Two weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting on a few freelance writing panels at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Beyond questions about pay, building a portfolio or pitching reported articles (a subject I’ve written on in depth), I was struck by the number of questions about personal essays and submitting personal essays.
Of course, such interest in personal essays makes sense. They’re a more literary form than journalistic writing, and a good way for folks who are writing memoirs to practice concision. Even more important, however: They’re an excellent way to break into a publication for writers with few prior clips (journo-speak for published articles that serve as samples of your work) to their name.
Without robust writing samples of articles published in reputable venues, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door at a new publication. But because personal essays present your full work up front and don’t require approval from an editor before writing the piece, they can be a terrific vehicle to get an in with an editor. Once the piece is published and you’ve developed a personal relationship with that editorial staff, you can then approach them with ideas for reported pieces, because you’ve already demonstrated your writing chops. You can also catalog that personal essay in your portfolio as a work sample to reference when you pitch other publications.
All that said, there are a few important things to know before you start:
Submit personal essays on spec.
To submit an essay on spec (short for “on speculation”) means to submit a finished, written and polished piece—as opposed to the few short paragraphs in which you would try to sell an idea in a standard article pitch. The obvious downside is that you’re stuck writing the entire thing beforehand, on your own dime, without any certainty the piece will sell. That said, personal essays are a great opportunity to show off your distinct voice as a writer. Editors will be more likely to consider your essay based on its storytelling merits alone, instead of on your portfolio of past work (or lack thereof).
Use small moments to convey big ideas.
An important thing to keep in mind when actually penning a personal essay is that they require a different approach than a full-fledged memoir or a reported piece. The most successful personal essays are built around small snapshots of moments that come together to express a greater theme. Consider approaching such writing with a healthy balance of anecdote and analysis. You’re not just telling a story about yourself, but providing context as to how your personal experiences contribute to a greater cultural conversation.
Look beyond literary journals.
Lit journals don’t have a monopoly on excellent personal essays. In fact, personal essays have a strong tradition in magazines and newspapers. Today there are many fantastic venues, both print and online, in which to share your experiences. Here are links to the submission pages for eight of my favorites:
- Vox First Person
- New York Times Modern Love
- The Rumpus
- The Sun
- Creative Nonfiction
- Writer’s Digest 5-Minute Memoir
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This post is part of a series offreelance writing-related postsfromWriter’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors toWD, his own freelance credits includeConde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, OutsideandNew Yorkmagazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.
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This is the second in a series of several posts I will be doing about where to publish your personal essays. The first can be found HERE.
So many bloggers have personal essays and narratives they’d like to place on great sites. I love reading personal stories, and occasionally try my hand at writing one myself, though they don’t come easy for me.
Did you know there is a difference between and essay and a narrative? This presentation takes about 30 seconds to click through and gives a way better explanation than I can. For the purposes of this series, I’m going to lump them together, but be sure to check out the submission guidelines for any site you submit to, and see if they specify a preference or any specific nuances they look for in personal stories.
If you have been published in one of the sites and magazines listed here, leave a comment and tell us about your experience!
Baby Boomer-Centric Narratives
BoomerCafe – “Now in its 16th year, BoomerCafe is the original digital magazine for baby boomers with active lifestyles and youthful spirits.” If you were born between the years of 1946 and 1964 and have a story to tell in 500 words or less (I know, I know, that’s a little shorter than the typical essay), try this established site. No pay, but it’s a labor of love. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try One Baby Boomer’s Endless Summer by Erin O’Brien
Creative Nonfiction ($)
Creative Nonfiction – “We’re open to all types of creative nonfiction, from immersion reportage to personal essay to memoir. Our editors tend to gravitate toward submissions structured around narratives, but we’re always happy to be pleasantly surprised by work that breaks outside this general mold. Above all, we’re most interested in writing that blends style with substance, and reaches beyond the personal to tell us something new about the world. We firmly believe that great writing can make any subject interesting to a general audience.” Accepting both themed and non-themed submissions (check for current themes in submission guidelines), the magazine pays a $50 flat fee plus $10 per printed page.SUBMIT
Browse contents for back issues of Creative Nonfiction
What It Means To Be An Adult
Full Grown People – A web magazine about the other awkward age of adulthood. “The topics here run the whole gamut: romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. But what draws everything together is the sense that we’re all feeling our way along.” This site is coveted by many writers and publishes unique and compelling stories. Being published on Full Grown People will also put you into consideration for future anthologies published by the site. A considerable feather in your writing cap. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try Animal House by Jodi Mace
RELATED: BYB 021: Get Your High Quality Writing Published On Full Grown People With Jennifer Niesslein
Children of the ’80s Then and Now ($)
The Mid – “The Mid is about life in “the messy middle.” We’re working hard, raising families, laughing at the past, focused on the future. ” A fairly new website, they have 3 really big things going for them: (1) lots of buzz, (2) unique premise/content, and (3) ‘Scary Mommy’ Jill Smokler recently joining the ranks as Editor-in-Chief (I know, I know, does this woman ever sleep?). While they love the list, you;ll find some great essays too. P.S., they pay. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try What Happened When I Tried To Give My Kids A 1980s Summer by Stephanie Sprenger
Life With Kids – The Good, Bad and Ugly
Great Moments In Parenting – “Great Moments in Parenting is a website where parents can share the agony and the ecstasy of life with kids. This is a community of moms and dads who understand just how funny (and challenging) it can be to raise kids.” In addition to essays, this site also publishes short ‘moments’, as well as photos and cartoons. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try Does This Kid Make My Butt Look Big? by Sarah Honey
RELATED: Beyond Your Blog Podcast 014: Virginia Woodruff – Editor, Great Moments In Parenting
Contemporary Relationships ($)
Modern Love – “This weekly column in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times is a coveted placement for personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood — any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love.” A paying and competitive gig, this highly regarded section of the Times is the summit of non-lit mag essay placements for many bloggers and writers. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try Crawling Back From The Ledge by Alana Romain
About The Modern Man (or raising one)
The Good Men Project– “We are having a conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st century—and it is wide and varied and mundane and provocative. But for a post to be considered, it must always must be about, by, for, or focused on men. (Please note that approximately 20% of our contributors are women. That’s great—we love women’s voices. But they write about men, or sometimes about raising boys who become men.)” Topics range from Politics, Ethics and Parenting, to Mental Heath, Masculinity, and Relationships, and everything in between.SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try Are You Raising Compassionate Boys? by Jenny Kanevsky
True Stories About People – Told Slowly ($)
Narratively – “Narratively is a platform devoted to untold human stories. We avoid the breaking news and the next big headline, and focus instead on slow storytelling, exploring one theme each week and publishing just one story a day.” This ‘slow’ approach to story telling is refreshing to many writers who feel rushed in the click-bait world of the internet. Rates range from $100-$200 and they hope to keep increasing them. SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try Why I Answered My Dad’s Gay Sex Ad by Aussa Laurens
RELATED: Beyond Your Blog Podcast 039: Brendan Spiegel – Editorial Director, Narratively
On Being Blog – “On Being is a Peabody Award-winning public radio conversation and podcast, a Webby Award-winning website and online exploration, a publisher and public event convener. On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors.” It’s hard to put into words what works here. It’s better to read a few and you’ll get a feel for the subtle and not-so-subtle reflections on life, spirituality and faith that they contain. Better yet, take a listen to the radio show that the blog revolves around to catch the mood.SUBMIT
Looking for an example of a personal essay on this site? Try The Way Of The Horse by Monica Devine
Compelling Stories On A Theme ($)
Slice Magazine – “Slice magazine welcomes submissions for short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We’re looking for anyone with a fresh voice and a compelling story to share—basically any work that really knocks our socks off.” This publication has submission periods throughout the year on specific themes (‘resistance’ for example). Slice currently pays $100 for accepeted stories and essays.SUBMIT
Visit Slice to preview a past issue
RELATED: Great Sites For Publishing Your Personal Essays [Part 1]
Stay tuned for more great options for your personal essays!