Five Tips for Getting a Personal Essay Published
In March 2013, I sent a personal essay to an editor at MARIE CLAIRE. She expressed interest in it and asked to see a draft. We went back and forth, and then she brought it to her executive editor. She and the executive editor found one sentence in my draft that they were interested in turning into an entirely new essay. So I wrote that. Unfortunately, the essay didn’t go anywhere after that. The drafts I turned in just weren’t working for my original editor. She was extremely helpful and nice—giving me feedback when I hadn’t even landed a proper assignment.
Downtrodden, I tried to take the personal essay to other editors who also passed on it. But I knew it was an interesting story about what happens when two writers—myself and my husband—gain success while the other doesn’t.
I ended up taking an online Mediabistro advanced personal essays class with Paula Derrow, a freelance writer and editor, who was the former articles director at SELF. Paula’s lectures and feedback, along with the feedback from my classmates, helped me to revise the essay a few more times.
That’s right—September 2014. More than a year later, I really see how much the essay changed and how hard it is to nail down everything in one 1,200-word essay that conveys my personal story to an audience.
Of course, some writers sell their personal essays much quicker than that! But it was a great lesson in the art of patience, revision, and how to make a personal story work for a larger audience.
Here are my tips for making a personal essay work:
1. Get your essay read by people who don’t know you.
Your husband and your best friend are wonderful people, but they aren’t the best at perspective on your life. Have someone who doesn’t know you well read your essay. What’s confusing to them? What information are they missing? Is your premise coming across? For me, people were confused by dates and what exactly happened when. If someone knows you well, they might not question certain things about your life that strangers find confounding.
2. Take a Mediabistro personal essays class.
The online Mediabistro personal essays classes are helpful because your instructor has often published many personal essays in places like the NEW YORK TIMES Modern Love column, GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, SELF, etc. Use their knowledge, experience, and contacts. Your fellow classmates are perfect readers to give you feedback because they don’t know you.
3. Hire an editor.
Often, the story is so personal to you (hence why it’s called a personal essay) that you have trouble seeing what’s working and what’s not. An outside perspective like an eagle-eyed professional editor can help you. Paula Derrow, the instructor who I took a Mediabistro class with, offers one-on-one personal essay editing. Check out her services here.
4. Read lots of personal essays.
Read a ton of personal essays and take down notes about what you liked about them. How did the writer tell his or her story? What details stood out to you? What made the essay good? Paula made a good point that the juiciest part of your essay is usually later in the piece after you’ve rambled on in the beginning. Read the beginnings of several published essays—how does the writer grab you?
5. Research the market for personal essays, and make your wish list.
Hopefully, the first time you send out your personal essay it sells. But making a list of your top choices to send it helps when you get rejected. Just keep sending it out to your list—one at a time. Every editor wants a chance to review your work and if you submit it to multiple places at the same time, you risk pissing off someone if more than one editor is interested. Here’s a great list of outlets that are looking for personal essays.