Writing and Selling the Personal Essay: Getting Into the Writer’s Guidelines

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeCongratulations! You’ve had one of those marvelous “Ah, Ha!” moments that I wrote about in January and now you have a compelling story about which you want to write a personal essay. But what do you do next? Write a query letter or write the essay? Submit to one magazine or your top ten favorites? Write 1,000 words or 3,500 words? Send it via email? Snail mail? Hand deliver it with a dozen roses and a pint of strawberry ice cream?

Great questions. Luckily most publications are happy to provide you with answers in the form of Writer Guidelines (also referred to as Submission Guidelines or Contributor Guidelines). These are available at publication websites or by request.

Once you’ve got that golden idea for an essay, choose the publication to which you want to submit and track down the Writer Guidelines. Depending on the publication, this can be a simple or not-so-simple task. Skirt!, for example, makes it easy on writers by having a link for Contributor Guidelines on the main page of its website, while Smithsonian magazine makes us work a bit harder.

(Hint: If a link isn’t obvious, click on “Contact Us” or “About.” Writer Guidelines are often accessed through these links.)

Once you find the Writer Guidelines for a publication, you’ll discover the answers to most, if not all, of your questions: maximum and minimum word counts, editor’s preferences, how to submit, to whom to submit, payment information, response times, and lots more. It’s important to know that every publication’s guidelines are different, even if they share subject matter. You can’t assume that if you’ve read the guidelines for World Hum that you now know how to write for and submit to every travel magazine in the industry. They’re all different!

And while you could write your essay before you figure out to which publication you want to submit and before you read that publication’s Writer Guidelines, honestly, it’s a big, fat waste of time.

Let’s say you write your essay without researching Writer Guidelines first, but the whole time you’re writing, you’re thinking, “Hot diggity, this is perfect for The Christian Science Monitor’s “Home Forum.” So you write. You polish. You get two friends to read your essay and make suggestions. You polish again. And in the end, your beautiful, perfectly executed personal essay turns out to be 1,758 words.

Then you read the Contributors Guidelines for the “Home Forum” section of The Christian Science Monitor and guess what? Essays for this section are to be between 300-900 words. That’s 858 fewer words than you’ve written. That’s nearly half your essay.

So you hop around your office, curse yourself, and spend the next two days cutting your essay down to 900 words. This is valuable time you could have spent working on your next “Ah, Ha” moment or even, your next essay.

My advice? Do the research, read the Writer Guidelines, and enjoy the process!

Personal Essay Marketplace: Want to write about your writing experience? Check out ByLine Magazine.

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Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.

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