September 24, 2003
Profitable Personal Essays By Dawn Goldsmith | printable version
Don't give away your life stories! Whatever your gender, age, interests, hobbies or career, if you search a little, you'll find markets eager to publish and pay for your personal essays.
Hometown newspapers, commercial and literary magazines, e-magazines, even children's and men's publications seek essays that reflect some aspect of a life as only that person can tell it.
Payment can vary from a free copy of the publication (I stay away from those markets) to more than $1,500. Length can be as short as 200 words to 10,000 or more. Atlantic Monthly, at the high end of the market on both payment and length, demands only the best. Between the Atlantic Monthly and the freebie markets a field of opportunity awaits.
To succeed in this field, you must "know your market." Visit your local library and read several issues spanning a full year. Get acquainted with the magazine's style, voice, moral tone, social and political leanings as well as seasonal needs. Ask yourself what is common to all of the essays and take note of how they compare to your own writing. Print magazines with an online presence provide a quick introduction to the market. Check out their online archives.
For more than two years, several friends and I have placed essays with the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper respected in both secular and sacred circles as a hallmark of unblemished truth in journalism.
My success rate increased dramatically when I read the guidelines and understood the unspoken preferences. Since Christian Scientists use practitioners for medical help rather than doctors, omit references to health and negative topics such as addictions (even coffee and tea). To pique the CSM editor's attention, write from a unique perspective or recount an unusual experience. Exotic lands, unusual or bygone lifestyles, or rare insights into everyday things cause CSM's editors to reach for the checkbook.
CSM places no topic limits on submissions, but many publications create an Editorial Themes list. In January, editors such as Nikki Hardin of Skirt! Magazine, assign a theme to each issue for the coming year. Hardin's themes are broad, but target women's interests. For example, in November, 2003, Skirt! Magazine's theme is Home Places and Sacred Spaces. Hardin expands the theme by adding a few suggestions, "home and hearth, going home, leaving home, making sacred spaces, feng shui, memorable rooms, putting down roots, moving, safe places." Tailor your essays to fit her parameters, and make sure to write for the targeted audience.
By reading a magazine, you'll quickly know if it is written for you or your peer group. Look at the advertisements if you doubt who the audience is. If you see Viagra or menopausal hormones -- think 40-plus. If you see fishing lures and campground promotions, the magazine has active outdoor-minded males in its sights.
After diligently researching the market, now you must give editors an essay written so well, they can't reject it. The most popular essays fit into a confusing genre: 'creative nonfiction.' Creative nonfiction incorporates techniques of fiction (simile, metaphor, dialogue, painting a scene) to tell true-life rather than fictional experiences. A writer can take a little literary license, but editors want accuracy and the truth as seen from the writer's perspective.
Creative essays should grab the reader from the first word, begin with a memorable introduction, whether it be an arresting statement, fast-paced or humorous anecdote, or a metaphor. Check out the opening to Stephanie Hunt's Nocturnal Admissions in May, 2003 Skirt! Magazine: "For the most part, I'm a good girl."
Hunt's title, Nocturnal Admissions, demonstrates a strong, catchy, even whimsical title, that helped sell her essay. But don't marry yourself to a title, editors notoriously change them.
Just as important as your introduction, personal essays require a broader theme than 'my aunt wears strange hats.' The anecdote must reveal a more universal understanding, or at least a nuance that a specific audience will pick up on and nod in agreement.
If your aunt wears strange hats, tie it to a broader theme as in the Broadway production I Do, I Do. The character Agnes uses an eighty-four dollar hat in the song Flaming Agnes to demonstrate the housewife's mid-life rebellion against negative stereotyping of women of a certain age.
When writing essays, think E. B. White for a lean, straightforward prose, a poet's ability to find precisely the right word and his uncanny ability to incorporate an aura of wisdom throughout. His essay, Farewell My Lovely!, although longer than most markets seek today, makes an excellent example of tight writing and universal truths. Five hundred to 1,000 words fits most of today's publication formats. To read it online go to: http://www.tickintsofcentralohio.org/documents/Farewell%20My%20Lovely.htm
I am partial to online markets for several reasons: the ease of e-mail submissions, the usually quick response time, and ready access to editors.
Below I've listed five of my favorite personal essay markets:
Christian Science Monitor, The Home Forum section - Pays $75 for short pieces (300 words) to $150, on publication. The Home Forum submissions should be original, upbeat personal essays from 400 to 1,100 words. The two mistakes they see most frequently are "essays that are mere descriptions, that lack forward motion or a theme" and "essays in which the story has obvious meaning for the author, but he or she has failed to communicate the significance."
Pays $50 - $200; less for very short pieces (under 750 words). Conversely uses an online submissions system. Readers are educated, female and male, and primarily in their twenties and thirties. Seeks antidote essays ranging from personal opinion to social observation, intimate critique, satirical commentary, and factual reports.
Field and Stream Magazine - see 6th question on that page
Pays from $100 to as much as several thousand dollars, depending on the quality of the work, the experience of the author, and the difficulty of obtaining the story. Study essays in past issues and know the magazine before submitting.
Skirt! Magazine - Request guidelines using email on that page.
Pays $125 for essays of 800 - 1,000 words written to reflect a specific theme for each issue and targeting a female audience. E-mail submissions accepted and response time is remarkably quick. Read the online essays at skirtmag.com for examples of style and voice.
The Sun Literary Magazine
Pays $1,000 for major essays (up to 7,000 words); $300 to $750 for other essays; half-price for reprints. Favors personal writing.
Read Life with Hope, published in the anthology Chocolate for a Woman's Courage and "Of Golf Tees and Evergreen Trees" in Chocolate for a Woman's Soul, Vol. II at bookstores now.