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
This post is part of a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.