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The Quest for a Modern Love Byline: 5 Authors Share How They Cracked the Code

by | Feb 1, 2021

I have been writing personal essays — and teaching essay writing courses — for nearly two decades. I’ve landed essays in almost every one of my dream publications, from Oprah to The New York Times. 

But even after all of these years, and some would say a dogged pursuit, I have yet to crack The New York Times’ wildly popular “Modern Love” column. The upshot: I’m in good company. 

Many writers I admire and respect have penned Modern Love rejects. Nearly every writer I know who has placed a piece in the column says they have been rejected there, too. And for good reason.

The publication receives somewhere around 8,000 submissions each year, according to the column’s editor, Dan Jones. Dan, widely acclaimed as a super nice guy, has said the odds of landing a Modern Love column is about 1% — and that’s being generous. 

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Quick tips for getting published in Modern Love

So how do you snag one of those coveted slots?

We’ve got some advice for Modern Love submissions, along with some great tips for how to write a personal essay

Connect to readers with a universal message

A salable essay serves a greater good — it isn’t just about you. Yes, it may start with your experience, your journal entry and eventually the lesson you learned, but the essay is a way of connecting your unique perspective on something universal that your reader understands from their own experiences. 

Study previous columns

Modern Love columns have a sort of formula. The crux of the piece usually appears in the first line. The author changes/transforms as part of their journey, the sort of “I-thought-this-but-learned-this” structure. The best columns use humor and evoke emotion. 

Tell a compelling story

A great essay hooks you from the very first sentence. The experience doesn’t have to be life changing, but it does have to involve some sort of personal transformation. It helps if there’s some mystery and intrigue built into the first few sentences, too. 

Be vulnerable

Susan Shapiro is famous for her “Make me worry you’re not ok” exercise. Some people call it the “humiliation essay.” Others dub it a “confessional story.” No matter how you label it, the idea is to be vulnerable — and authentic — with your storytelling. 

5 writers spill on how they got published in the New York Times’ Modern Love column

Since I’m not yet qualified to dole out advice about this particular column, I consulted five Modern Love authors for advice. Two of the six authors featured here have won the lottery twice! 

Here are their tips, stories and insights.

1. Kerry Egan

Essays: Married to a Mystery Man and My Husband Wore Really Tight Shorts to the Eclipse Party

First sentence of essay #1: On the drive from the Calgary airport to the hotel for our honeymoon, my new husband casually mentioned that he would need to find a criminal defense attorney when we got home.

First sentence of essay #2: My husband, Alex, strode across the football field and toward me wearing a white undershirt, black dress shoes and socks, and a pair of skintight, blaze-orange nylon shorts that fit like hot pants.

How many times have you pitched the Modern Love column: Twice; both essays were accepted.

Date you pitched your accepted essays: Essay #1: March 8, 2017; Essay #2: May 10, 2019

Date Dan accepted your submissions: Essay #1: July 20, 2017. Essay #2: May 15, 2019 (The speedy response time may reflect the fact that Egan delivered it straight to Dan’s inbox since she’d placed a Modern Love story before.)

Length of the pitch portion of your submission: The pitch portion of both was two sentences. “I’ve written an essay I hope you’ll consider for Modern Love. Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon.”

Tell me a little bit about your editorial experience. The editorial process was quick and painless. He tightened up a couple of sentences, cut some extraneous words, and did not ask for any changes. I okayed his edits, and that was it. I’d heard he likes a little bit extra to cut, so I sent in about 1650 words. He edited both essays to 1500 words exactly! I thought he was a great editor, extremely easy to work with.

Share a little bit about your experience in the days, weeks and months after publication. It was really fun to see the response to the essays. Some people loved them, some hated them, some loved me, some hated me, some loved my husband, some hated him. 

If you realize that people’s reactions to your essays have nothing to do with you as a person it can be a funny experience to read the comments. I find writing to be really lonely work, so connecting with readers (even if they disagree with or hate what I wrote!) is what I like best. Modern Love got me a lot of connection with readers. I’m grateful for that. 

Any words of wisdom for writers who aspire to write a Modern Love essay? With my essays, I tried to reach people outside my own personal romance to try to explore something more universal. My Modern Love essays were about my husband, but they were also about big, eternal ideas — and the anecdotes I chose to anchor the stories were funny. So my advice would be: 

  1. Use your romantic story as a jumping off point or an example to explore universal ideas that allow you to connect to the reader, so that the essay isn’t just navel gazing.
  2. Find the humor. It can still be a sad story. But funny makes the sad sadder, the romance more romantic, the heartbreak more heartbreaking.

2. Caren Chesler

Essay: Alexa? Please Ignore My Husband

First sentence: They say never threaten divorce unless you mean it.

How many times have you pitched the Modern Love column? Two, maybe three times.

Date you pitched the accepted essay: January 17, 2018

Date Dan accepted your essay: April 26, 2018

Length of the pitch portion of your submission: One sentence: Please consider the following essay, which is pasted below and is attached.

Tell me a little bit about your editorial experience: Dan Jones wrote: “I like this piece. It’s funny and moving and contemporary. It’s a little too short for the space; Modern Love runs at 1500 words, meaning this needs another 250. One place that could use an explanation or follow up is the stroke at the end … Interested?” I told him, with forced muted enthusiasm, that I was interested. Actually, I responded, “Hot diggedy dog!” And then I forwarded Jones’ email to friends and loved ones, with the message, ” Surely, this is someone else’s life…(see below)…”

I wrote another 250 words, which he really liked. He said they not only expounded on a point, but they actually enhanced the essay. I was walking on Cloud Nine. I felt I could do no wrong. He then wanted to have a phone call, to chat about the piece. I got the impression, or he told me, they always do this, in part because they want to make sure everyone named is on board.

Share a little bit about your experience in the days, weeks and months after publication: Publishing the piece did not change my career. No book deal. No assignments were doled out because of it, as far as I know. It did, however, change my confidence level. In the weeks and months after, I thought I was a great essay writer. But as always happens, after a year, I began to slide back into my old insecure ways and convinced myself that the main reason I got in there was because they had another piece fall through, and they needed something with a fast turnaround to fill the space (Jones did mention that another piece fell through, and they needed something quickly).

Any words of wisdom for writers who aspire to write an ML column? Read the publication. I went through numerous columns and tried to crack the code, the formula, going through each one and writing notes in the margin of whether it was present moment action or reverie, and I’d look at how many graphs of present moment action would they have before going into reverie, and then how many graphs of reverie would they have before back to present tense action. I looked at how much dialogue versus paraphrase, and I’d look at endings, to see how they wrapped everything up. But the truth is, when I wrote my piece, it was something that just spilled out onto the paper after mentioning my situation to some writer friends over breakfast, and one or two of them said, “You should write an essay on that!” And so I did.

3. Melanie Bishop

Essay: I Would Have Driven Her Anywhere

First sentence: When my mother was booted from an assisted living facility in North Carolina for being “too high maintenance,” my husband, Ted, and I agreed to have her live near us in Prescott, Ariz.

How many times have you pitched the Modern Love column? Three times. The third time I submitted, it was accepted.

Date pitched: September 1, 2018

Date accepted: October 26, 2018

Length of the pitch portion of your submission: My cover letter was super brief. I think people should keep the note so brief. It’s never the note that’s going to win them over. They read all submissions. So the best plan is to say the bare essentials, and then get out of the way so they can read the essay.

Tell me a little bit about your editorial experience. Dan starts with a phone call. Then he follows up within a few days with his edits, via email. It was a very kind, cooperative process. One thing I remember learning is that the title of your essay, while it matters at the time of submission and should be carefully thought out, that title will rarely be the one it’s published under.

Share a little bit about your experience in the days, weeks and months after publication. The whole experience was as exciting as everyone says it is. There is just no greater exposure for a writer. Thousands of hits to my website, 70-something emails from fans of the essay, and deep connections with so many readers who’d also lost a parent. For me, having an essay in Modern Love was way more exciting than publishing my YA novel. 

I’d already proven myself as a college professor of writing and lit for 22 years, and as a founder and editor of a literary magazine for 17 years, and as a freelance editor/coach/retreat mentor for five years, but landing in Modern Love gave me a different kind of credibility. I started teaching a Modern Love essay class for Stanford Continuing Studies (on hiatus now due to COVID) and I have mentored some Modern Love retreats at Playa Summer Lake in Oregon. I also have many clients hire me to help them with an essay aimed at Modern Love. It has been a great addition to an already very satisfying career.

Any words of wisdom for writers who aspire to write a Modern Love column? Study the column. Read both books by Dan Jones — the anthology of Modern Love essays and Love Illuminated. Read the compiled tips from Dan Jones, which originally appeared on the column’s FB page, and have since been compiled. Take advantage of all the helpful advice he has offered up. Print it out. Read it and reread it.

4. Hannah Selinger

Essay: Friends Without Benefits

First sentence: I MET him when I was 22 and squandering a year of my life (and liver quality) working as a waitress in my Massachusetts hometown.

How many times have you pitched the Modern Love column? “I submitted to Modern Love twice before, in 2005 (when I was 25), and in 2007 (when I was 27). Both times, I was rejected. The piece that I ultimately sold I wrote without any appreciable revision. I remember writing it around Thanksgiving, at my brother’s computer. It took me all of a half hour, and I just sent it into the ether thinking, Oh, what the Hell.”

Date pitched: November 25, 2012

Date accepted: January 2, 2013

Length of the pitch portion of your submission: It was just a bio paragraph. No pitch. I included a few sentences as an author bio.

Tell me a little bit about your editorial experience. Dan schedules a phone call and then goes over the details. I had included the name of the person I was writing about, so he said that he would have to get permission from that person. I knew that was not going to work, so I changed my piece to pronouns, and removed a few obvious details. He did say on the phone, however, that my piece was not going to require any line edits, apart from one specific edit, which he discussed on the phone.

Share a little bit about your experience in the days, weeks and months after publication. This was my first national byline, so it made it much easier for me to get freelance work afterwards. I was also selected for the podcast, where a celebrity reads your piece and you speak about your experience. That was a nice moment. The reader response was a bit crazy. Against Dan’s suggestion, I did not tell the person about whom I had written this, but, naturally, he found out, so my phone was ringing nonstop. I received thousands of emails, both directly and forwarded from the Times. It’s a very kind and loving type of response. People really want to connect and tell you about their stories.

Any words of wisdom for writers who aspire to write an Modern Love column? It’s incredibly competitive, and has gotten more competitive since I was lucky enough to land it. It’s kind of the Holy Grail of the Times, as far as the personal essay is concerned. But if you aspire to get there, you need a story that’s compelling, that has a narrative arc, that’s both universal and unique (I know that’s not necessarily helpful, but it’s a truth), and you need to know the vertical. I had read just about every Modern Love column there was before sending my piece in. Familiarity with a publication is always a good key to landing work, so read it, love it, and hope for the best.

5. Susan Shapiro

Essays: A Visit, and What Really Happened and Making Room for My Junk Man

First sentence of essay #1: HIS e-mail read: “Here for one night. Giants game tomorrow. Buy you a drink?”

First sentence of essay #2: THREE months before our 13th wedding anniversary, my husband announced he was ready to move in with me. For decades he’d kept an apartment as both an office and storage unit.

How many times have you pitched the Modern Love column? “I had 12 Modern Love rejects before my first acceptance.”

Date you pitched the accepted essays: Essay #1: June 15, 2009; Essay #2: March 19, 2012

Date Dan accepted your essays: Essay #1: August 26, 2009; Essay #2: April 23, 2012

Length of the pitch portion of your submission: I always do very short cover letters. Two lines with the title and pitch. Dan has told my classes he likes them short, to the point and mysterious.

Tell me a little bit about your editorial experience: Working with Dan is a dream. He’s a brilliant editor who instantly makes all of the pieces much better. (Aside from my own two, I’ve seen most of the 50+ originals by students and colleagues and then read their revisions in the paper.)

Share a little bit about your experience in the days, weeks and months after publication: Both of my Modern Love essays boosted book sales. Several of my students who published Modern Love essays sold books based on their pieces. Aspen Matis got a call from the VP of Harper Collins right after her piece ran, which led to her memoir Girl In the Woods. Of my 50 students who published Modern Love essays, 5 led to books, a dozen were in the podcast, several wounds up in the Modern Love anthologies and one former student’s wound up in the TV series.

Any words of wisdom for writers who aspire to write a Modern Love column? Of the Modern Love pieces my students published what stands out is: the vulnerability, humbleness,  originality of the story (from getting toes sucked the first time, to learning wisdom from a younger millennial lover to sharing plane tickets as the significant other of a brother who works for the airline.) I don’t think there is a formula. He has to fall in love and that’s not necessarily tangible. I think Dan and his smart assistant Miya want to be moved by a new fresh, special, original love story and know what it is when they see it.

Cracking the Modern Love Code

If it isn’t clear by now, there’s no “Modern Love” code, but there is tremendous satisfaction if you’re lucky enough to land a column. 

Today, the Modern Love franchise extends far beyond a slot in the New York Times paper to live reading events, anthologies, a podcast and an Amazon Prime TV show. Dan is very generous in terms of sharing submission tips and advice. He has appeared at writer’s conferences, been interviewed for podcasts and provided an online space with submission tips. 

Here are a few avenues to help you get up to snuff:

Want more insight about how to break in? Check out our guide about where to submit personal essays and my course on writing personal essays

You can also take a look at Laura Copeland’s Google Doc of tips, and Nicole Whitaker’s Modern Love column analysis in the February 2020 issue of The Writer Magazine.

Do you have any favorite Modern Love examples? Share them in the comments section below.

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