I have been writing personal essays for the past 10 years or so and have suffered through rejections, but have had quite a few successes. Most of what I’ve written has eventually gotten published. Based on my experiences I’ve come up with a list of common mistakes writers should avoid when trying to get a personal essay published.
- Not changing your strategy when an essay is rejected
I wrote an essay about how I met my husband, who sat quietly three pews behind me in church for years until he got the nerve to approach me, and thought it was the perfect piece for the “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. About a month after submitting it, I got the standard rejection e-mail. (At the time, I didn’t know that “Modern Love” receives thousands of submissions a year. Only 52 are published.) I shortened the essay and sent it to Chicken Soup for the Soul and it was accepted. Later, an inspirational literary journal, Finding Mr. Right, published the essay too. I’m glad I didn’t give up after The New York Times rejection.
- Starting too slowly
It seems practical to start an essay in chronological order, or to set the scene through exposition, but that might not be the most interesting approach. Consider beginning the essay in the middle of the story with action or compelling dialogue. Here’s an example:
“I wish all the black people would go back to Africa.”
With those words, my idyllic world was shattered. My innocence was lost.
That’s how I began my essay, “The World I Didn’t Know Existed,” with a quote from one of my elementary school classmates. The essay is about my first encounter with racism. The essay is published in Black Lives Have Always Mattered, A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives.
- Holding back
If you play it safe and keep your essay on the surface, you may not be giving your reader something to grab onto, something he or she can identify with. When I wrote my essay, “Praying on the Job,” which was published in an inspirational anthology called The Book of Hope I went into some detail about how my husband’s job loss affected not only our financial situation, but our marriage. It was painful to dig deep, but also cathartic, and something readers could relate to.
- Writing a diary entry
A personal essay is more than a running log of what’s transpired in your life during a certain period of time. That won’t keep the reader’s interest. You also don’t want to use the essay format as an opportunity to vent. Be sure to provide a universal truth, so that the reader is given something to reflect on.
- Taking a trip to nowhere
A good essay, like a piece of good fiction, takes the reader on a journey. You, the writer are in a different place by the end of your essay. In “Trust Yourself,” which I had published in The Northwestern Magazine, I began as an insecure Sunday school teacher to first and second graders, but through a friendship with one of my little students, I developed confidence that the kids were benefiting from my being their teacher.
- Writing large
You may have a lot to say, but you may want to bite off only a chunk at a time. A personal essay is not a biography. It is not all encompassing, covering decades of your life. It is actually a snapshot in time. Choose focused events to make a larger point.
- Thinking that you don’t need feedback
I have my sister read over just about every essay I write. If there is something unclear or confusing, she lets me know. Feedback is critical. After I’ve written an essay and revised it more than a dozen times, there could be problems with it that I just can’t see anymore because I’m too close to what I’ve written.
By avoiding these and other pitfalls, you could be further on your way to producing essays you be proud of while at the same time, increasing your rate of publishing acceptance.