You’ll find them in almost every local, regional and national newspaper. You’ve probably read them in your favorite women’s, men’s, travel, parenting or inspirational magazines. You may have even said to yourself after reading one, “I could have written that!”
The personal essay column is one of the most popular articles today. The topic can be about anything you’ve experienced in a day, but often centers around a triumph, a heartfelt moment, a lesson learned or nostalgia. The personal essay is written in first-person and involves your reader at an emotional level. It’s a short piece of writing that has to do with your interpretation of a slice of life.
The key to being chosen over other submissions is to write around a theme (message), painting a picture with colorful words that shows rather than tells. Today, more than ever, people like reading about people. That means material is everywhere, from the supermarket checkout line to your own neighborhood. To find useable material you need to be in the “now” mode, observing and eavesdropping.
Nothing, however, can take the place of reading the genre you want to write for. Part of the reading includes studying the different styles of the various columns authors. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it seems unreasonable because when starting out, the essay columns in smaller local communities pay only thirty-five to seventy-five dollars. And yes, you will draft, rewrite, and make a final revision that may take you days if not a week. The light at the end of the passage way is that the same essay can be revised and expanded upon, then submitted… without query or editorial permission, to national magazines that pay from hundreds to over a thousand dollars. Secondly you will be paid for what will become a clip, that cherished piece of paper that says you are a paid writer, and here’s the proof.
This market is easy entry for anyone who is competent in focusing on the objective of the work (to inspire, educate or entertain), has good grammatical mechanics and, most importantly, is likeable.
You not only have to write about the event or experience, but you need to tell how you felt, what you thought and what really is in your heart. In other words, you are revealing something about yourself, something that makes you real to the reader and stimulates strong feelings toward your subject matter. The most popular essays are about everyday people who have discovered something about their strengths or weaknesses, a new truth, or a humorous incident that the reader can relate to. More often than not, the topic is time-sensitive. A sense of urgency serves the writer well because capturing the trend or that newsworthy season also increases awareness and relevancy to the reader. Not only will your article grab their attention, you’ll be desirable to the editor.
Creating a reservoir of personal experience material comes from your everyday life. But because the daily business of life can be distracting, we can miss those golden experiences to cash in on. By starting and committing to personal journaling, you’ll slow yourself down long enough to capitalize on the day’s events and interactions. Learning to identify that relevant material for personal essay articles is cultivated. By keeping a journal, you’ll train your awareness to spot unique essay material for a variety of markets. Also, as you record in your journal, you can practice the kind of writing skills needed for this genre.
Prioritizing this special time for reading, studying, journaling and reviewing can be likened to taking a writing course, with a very limited investment. Practice makes one proficient, eventually.
The best place to start writing for personal essays columns is in your own backyard. Call or email the op/ed (the opinion page) editor in your city or town’s newspaper. Inquire if they have a paying personal essay column and ask for the submission guidelines. Visit your local library and study back issues of the newspapers in your surrounding areas as well. Copy the columns that you most enjoyed reading, and then when you are home, begin to study them. Ask yourself these questions as you re-read them:
* What is the purpose or theme? Is it summarized in a single (lead) sentence?
* How did the writer develop his/her story?
* What imagery was used to show the story as opposed to just telling it?
We learn not only by doing, but also through observation and reflection. Each publication has its own style, and you are the one responsible to decode it and emulate it, through study and observation.