Writing & Selling Personal Essays: Room To Breathe

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Today you’re looking online for a market where you can submit that kinda longish essay you wrote about your uncle’s factory accident-the one that doesn’t quite fit the submission guidelines of any of the magazines to which you usually submit.

You read and nod, read and nod.

Then you catch sight of the online search entry about Phillip Lopate’s compilation, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present and you stop. “Hhhhmmm,” you say. You click on it.

Seconds later, you’re at the amazon.com page that describes (and yes, sells) the anthology. Words like excellent and essay authority and smorgasbord are splashed all over the screen.


Whoo-hoo! You love smorgasbords! You order the book.

A few days later (or a few weeks, if you happen to live in China and have to wait obscenely long periods of time for books to be delivered), you’re sprawled on your couch practically eating Lopate’s collection. You read Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I” and Scott Russell Sanders’ “Under the Influence.” You’re wowed, floored, speechless, and hungry for more.

You read Plutarch’s “Consolation to His Wife,” which makes you sob, even though Plutarch died way back in 125 A.D.

After wiping away the tears, you try to figure out what’s different about these essays than the ones you’ve been writing and submitting to magazines and newspapers over the past few months.

The most obvious difference? They’re much longer. Heck, “Under the Influence” goes on for almost 12 pages.

You get excited, and though you wouldn’t dare to compare your essay to Plutarch’s (I mean, come on, he was Plutarch!), you do realize that the essay you wrote about your uncle’s accident fits into the same genre-the literary personal essay (also known in the writing world as creative nonfiction).

The more subtle differences? These essays don’t hurry the reader to a conclusion. They wander and purposefully meander. They even take tangents that sometimes veer way, WAY off the path.

“Ah,” you say, “these essays have room to breathe.”

Of course, after a bit more research, you realize two things:

1.    the biggest market for this type of essay is literary magazines (magazines like The Cimarron Review and Creative Nonfiction)
2.    most literary magazines pay not in dollars, but in copies of the magazine

Now off on your own tangent, you wonder if the local grocery store will let you barter a copy of The Gettysburg Review for a bag of apples and a jug of detergent.

Probably not, but publishing in a literary magazine looks great on your writer resume and will catch the eye of an agent when it’s time to sell your collection of essays.

So get out that essay about your uncle and get busy. It’s time to submit!

(Warning: Now don’t go nuts on me, thinking that you can write an essay that’s 900,230 words and submit it to any literary magazine out there. Like commercial magazines, literary magazines have guidelines. Before submitting, read them!)

Good luck!

Personal Essay Marketplace: If you’re interested in submitting to a literary magazine, check out New Pages. It gives links and information for dozens and dozens of spectacular literary magazines-online and print.


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.


1 Response to “Writing & Selling Personal Essays: Room To Breathe”

  1. 1 Denise Hill July 1, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    An interesting personal essay the journey of the personal essay!

    Thanks for mentioning NewPages. We do work very hard at keeping our lists of quality and not quantity so that readers and writers do not have to sift through a lot of “noise” when looking for publications.

    One of the great inconsistencies I have noticed is what the personal essay is called. One publication might say “creative non-fiction” (as in the magazine by the same title), others might simply say “non-fiction” or “essay.” I really don’t think there is an industry standard on this labeling – which of course is good and bad. It behooves the writer to be sure they know the market, as you have suggested. Read up a bit on the publication, visit their web site, read reviews (sure, on NewPages, but on other sites as well).

    There are also many more quality online venues opening. With recent anthologies (Best of the Web by Dzanc Books) and recognized awards (such as the Million Writers Award from StorySouth), online publications are gaining a stronger foothold in the literary landscape. And yes, NewPages also has a list of these as well.

    I think once writers really start taking a close look at the market for personal essay (or whatever it may be called), they might be surprised to find just how many options there are.

Comments are currently closed.

RSS RSS Subscribe to Writers on the Rise

  • This Blog Moving to ChristinaKatz.com as of December 30, 2009… December 27, 2009
    We’re moving! Writers on the Rise archives have been here for years. I hope that WordPress will let the archive live on for a good long time. However, it’s time to move on, bittersweet as change may be. Please come and find me at my new digs: http://christinakatz.com. And while we’re both thinking of it, […]
    The Writer Mama

RSS RSS Subscribe to WOTR Comments


Christina Katz's Facebook profile
June 2008

Top Clicks

  • None

Blog Stats

  • 301,756 hits

%d bloggers like this: