays on a wide range of topics.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.07/word for 1,000 to 3,000-word essays.

16. Vox First Person

If you have a great story to tell that helps explain an important issue, Vox First Person Editor Eleanor Barkhorn wants to hear from you.  This online magazine wants thoughtful, in-depth, provocative and personal narratives on politics, culture, science, health, and world views with a fresh perspective.

Rate: Pays an estimated $0.19 to $0.41/word for 1,200 to 3,000-word essays.

Get paid to write personal essays: What you need to know

Every publication is going to have slightly different guidelines for writing personal essays.

For magazines, analyze your favorite pub, and you’ll likely find a personal essay among the pages. Study those. Then check Writers Market for submission guidelines (which usually requires submitting a completed essay instead of a pitch).

For blogs and other outlets,study examples of past essays, and read the guidelines, which you can usually find online. While most editors want a complete draft of a personal essay, instead of a pitch, that’s not the case for every publication.

Obviously personal essays are going to focus on something from your own life experience. But you need to find a way to bring it back to the reader, make it relevant to their own life, and give them some kind of take-away message.

Keep that in mind, and you’ll be able to land gigs and get paid to write personal essays.

Know of other markets to get paid to write personal essays? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Erica Verrillo writes about the business of freelance writing on her blog. She is also the author of the “Phoenix Rising” trilogy novels and “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide.”

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