“Write what you know,” Mark Twain supposedly said. Here’s what I know: A fantastic first-person essay is the best way for an unknown writer to see print fast.
As a memoirist by day and creative nonfiction teacher by night, I am constantly thrilled and astounded by how far a heartfelt three pages can take you. Not only can a brand-new author receive a prominent byline and a big check, but a single piece that strikes a chord can lead to radio and TV appearances, film options, and calls from top literary agents and major publishers clamoring for the book you haven’t written yet. I’ve helped students of all ages, fields and backgrounds get it right. But in a sea of submissions—you’ll be writing these columns on spec, not merely pitching an idea—it’s also easy to get it wrong. Here’s how to frame your own story for top newspaper, magazine and Web markets, in nine simple steps.
—by Susan Shapiro
1. FOCUS FROM THE FIRST WORD:
Don’t write a vague essay in hopes that you can pitch it everywhere; attempt a piece that’s a perfect fit for a specific market. Every section of a newspaper, magazine, Webzine and literary journal has a different voice, style, word count and raison d’être, and there’s nothing efficient about crafting catch-all prose that won’t get published. The editors of TheNew York Times’ Modern Love column require a six-page unusual romantic saga, while the same paper’s Sunday magazine Lives column editors look for narratives that are shorter, timely and global. So before picking up a pen or turning on your computer, ask yourself: Where am I aiming this?
2. STUDY THAT TARGET AUDIENCE:
When I hoped to break into The New York Times Magazine’sLives column, I carefully read 100 installments that had already run. It turned out my idea—how as a bride I’d worn all black—was too frivolous by comparison. So I revised, throwing in that my mother was an orphan who had only one daughter, as well as (violins in the background) the lingering ghost of my dead grandmother. The editor bought it on my first try. “You’re so lucky,” a colleague told me. Well, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
When I sold three pieces in a row to MarieClaire, a magazine for younger women, I did not write my age or say, “Thirty years ago, when I was in college….” I merely used past tense. Nobody had to know how long ago my crazy carnal coed days were. On the other hand, for a piece I’m about to submit to AARP The Magazine, I am shouting my age—and my father’s!
[Craft Tip: Here’s how to bring your voice to life in Personal Essays]
3. GO FOR THE JUGULAR:
The first mistake I often see new writers make is to pick lightweight topics that have already been everywhere. Sorry, but no editor I know wants a mild-mannered slice of life from an unknown scribe on how cute your kids or your cats are. Think: Drama. Conflict. Tension. The worst experience of my life.The day I got held at gunpoint. The first assignment I give my students is: Write three pages about your most humiliating secret. Ask yourself the Passover question: Why is this night different than all other nights? If it’s not, pick a more compelling true-life tale to tell.
Here are some intensely intimate subjects tackled by authors I know that led to big bylines: Liza Monroy chronicled marrying her best gay friend for a green card in PsychologyToday. Abby Sher cured her OCD with prayer in Self. Cat Marnell confessed her longtime pill addiction in Vice. David Itzkoff went to therapy with his cocaine-addicted father in NewYork magazine. Aspen Matis hiked 2,650 miles to walk off a rape in Modern Love. Maria Andreu confessed in Newsweek to being an illegal alien. Julie Metz even paved the way for her debut memoir Perfection with an essay in Glamour on how she found proof of her late husband’s infidelity on his computer.
I personally don’t have a dramatic, international life-more like dumb relationships and addictions in Michigan followed by psychotherapy in Manhattan. Luckily, my weekly writing group, tough editors and even my therapist help push me to go darker and examine my motives, pain, problems and regrets. In more than 100 publications and nine books, I’ve mined my interior dramas and ramped up the humor and emotional panic. With practice, you can learn to dig deeper, too.
[Ever wonder what “based on a true story really means? Find out here.]
4. FIND A TIMELY HOOK:
A smart way to a quick sell is to use newsworthy pegs to frame your foibles. I found that no editors were interested in my macabre childhood obsession with my Barbies (where I’d change their heads instead of their clothes)—until, that is, the popular plaything’s 35th birthday became my lead. I had so much success exploiting my old Barbie adventures that I revised them for her 40th and 50th—and wound up in The New York Times, Daily News, The Daily Beast, Vogue Australia and on TV documentaries on ABC and Oxygen. My student Melanie Gardiner recently utilized this technique, riding buzz about a hit TV show’s series finale to frame her essay about her one attempt at trying meth: “How a Breakup Inspired My Attempt at Breaking Bad” was published on Nerve.com. As an editor once drummed into my class: “It’s called newspapers, not oldpapers.”
5. BE UNUSUAL, PROVOCATIVE OR CONTROVERSIAL:
Even students who choose extreme topics and traumas tend to pick obvious angles that editors still see too much of: Tales of alcoholism and horrible dates proliferate, along with “the creep who divorced me” and “the creep I should have divorced sooner.” To tackle overdone subjects like these, you’ll need a surprising take or an unexpected happy ending. Consider Ophira Eisenberg’s Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy or Sophie Fontanel’s chronicle of 12 years of celibacy in The Art of Sleeping Alone.
“There’s a moratorium on dead parents and grandparent stories,” a top editor recently told my students. So my student Bryan Patrick Miller twisted his theme. Instead of chronicling his mother’s death, he focused on how he followed her deathbed wish for him to go meet their family in Ireland. It turned out they weren’t quite as well thought of as she’d told him. That flip side of the story led to the terrific Lives essay “Return of Glavin” that opened, “My pilgrimage to my mother’s ancestral home in Ireland began with the wrong bus, to the wrong village.”
6. TAKE ACTION:
Often I see pieces by beginners about a conflict that isn’t resolved. They are stuck in a bad relationship or lousy addiction that has no ending or solution in sight. It’s hard to write well about drinking or drugging unless you’re sober and drug-free, and it’s hard to have perspective on your dating woes if you’re still single. Instead of staying stuck, chronicle your plan to change. I’ve written humorous essays and even books about visiting my worst old boyfriends to get their take on why we broke up, interviewing my mentors for advice, quitting all my addictions, and seeing eight shrinks in eight days (going speed shrinking instead of speed dating). A.J. Jacobs famously spent 12 months getting healthy, and another year “living Biblically.” Gretchen Rubin searched for happiness. Ryan Nerz traveled around the country trying to win eating contests. Maria Dahvana Headley said yes to any nice single guy who asked her out (and met her husband along the way). My student Kayli Stollak joined JDate with her divorced Jewish grandmother and wound up with a blog, book and TV pilot called Granny Is My Wingman.
7. GET FEEDBACK:
It’s rare that someone finishes an essay on his own, nails it, presses “Send” at 3 a.m. and gets an acceptance. After you’ve reworked your pages several times, and before you submit, get feedback—and I don’t mean from your spouse or your mom, who’ll tell you how brilliant you are. Instead, try a critical workshop, an in-person or online writing class or seminar, or even a hired editor (this is one of my own secret weapons). If you have a friend or colleague who has published similar work you admire, offer to pay him for a serious critique. Then, don’t argue or disregard the comments. If they are hard to digest (personal essays are personal, after all), take a week off and read them again. I often find that the difference between my writing students who don’t get published and the ones who do comes down to their ability to incorporate criticism. After one essay class, an 18-year-old student who didn’t like my suggestions asked, “Why should I listen to your take on my story?” I said, “Because I’ve been doing this for 30 years and you’ve been doing this for 30 minutes.” He took my advice and had a published clip by the end of the term.
8. COVER YOURSELF:
Craft a very concise cover letter (think six lines). If possible, address the acquiring editor by name (to find it, check mastheads, search online or call the publication and ask). Start by mentioning something similar she wrote or published that you admired. Describe your piece in a succinct Hollywood movie pitch. Don’t overdo your bio—just add a line or two. If you’ve published before add one link (not 10 with four attachments). Most editors want you to paste your piece in an email, as well as attach it, but seek out and follow submission guidelines for that specific market. In the subject line, put “Submission:” and the title of your essay. If it’s timely, help the editor out by saying “Submission: Celebrating Yom Kippur With Bacon Cheeseburgers Oct. 3” (which Danielle Gelfand sold to TheNewYorkTimes in 24 hours). Unless it’s a very timely piece pitched to a daily or online news magazine, wait a month to follow up. After you send it, take a breath, then start your next piece.
9. LET EDITORS EDIT:
If an editor expresses interest in your essay but requests a revision, be willing to revisit your words or structure. It’s an editor’s job to know her audience better than you do. More than a few have changed their minds about publishing a new writer who is giving them a headache with a “You can’t change a comma” attitude. If, after your piece runs, you hate minor changes you didn’t OK, write her a long letter detailing the stupidity of her every cut or punctuation change. Then tear it up and send her a note saying, “Thank you so much for the beautiful clip. I’m so honored you published me.”
Want to write better (publishable) essays?
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Susan Shapiro (susanshapiro.net) is a writing professor and the author of nine first-person books, including Lighting Up, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, and the new co-authored memoir The Bosnia List.
Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.
Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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Submitting Your Short Fiction and Poetry: 5 FAQs from a Magazine Editor
Christian Science Monitor
"The Home Forum is looking for upbeat, personal essays. We also welcome short poems. All material must be original and previously unpublished. For seasonal material, be aware that if you submit something that is about a particular month, holiday, event (back to school, graduation), or season, we need to receive it a minimum of six weeks ahead. These are first-person, nonfiction explorations of how you responded to a place, a person, a situation, an event, or happenings in everyday life. Tell a story; share a funny true tale. The humor should be gentle. We accept essays on a wide variety of subjects, and encourage timely, newsy topics. However, we don't deal with the topics of death, aging and disease."
Length: 400 to 800 words
Down East: The Magazine of Maine
"My Maine is our section most open to new contributors. My Maine stories are personal essays that focus on some aspect of the writer’s relationship to Maine and the Maine landscape. Pieces are often lyrical, sometimes humorous, and almost always have a strong first person component. We receive more submissions for My Maine than any other section of the magazine; please give us three months to respond to your submission before following up."
Length: 800–1000 words
Payment: Between $.40/word and $.70/word
"FATE magazine reports on a wide variety of strange and unknown phenomena. We are open to receiving any well-written, well-documented article. (FATE does not publish poetry or fiction.) Our readers especially like reports of current investigations, experiments, theories, and experiences."
Payment: $50 per article, and $10 for short fillers, which are less than 500 words, payable six months after print publication. Payment for “True Mystic Experiences” and “My Proof of Survival” is $25, including the use of the photograph, which will be returned.
Good Old Days
"Good Old Days tells the real stories of the people who lived and grew up in “the Good Old Days” (about 1935–1960). We like stories to sound informal and conversational, as if you’re sitting around the kitchen table reminiscing with your friends and family. However, we are open to any way you choose to write your story, as long as it is true and falls within our targeted period of time. We prefer the author’s individual voice, warmth, humor and honesty over technical ability. We do not accept fictional manuscripts."
Length: 500 to 1,500 words
Payment: $15 to $75
Michigan Quarterly Review
"MQR is an eclectic interdisciplinary journal of arts and culture that seeks to combine the best of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction with outstanding critical essays on literary, cultural, social, and political matters. The flagship journal of the University of Michigan, MQR draws on lively minds here and elsewhere, seeking to present accessible work of all varieties for sophisticated readers from within and without the academy."
Length: 1,500 words minimum, 5,000 average, 7,000 maximum
"We're looking for anyone with a fresh voice and a compelling story to share—basically any work that really knocks our socks off. At the core, Slice aims to bridge the gap between emerging and established authors by offering a space where both are published side-by-side. We simply look for works by writers who promise to become tomorrow’s literary legends."
Only accepts submissions during reading periods
"We are interested in literary fiction, including short stories, short shorts, and novel excerpts up to 6,250 words in length, and creative nonfiction. We select work on the basis of style, craft, freshness, and vision."
The Rusty Toque
"The Rusty Toque is a contemporary online literary and arts journal from Ontario. The Rusty Toque strives to publish innovative literary writing, film, reviews, and visual art nationally and internationally in the spring and fall of each year."
Payment: $50 (CAD)
The Smart Set
"We’re always looking for excellent, original, and previously unpublished personal essays, critical essays, reporting, memoir, travel writing, stories, photo essays, and even video projects."
"If there’s any group of people who believe the ideas around breakfast are boundless, we're obviously the ones. The editors of Extra Crispy want to hear your hot takes on hot cakes." No restaurant reviews.
Payment: Competitive rates
DAME features a variety of voices writing reported pieces, op-eds, and personal essays covering culture, politics, parenting, family, gender, sex, entertainment, tech culture, business and personal finance. DAME’s tone is irreverent, witty, and provocative. "Our objective is to move the conversation forward around trending and topical subjects most relevant to women—that is, when we're not starting the conversation. We accept narrative-driven reported features, first-person essays, Q&As, op-eds, and humor essays (especially satire).
Length: Stories are generally between 800 and 2,000 words, depending on the subject matter and the story format."
Kveller is a parenting magazine that accepts personal essays about parenting and women’s issues as seen through a Jewish lens.
Length: 500-1000 words
New York Times: Modern Love
"The editors of Modern Love are interested in receiving deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood...any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love.” Ideally, essays should spring from some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life. It helps if the situation has a contemporary edge, though this is not essential. Most important is that the writing be emotionally honest and the story be freshly and compellingly told."
Length: 1500-1700 words
Salon accepts articles and story pitches to the appropriate section with “Editorial Submission” in the subject line and the query/submission in the body of the email. Include your writing background or qualifications, along with links to three or four clips.
Payment: 10 cents/word
Slate is an online magazine about news, politics, and culture. Please indicate which section you’re pitching to in the subject line of your email.
Payment: 23 cents/word
"The Billfold aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable, and create a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. We are going to break one of the last taboos in our culture — talking about what you earn, what you spend, what you owe. Interested in contributing to The Billfold? Send an e-mail to email@example.com with a specific pitch you have in mind and an editor will get back to you as soon as possible."
Payment: 3 cents/word
"We are looking for evocative first-person narratives that have a unique focus, or take a novel angle, on a slice of the parenting experience. We are open to a range of styles and tones: the only requirement is that the essay works on its own terms—be it lyrical, humorous, research-oriented, etc—and conveys something fundamental about its writer."
Length: Up to 1200 words
Payment: Not specified
Tin House is a highly regarded literary magazine that accept unsolicited submissions twice a year: in September and March.
Length: Up to 10,000 words
Payment: Professional rates
"Narratively is devoted to original and untold human stories, delivered in the most appropriate format for each piece, from writing to short documentary films, photo essays, audio stories and comics journalism. We are always interested in adding new, diverse voices to the mix and we pay for stories. We accept both pitches for story ideas and completed submissions."
Payment: Not specified
"The Establishment is looking to unearth overlooked stories, produce original reporting, and provide a platform for voices that have been marginalized by the mainstream media. And yes, we want your humor, wit, and good old-fashioned satire, too. We publish originally reported features, interviews, long-form journalism, personal essays, and multimedia of all shapes, sizes, and creeds."
Length: 800–1,500 words
"We publish essays, interviews, fiction, and poetry. We tend to favor personal writing, but we’re also looking for provocative pieces on political and cultural issues. And we’re open to just about anything. Surprise us; we often don’t know what we’ll like until we read it."
Length: Up to 7,000 words
"skirt! publishes two personal essays every month on topics relating to women and women’s interests. Essays must fit one of our monthly themes."
Length: 800 to 1100 words
Travelers’ Tales are yearly anthologies of travel writing. "We’re looking for personal, nonfiction stories and anecdotes-funny, illuminating, adventurous, frightening, or grim. Stories should reflect that unique alchemy that occurs when you enter unfamiliar territory and begin to see the world differently as a result. Stories that have already been published are welcome as long as the author retains the copyright to reprint the material."
Brain, Child is an award-winning literary magazine for mothers. "We focus on long form essays. We are excited by great writing – and by both new and established writers. It makes our day when we hear from an established writer or publish an author for the first time."
Length: 1,500 – 4,500 words
Payment: Competitive rates
Destinations uses pieces that go beyond a mere description of a trail or place. "Our destination stories are almost always first person and based upon the author’s recent trip experience. Readers should come away with a strong sense of that particular outdoor experience, a firm grasp of the location’s character, and the inspiration to duplicate the trip."
Length: 1,500 to 5,000 or more words, and most contain a full Expedition Planner sidebar (contact, permit, season, hazards, map, guidebook, and other useful information; look at past BACKPACKER issues for examples and style).
Payment: $0.40-$1 per word
"Surprise us! The only rules are that all work submitted must be nonfiction and original to the author, and we will not consider previously published work."
Length: 5,000 - 10,000 words
Note: There is a $3 fee to submit online. No charge for snail mail.
The American Association of Retired People accepts thoughtful, timely, new takes on matters of importance to people over 50. “Originality is key. Certain life events, such as caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, inspire many more great essays than we could ever hope to publish. We’re looking for the compelling reads and universal truths in unusual, extreme or common-but-little-discussed life experiences.”
Length: 1,200-1,500 words
Vox First Person
Vox.com is now publishing thoughtful, in-depth, provocative personal narratives that explain the most important topics in modern life.
The Bold Italic
The Bold Italic is an online magazine that celebrates the character and free-wheeling spirit of San Francisco and the Bay Area. For pitches, comments and general inquiries, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bustle is "for & by women who are moving forward as fast as you are." Topics range from politics, to motherhood, to books, fashion and entertainment. Although the focus is on women, articles by men are accepted. Payment varies. Read their submission guidelines.
Length: 800-2000 words
Payment: Averages about 5 cents per word
The Penny Hoarder
"We’re looking for freelance writers who have fun, unique ideas for earning, saving or investing money. We’d love to hear your personal experience, especially if you can share detailed numbers, strategies and advice."
Length: 700 to 900 words
Payment: Averages 8 cents/word
"We’re interested in seeing finished pieces that intersect culture. We realize it’s a lot to ask for people to to write something without knowing if it will be published. On the other hand if you aren’t driven by the story so much that you have to write it then it’s probably not a good fit for The Rumpus."
Payment: Averages 13 cents/word
Human Noise Journal
"[Our] goal is to publish pieces that are intriguing and unique. Pieces that make you think. Pieces that encompass all of the human experience. Pieces that are multimedia and experimental. We want to give a voice to the voiceless. Most of us here have been a struggling artist in one form or another and now it is our turn to give writers, novice or experienced, a place to get published. So send us your darlings, if you are brave enough to put them out into the world."
Length: Short Stories and essays should be no longer than 10 pages
Note: See submission periods