Writer’s Digest Columns: How to Write a Five-Minute Memoir

Want to write for WD? Here are editor tips on how to submit to one of our most popular columns, 5-Minute Memoir.
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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The 5-Minute Memoir is a column favorited by both WD editors and readers alike. At just 600 words, this front-of-the-book piece recounts the personal experience of a new writer each issue and offers a short but meaningful dose of writing inspiration.

Unlike other WD columns and features that are usually written by seasoned writing instructors, bestselling authors, or our regular group of contributors, the 5-Minute Memoir is a column that editors look forward to featuring new voices in each issue and a great place to break in as a contributor to WD.

That said, it can be difficult to write a perfect 5-Minute Memoir that both encapsulates a moving personal story and imparts a lesson for fellow WD readers. Here are a few tips from editors that have read hundreds of 5-Minute Memoir submissions:

Don’t try to condense your life’s journey to writing into 600 words.

As with most personal essays, the 5-Minute Memoir works better when writers focus on one specific experience and how it affected them rather than trying to cram a much longer story into a few hundred words. Tell us about a specific experience you had related to writing or the writing life that you think other writers might be able to relate to or learn from.

For example, in some of my favorite 5-Minute Memoirs, Tawny Lara writes about how she quit drinking because it was taking time and money away from her writing, and her newfound sobriety made her a better writer. Will Dowd writes about his struggles writing after developing binocular vision disorder and how an AI voice created to sound just like his own made his writing experience enjoyable again

Write your essay about writing.

This should go without saying, but WD only publishes 5-Minute Memoirs about writing and the writing life. Sometimes we find beautifully written essays in our submissions inbox that have all the elements of a great personal essay, but they don’t tie back to writing so they aren’t a good fit for the 5-Minute Memoir column.

Some other quality submissions have been passed on because they had another main focus and tied back to writing as an afterthought or didn’t focus on writing enough. The best 5-Minute Memoirs will focus on the author’s life as a writer throughout the beginning, middle, and end.

Some 5-Minute Memoir submissions focus on the author’s relationship with the WD brand, which have been published on occasion for special anniversary issues—but this isn’t the best angle to write from. 5-Minute Memoir readers care about you and your writing journey or lessons learned—not how much you also love the same magazine they are reading. While it is fine to mention that you found a particular WD article or book helpful, it shouldn’t be the focus of your story

Submit on spec.

The best way to submit a 5-Minute Memoir is to submit a completed essay—no rough drafts, no pitches. The reason for this is that we select the 5-Minute Memoir for each issue by comparing a few of our favorites from the submission inbox side by side, ultimately deciding which one we like the most and will fit best in our issue.

For personal essays, it can be hard to tell what a final piece will read like based on a pitch alone, because much of what makes this genre of writing unique is the writer’s voice. While it can be time-consuming to write an entire piece without any guarantee that it will be picked up for publication, submitting on spec is still how we prefer to bring new writers into WD, both with our 5-Minute Memoir and beyond.

Find a unique opening.

This is true of anything you write. Your submission isn’t going to be the only one in the inbox, or the only thing readers can turn their attention to once it is published, which is why you want to grab readers from the start. Give them a reason to follow your story to the end.

The best openings drop readers in the middle of the action—this is a column of only 600 words, after all. It will benefit your piece not to start at the beginning. Instead, think about in what moment the stakes are highest.

In her 5-Minute Memoir about the time a tax-themed Star Trek parody video she wrote for her job at the IRS went viral, Barbara Neal Varma begins with: “William Shatner Appalled.” Not the moment her boss asked her to write a video script for a training conference, her writing sessions with her coworkers, or even her joy as she watched the video premiere at the conference. The 5-Minute Memoir begins with Varma’s shock as she reads headlines about her viral video and the not-so-nice commentaries from people who saw it—including the beloved Star Trek star. Only after piquing readers’ curiosity about how something she wrote garnered such controversy does Varma back up to explain how she landed the assignment, how the video was made, and what her life looked like after that moment.

Look to previously published 5-Minute Memoirs as your guide. 

The best way to see what makes a great 5-Minute Memoir is to read the magazine to see what we’ve published in the past. After reading just a few 5-Minute Memoirs, you’ll get a feel for the pacing needed to tell a story in such a short amount of space and the types of stories that caught our attention.

This 5-Minute Memoir column only runs in the print edition of WD and is rarely reprinted online, so in order to read it you’ll need to subscribe to WD, pick it up at your local library, or visit WritersDigestShop.com for back issues.

If you have a 5-Minute Memoir to submit to the editors of WD, submit your completed essay to wdsubmissions@aimmedia.com with the subject line “5-Minute Memoir.” Paste your submission in the body of the email, and include a short bio about yourself. Happy writing!

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