Here are just a smattering of the thoughts that race through my brain on a regular basis:
– How did that person sit down and start writing their book?
– How did this person successfully pitch that story to the New York Times?
– How did that person find an Instagram-ready white background on which to carefully curate their “Workout Essentials”?
It’s riveting stuff, you guys.
But truly, I’m really interested in the “behind-the-scenes” of the life and work of people I admire. Like, great—I can see that you are talented and successful and prolific, but how? HOW? Tell me your secrets.
I know that a lot of the time (most of the time) the secret is that they work hard and they work often. Or rather, the secret is just that they do the work. But I know there’s more than that. You don’t just “do the work” and end up on the New York Times. There are trade secrets, too.
So, it’s important to me—though still very much a rookie in the world of writing and publishing—to share a peek behind my own scenes as I work to become more prolific and published. Though I don’t know it all, I do know some, and I plan to share that here.
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I write a lot of different things—web copy, blog posts, feature articles, Instagram captions—but creative nonfiction is my favorite. Memoir and personal essay are the stuff of my dreams—to write and to read. I’ve long learned and written best by writing from my own experience.
What is a personal essay?
I’ll start by telling you what it’s not. A personal essay is not just a story from your life (and it’s certainly not the story of your life; we’re not talking autobiography here!).
A personal essay is a creative nonfiction piece, written from your perspective, that details a specific moment or experience from your life that contains some universal truth or lesson. A personal essay is not a personal diary entry. As with any writing, you have to continually ask yourself: What is the reader getting out of this?
What I mean to say is I’m certainly not the expert. But I have done this before—and I can share with you what has helped me. I also don’t think it’s necessarily hard to get a personal essay published—the harder part, I think, is actually writing it—as there are several important, though simple, steps you can take to increase your likelihood of getting published. And getting published regularly.
(Step 1: Write—and rewrite—a lot.)
All joking aside, I’ll be covering these important steps—the writing and rewriting part included—in a series of posts over the next few months. This week, I’ll be covering the steps you should take before you even put pen to paper.
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To successfully publish a personal essay (or anything you write, really), it’s important to do a bit of preparation first. I know many writers who skip this step—which doesn’t always make or break their chances of getting published, of course, but it certainly increases your odds if you take the time to prep and pitch right.
Here’s what you need to do:
Consider where you want to write.
Think of this like choosing colleges: You can pick target outlets in tiers. What are your “Dream Publications”? What are your “Safety Outlets”? What are the few in the middle? (Obviously, this is for personal reference only. Please don’t ever tell an editor that their site is your “Safety Outlet”.)
Pick one or two—or more, if you’d like—publications in each tier to target as you continue writing and pitching. It always helps—especially in the beginning of your writing career—to target the publications that you know best. As a reader yourself, you’ll be much more familiar with their voice, style, and structure.
Do your research.
This is arguably the most important part of the preparation process: You need to know your target publication(s) inside and out. As you review their website/magazine/newspaper/etc., ask yourself:
– Do they publish personal essays? (This one’s kinda important.)
– What topics do they generally cover? Have they covered the topic I’m considering before?
– What is the format/structure of their essays? How many words are they generally?
– Who is their target reader? How many readers do they have?
– Do they have submission guidelines? Who is the editor/submission contact?
– Do they pay? How well do they promote their pieces?
Do this with several issues of a particular magazine/newspaper or go deep into the archives of an online publication (you know you already fall down these rabbit holes on your favorite sites anyway).
Another helpful resource when you’re researching submission guidelines is MediaBistro. They have an incredibly helpful “How to Pitch” series that highlights specific publications and the best ways to pitch their editors. The fee for MediaBistro’s premium membership, AvantGuild, is peanuts for a writer who will return to their resources again and again.
Pick a topic.
Now, you’ll find that every topic you were considering won’t necessarily be a great fit for every outlet you’re targeting. Pick one topic for each of your top 5 target publications. Then check one more time: Has the publication covered your topic before?
No? Okay, you’re ready to get started. Pick the topic you want to write about first (or the target pub you want to pitch first). Here are some things to consider as you decide on a topic for your first essay:
– Which topic/story are you most excited about and/or interested in?
– Which story has a natural conclusion? This is not mandatory, but it’s helpful—it’s more difficult to write about an experience when you’re still in the middle of it.
– Which publication do you most want to pitch?
The next step is to—you guessed it!—actually write the article. There’s no specific format for a personal essay. Again, it depends on the publication you’re writing for, which is why research is so, so important. I’ll also share more tips for doing this well in the next post in this series.
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Until next time, here’s your action step:
Research five different publications you’d like to write for—then come up with a personal essay topic for each. Finally, pick one topic to start with! Don’t worry—you can always come back to each of the steps in this series for any personal essay topic you want to cover.
Let me know what you’ll be writing in the comments below! And stay tuned for Part 2 next month, where I’ll share my tips for writing your essay.