Writing a Salable Personal Essay: 5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself

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Even if you’ve spent weeks crafting the perfect personal essay — and friends and family have declared it brilliant, compelling, powerful prose — that doesn’t mean it’s a shoo-in for publication.

On the contrary. Editors have limited space for personal essays, and often the only way to snag that real estate is to touch them with your story.

In 2005, I wrote an essay about coming to terms with my flat breasts and boyish shape. It was rejected five times, but I kept up my relentless pursuit to find a published home and before long, Health Magazine snapped it up. Since that first sale, I’ve continued to publish essays (and get paid!) in print and online pubs including Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Spirituality & Health, Parents and Women’s Health.

While I’d like to believe every piece I write is essay gold, the truth is, I never give up on my pursuit of a sale. And that’s more than half the battle when it comes to personal essays.

Think you have a salable piece? Here are five key questions you need to ask yourself:

1. Do I have a great story?

The experience you’re writing about doesn’t have to be life-changing, or even a huge event, but the story should involve some personal transformation. Maybe you survived a pit bull attack, received flowers from a stranger or trashed your wedding dress.

No matter what the event or experience, it should result in you seeing the world differently than you did before. If your story is something your reader may have experienced (like feeling your baby kick for the first time), you have the extra burden of saying something profound, funny or otherwise important, so you’re not revisiting old territory.

2. Is this the right time to tell my story?

If you have an essay that’s relevant to current events or an upcoming holiday, you have a better chance of making a sale.

Due to publication lag time, if you’re going to claim something is newsworthy, it should have happened within the past few weeks. On the plus side, unless you’re dealing with a newspaper, local magazine or weekly news magazine, timing may not be as critical.

If you’re looking for a sale though, it doesn’t hurt to send your essay about your relationship with your mother four to six weeks before Mother’s Day (convert weeks to months if you’re targeting a national newsstand magazine).

3. Does my story have a universal theme?

A salable essay isn’t just about you! Sure, it may start with your experience, your journal entry or memories and eventually the lesson you learned, but the essay is a way of connecting your unique experience to something your reader can relate to.

Bottom line: People don’t want to read about your uterus — or your favorite little black dress — unless it means something to them.

Ask yourself whether your story will touch readers or make them think about an issue differently. Will it motivate them to act (by calling their moms, for example), or change in some way?

Good essays aren’t just about the first time you fell in love; they’re about the first time I fell in love, too. If you can make your readers recall an event or life experience of their own, then you’re on your way to a great essay.

4. Does my story have great characters?

The best essays have identifiable characters. Readers can visualize them, hear them and feel them. They might even recognize the character as someone in their own lives.

Whether you’re painting a picture of your best friend, a lover or a giant stuffed Elmo, your essay should contain vivid characters. And vivid characters create conflict — either within themselves or with those around them — and that promotes change.

In personal essays, the character who changes and evolves is you. So in your essays, strive for conflict, both within yourself and with other characters.

5. Does my story have a clear take-home message?

Write one sentence describing your take home message. If you find that difficult, you might need to re-work your piece.

Once you know what the “take-home message” is, re-read every paragraph in your essay and ask yourself if it supports your point.

It’s tempting to throw in funny anecdotes that are related to your story but don’t apply to the bigger message or theme. Avoid the temptation. After reading your story, readers should be able to clearly state what it’s about. If they can’t, chances are you don’t have a salable piece.

Even if your story has all of these components, you might not make a sale. The truth is, essay markets are dwindling and the real estate for essays is slim.

But writing essays isn’t just about making a sale. The practice is also a journey in self-discovery. It allows you to experience your life events twice — once in reality and the second time on the page.

Think of writing essays as a cathartic exploration of yourself. They’re a form of writing therapy; a method for discovering your own truth; a way to find your true story. These are an essay’s sweetest rewards. The sale is just the frosting.

How have you sold personal essays? Share your stories in the comments!

If you’re interested in learning more tools of the essay-writing trade, sign up for Amy Paturel’s six-week online essay-writing workshop. Her next class begins June 15, 2015. Visit www.amypaturel.com/classes for details. Bonus: TWL readers get a 10-percent discount! Contact amy@amypaturel.com to sign up at the discounted rate.

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Amy Paturel is an award-winning journalist who has contributed essays to Newsweek, Parents, Health, Women’s Health, O (the Oprah Magazine), Wine Enthusiast, Spirituality & Health and The Los Angeles Times. To learn more about Paturel’s online essay course, please visit

Amy Paturel | @amypaturel

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Comments

  1. Great tips for crafting a personal essay that engages the reader and gets them thinking about their own life and experiences. Once wrote a personal essay for a local newspaper about my 2nd kid arriving two months ahead of his due date…in the living room with the help of a 9-1-1 operator on speakerphone. Enjoyed hearing from readers about curious places babies have been born.

    What I like about personal essays is the fact that everyone has unique life experiences and their own perspective on things. When they’re well written, it’s a treat to see inside the mind of someone else, get a taste for what they experienced, and come away with something you may not have thought about before that can motivate, inspire, make you laugh, be more grateful, or even serve as a cautionary tale.

  2. Thanks for the article. I think these simple questions actually works if you’ll pay attention to them and answer truely.

    And Evan,is it your real experience?

  3. Marlene McPherson says:

    Amy thanks for your great post! These points are relevant to most form of writing. As a romantic story writer I use a similar checklist to have an engaging and plausible story.

  4. Great post and great information. I love essay writing and have been working on honing my skills so the timing is perfect. You’ve encouraged to keep at it and pitch a few magazines, I’ll make it my goal for the summer!

  5. Murigi Wainaina says:

    This reminds me that my story about living with an aged parent should be beyond the draft copy by now.

  6. Michelle Swann says:

    Great post! I am reading a fabulous book at the moment: Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W Moore.

  7. Brilliant suggestions.

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