Most essayists agree that the most difficult part of writing essays is finding the right home for their work. The truth is, even a fantastic personal essay won’t sell unless it’s relevant to a magazine’s readership.
So where do you start?
How do you market your essays to magazines? How do you choose the right market? Package your query? And introduce yourself to the editor? And what do you do when it gets rejected?
Tips for (finally!) publishing that personal essay
Before we go into this three-step plan, if you’re really keen to publish (and get paid for!) your personal essay, you might consider enrolling in my personal essay writing course. (That link will take you to The Write Life’s detailed review of the online class.)
In addition to helping you write a compelling narrative, I offer a unique parting gift: a list of 130+ editors who accept personal essays, plus their contact information.
But even if you don’t enroll, I want to help you get started… because your story deserves to see the light of day.
So here’s a simple, three-step plan for selling your personal essay to magazines and other publications:
Step 1: Identify your target markets
Long before you think about submitting your essay, create a list of potential markets for that particular story.
You might be tempted to focus only on magazines, but there are some great websites (like YourTango, Skirt!, and Salon) that run essays. The Write Life also offers a list of magazines and websites where you might pitch your personal essay.
Review several back issues of each title on your list, paying close attention to the types of stories they’ve run in the past. Are the essays long or short? Do they run humor, or are the pieces more serious? Are they written in the first person? Do they include quotes from experts? Have they recently covered the topic you’ve written about?
Keep tabs on your target pubs and get familiar with what they’re running. Tear out the essays you like and study them. Do they follow a particular formula? Is there a subject matter they cover regularly? Is the tone snarky or straight-laced?
Look at the language they use. Pay attention to the adjectives and adverbs in their stories.
Make sure the story you’re submitting matches essays your target publication has already run in terms of style, length, tone, and subject matter. Then — and only then — are you ready to hit “send.”
Step 2: Pitch your completed personal narrative
Start with the first publication on your list of target magazines and hit Google with the publication’s name and the term “submission guidelines.” The publication’s guidelines may include submission info.
No luck? Hit the bookstore and check the publication’s masthead. There’s usually a phone number listed for the editorial department. Call the magazine and ask which editor handles the column you’re targeting. The receptionist may or may not give you that person’s email address.
If not, don’t worry. There are countless ways to get the information – trial and error being one of them.
The advertising page usually has email addresses, since after all, publications want advertisers to contact them. You can use the configuration listed for the advertising manager (e.g., email@example.com) and address it to the appropriate editor using that format (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you receive a bounce-back message, it’s time to turn to outside sources for help.
Unless I know an editor well, I typically start my email submissions the same way: In the subject line, I write “Column Name Submission: Essay Title.”
Once you have the subject line, demonstrate that you have read their publication and call out one or two of your favorite pieces. Then come up with a short introduction about you, your publication credits, and your story — no more than three or four sentences. Finally, paste the entire essay in the body of the email.
If there’s a news hook to my piece, or there’s a particular reason why I think it’s a good fit for that particular publication, I’ll write another sentence with those details. Something like: “The story is particularly relevant to your readers because it involves prescription drug addiction – a growing concern for women in your target demographic of [insert statistics].”
Step 3: Don’t take rejection personally
If your essay hasn’t sold, you have to face the reality that either it’s not that good, or that you haven’t knocked on enough doors.
It doesn’t mean you aren’t a talented essayist, it just means you might have to rework your story, try to explore the topic further, or find new markets that might be interested in your piece. Writers who publish a lot of essays submit a lot of essays!
Another reason essays get rejected is simple supply and demand. Most editors have an influx of essays waiting to be read, especially since fewer publications are running essays. And if you’re an editor who has 12 essay slots a year and you receive 1,200 essay submissions a month, well, you do the math.
Your job is to increase your odds by doing your homework and making sure your piece is a good fit for the magazine you want to pitch.
And before you send, be sure your essay is in the best possible shape. So triple check for typos, superfluous words, and your clear take-home message.
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
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