Writing a true story (a personal essay) is a personal experience—and as such, what matters most is your experience of your writing and your satisfaction with the work you’ve done. We all have an important story to tell.
But if you’d like to see your personal essay published in a literary journal, here are a few specific things you can do to ensure your work will get a strong read. And if you don’t quite know what it means to write a creative nonfiction essay (a personal essay) start here: Short Prose Genres: Defining Essay, Short Story, Commentary, Memoir, and Mixed Genre.
Having your individual personal essays published in literary journals is key to publishing a collection of essays some day!
1. Keep it short. Thanks to the Internet, the days of long, rambling personal essays and memoirs are pretty much gone. Most modern readers are rushed, distracted, and looking for some level of instant payoff. We advise our clients not to write essays that are longer than 3,500 words. And if you’re thinking of targeting online literary magazines (which are a great resource), you may want to aim for an even lower word count. With short prose, less is more!
2. Understand the market. Literary journals are not glossy commercial magazines. Nor are they blogs or newspapers. In a personal essay, hard facts are important. But the author who offers those facts is equally important. It’s your insight, your point of view, your unique voice that makes a personal essay come alive. Read some literary journals (like these) to get a sense of the kinds of essays that editors are looking for.
3. Get engaged. No, we’re not talking about weddings. We’re talking about current events and the modern world. Essays that are reflections on the way we live today—especially those that tackle “big” issues in a personal way—are often favorably received at literary magazines. So if you can put a personal spin on a big issue—like foreclosure, obesity, racism, protest movements, or any other social issues—you may be able to get a foot in the door at a literary magazine.
4. “Tell me something I don’t know.” You’ve heard there are no new ideas. But the fact is, no one can replicate your particular view of the world. For that reason, editors at literary magazines continue to accept prose that offers new viewpoints of modern work and play. But in order for your prose to be compelling, you’ve got to push for deeper, more surprising, and more insightful explorations. You’re competing for space when you submit to a literary magazine, and if your insights are stronger than the competition’s, then you’re in!
5. Check your ego at the door. Just because you’re writing a personal essay doesn’t mean you can indulge in your every last whim of hedonism. Essays that are about “me, me, me” and “I, I, I” are not likely to be published. Strive to paint a bigger picture—to show how your experiences are relevant to all people—and you’ll turn editors into fans.
6. Submit your essays to the best-suited editors. If you’re going to submit your personal essay, you’ve got to know the right people to send your work to. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve got a database of thousands of editors who are accepting essays—and we track which editors like what specific type of work. If you want access to our information, you’ll need to apply to join our client list.
But you can also do this kind of research on your own. Spend time at the library or on the Web to determine which magazines are right for you, then send out your work regularly. Expect rejections and strive for acceptances. Although the odds may seem staggering, we see writers’ work being accepted all the time!
QUESTION: Some people prefer reading essays over stories because “essays are based on real life.” Do you agree? Disagree?
I think on some level that ALL stories are true. Maybe they are not factually true but they can be emotionally true…sometimes a story that is made up can be more true than one that is a stringing together of facts.
Can you guess that I write fiction?
I don’t fully agree or disagree with that. Short stories are also based on the author’s life experiences to some degree. Obviously, essays have to stay stricter to what “actually” occurred, but fiction and nonfiction are both based on real life. And preference-wise, I enjoy short stories for creativity of plot, and I enjoy essays for creativity of philosophy. It depends what you’re looking for.
I think the strongest personal essays “show” a story, rather than tell one.
To write a memoir your mind has to step back in time, and when this happens, even though a particular event has the bones of truth, the telling of it requires enough fleshing out to engage a stranger’s mind and heart. It’s like the game of round table–when the starting story gets to the end, there is a new tableau to start the round again…although sometimes not to the extent as that game often exposes. To write a memoir, the writer’s mind must get so fully engaged in the time the scene takes place that everything being written is happening in her head, in her heart as closely accounted to the events as her mind dares to go; the pain must be felt, sadness should almost weep from the pages, and joy should have the reader smiling as if the joy is hers.
A Life full of Life is,and never an essay. The more Life the more words,the less life the less words! So fill a book with words.
Real life stories often have such sad endings that I much prefer an imaginative plot with a fictitous happy ending.
I already have my true story on a blog, it needs some work but you are welcome to read it 🙂
I posted a comment but it never came up…
Thanks for letting us know, Amanda. Looks like it got caught in spam. It’s live now. Glad you told us!
By Scharlie Martin
Fifteen years ago, before the Internet, I was selling on a regular basis—not every week, of course, but often enough to keep hope alive. A confession story here, a men’s magazine story there, an inspirational article to a religious magazine…. But alas, these markets eventually started to dry up.
My only recourse was to write the great American novel, get an agent, and be on my way. Unfortunately, the only agent (out of the multitudes I queried) who agreed to look at my “tome” responded six months later in a one sentence letter. “Unfortunately, due to health problems I am no longer considering new work.” He didn’t bother to apologize or return my manuscript.
When my bruised ego recovered I decided to try self-publishing, which is apparently spelled @%&$#@^*&^&. Some six months later and $900 lighter I was the proud author of a 100,000-word masterpiece that sells for $22.95. Again, unfortunately, no one pays $22.95 for a novel by an unknown writer when you can buy best-selling authors in the world at Walmart for $7.95.
I did have a short story accepted last year. Unfortunately, before my manuscript hit the streets however, I received an email informing me that due to changes in editorial staff they could not “unfortunately” use my story.
So, for those of you out there who have a yen to be a writer, my advice is simple: drink two or three eight ounce glasses of Southern Comfort as quickly as you can and call me in the morning—I have a one bullet hangover cure you’ll really thank me for.
It depends on the way the essay is written. Is it dry and one-dimensional?
Or does it flow? Is the voice warm and conversational?
Essay or not, writing should be appealing and like a magnet. The words should draw a reader in. Or why submit?
Stories can be based on real-life experiences and have the warmth and appeal to readers. Or not. It’s how the writer uses the words.