They’re all over your Facebook feed, and for good reason. Personal essays by popular authors and novices alike are relatable, engrossing reads.
Sometimes, their heart-wrenching reflections stay with you for days.
For reporters or academics, it can be hard to step back from research rituals and write from personal experience. But a personal essay can endear you to an audience, bring attention to an issue, or simply provide comfort to a reader who’s “been there.”
“Writing nonfiction is not about telling your story,” says Ashley C. Ford, an essayist who emphasized the importance of creating a clear connection between your personal experience and universal topics. “It’s about telling interesting and worthy stories about the human condition using examples from your life.”
But don’t worry if your life doesn’t seem exciting or heart-wrenching enough to expound upon; think of it as writing through yourself, instead of about yourself. “There are few heroes and even fewer villains in real life,” she said. “If you’re going to write about your human experience, write the truth. It’s worth it to write what’s real.”
Where to submit your personal essays
Once you’ve penned your essay, which publications should you contact? We’ve all heard of — and likely submitted to — The New York Times’ Modern Love column, but that’s not the only outlet that accepts personal narratives.
“Submit to the places you love that publish work like yours,” Ford advises, but don’t get caught up in the size of the publication. And “recognize that at small publications you’re way more likely to find someone with the time to really help you edit a piece.”
To help you find the right fit, we’ve compiled a list of 20 publications that accept essay submissions, as well as tips on how to pitch the editor, who to contact and, whenever possible, how much the outlet pays.
We’d love to make this list even more useful, so if you have additional ideas or details for these publications or others, please leave them below in the comments!
1. Boston Globe
The Boston Globe Magazine Connections section seeks 650-word first-person essays on relationships of any kind. It pays, though how much is unclear. Submit to firstname.lastname@example.org with “query” in the subject line.
Must-read personal essay: “Duel of the Airplane-Boarding Dawdlers,” by Art Sesnovich
2. Extra Crispy
Send your pitches about breakfast, brunch, or the culture of mornings to email@example.com or the editor of the section you’re pitching. Pay appears to be around 40 cents per word.
Must-read personal essay: Gina Vaynshteyn’s “When Dumplings Are Resistance”
3. Dame Magazine
This publication is aimed at women over 30. “We aim to entertain, inform, and inspire,” the editors note, “But mostly entertain.” Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Pay varies.
Must-read personal essay:“I Donated My Dead Body to Give My Life Purpose,” By Ann Votaw
4. Full Grown People
Essays — 4,000 words max — should have a “literary quality.” Include your work in the body of your email to make it easy for the editor to review, and send to email@example.com. No pay.
Must-read personal essay:“Call My Name” by Gina Easley.
Want to write for this Jewish parenting site? To submit, email firstname.lastname@example.org with “submission” somewhere in the subject line. Include a brief bio, contact information, and your complete original blog post of 700 words max. Suggested word count is 500-700 words. The site pays $25 per post.
Must-read personal essay: B.J. Epstein’s “How I’m Trying to Teach Charity to My Toddler”
6. Luna Luna
A progressive, feminist magazine that welcomes all genders to submit content. Email your pitch or full submission. There’s no pay, but it’s a supportive place for a first-time essayist.
Must-read personal essay: “My Body Dysmorphia, Myself” by Joanna C. Valente
7. New Statesman
This U.K. magazine has a helpful contributor’s guide. Unsolicited submissions, while rarely accepted, are paid; if an editor likes your pitch, you’ll hear back in 24 hours.
Must-read personal essay: “The Long Ride to Riyadh,” by Dave Eggers
8. The New York Times
The popular Modern Love feature accepts submissions of 1,700 words max at email@example.com. Include a Word attachment, but also paste the text into your message. Consult the Times’ page on pitching first, and like Modern Love on Facebook for even more insight. Rumor has it that a successful submission will earn you $250. (Correction added Oct. 9, 2014: Payment is $300, The New York Times writes on its Facebook page.)
Amy Sutherland’s column, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” which ran in 2006, landed her a book contract with Random House and a movie deal with Lionsgate, which is in preproduction. “I never saw either coming,” Sutherland said.
Another option is the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine. To submit, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Must-read personal essay: “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” by Nina Riggs
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.
“I was compensated $150 for my essay,” says Alexis Grant, founder of The Write Life, “but that was several years ago. All in all, working with the editor there was a great experience.” Who Pays Writers reports average pay of about 10 cents per word.
Must-read personal essay: “I Fell in Love with a Megachurch,” by Alexis Grant
Indicate the section you’re pitching and “article submission” in your subject line, and send to email@example.com. Average reported pay is about 23 cents per word.
Must-read personal essay: Justin Peters’ “I Sold Bill Murray a Beer at Wrigley Field”
Each print issue has a specific cultural theme and welcomes both fiction and nonfiction. Stories and essays of 5,000 words max earn up to $250. Review periods are limited, so check their submission guidelines to make sure your work will be read with the next issue in mind. Submit online.
Must-read personal essay: “Fire Island,” by Christopher Locke
12. The Billfold
The Billfold hopes to make discussing money less awkward and more honest. Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Who Pays Writers notes a rate of about 3 cents per word, but this writer would consider the experience and exposure to be worth the low pay.
Must-read personal essay: “The Story of a F*** Off Fund,” by Paulette Perhach
Motherwell seeks parenting-related personal essay submissions of up to 1200 words. Submit a full piece; all contributors are paid.
Must-read personal essay: “The Length of the Pause” by Tanya Mozias Slavin
14. The Bold Italic
This publication focuses on California’s Bay Area. Strong POV and a compelling personal writing style are key. Pay varies. Email email@example.com.
Must-read personal essay: “The San Francisco Preschool Popularity Contest,” by Rhea St. Julien
Submit essays of 800-2000 words to this lifestyle site geared toward women. Pay averages about 5 cents per word.
Must-read personal essay: “Is Picky Eating An Eating Disorder?” by Kaleigh Roberts
16. The Rumpus
Focuses on essays that “intersect culture.” Submit finished essays online in the category that fits best. Wait three months before following up.
Must-read personal essay: “Not a Widow” by Michelle Miller
17. The Penny Hoarder
This personal-finance website welcomes submissions that discuss ways to make or save money. Read the guidelines before emailing your submission. Pay varies.
Must-read personal essay: “This Family’s Drastic Decision Will Help Them Pay Off $100K in Debt in 5 Years” by Maggie Moore
18. Tin House
Submit a story or essay of 10,000 words max in either September or March. Wait six days before emailing to check the status of your submission. Cover letters should include a word count and indicate whether the submission is fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
Must-read personal essay: “More with Less,” by Rachel Yoder
Narratively accepts pitches and complete pieces between 1,000 and 2,000 words that tell “original and untold human stories.” Pay averages 6 cents per word.
Must-read personal essay: “What Does a Therapist Do When She Has Turmoil of Her Own?” by Sherry Amatenstein
Still looking for ideas? Meghan Ward’s blog post, “20 Great Places to Publish Personal Essays,” is worth perusing. MediaBistro also offers a section called How to Pitch as part of their AvantGuild subscription, which has an annual fee of $55.
This post originally ran in October 2014. We updated it in December 2016.
Have other ideas or details to add? Share with us in the comments!
“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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