In recent months, there’s been a lot of hubbub and even a little hysteria over the fate of the personal essay. It began with a New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino with the headline, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over.”
But Tolentino wasn’t proclaiming the death of the entire category, just essays of a certain kind: often sensationalized, barely edited accounts of very personal experiences with click-baitish headlines. The pieces tended to lack reflection, and offered little connection between their anecdotes and something larger.
Having regrettably fired off some pretty half-baked “essays” along those lines myself years ago, I’m not sorry to see that trend die. I see it as a good thing for readers and writers alike that the bar has been raised.
If any doubts still remain about the vitality of the genre, let me offer my beast of an inbox as an indication that rumors of the personal essay’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Tolentino’s piece was published around the same time that I put out some calls for personal essay submissions, and also around the time we updated our submissions guidelines. One of my calls for submissions was then picked up by a website popular with aspiring freelance writers, and as a result of this confluence, since then, I’ve been hit with an ongoing deluge of essays. At its peak, I was receiving more than 100 a week. (It didn’t help that between May and July, the The New York Times‘ Modern Love column was on hiatus from accepting new essays.)
Because there are so many people emailing me essays every day — more than I can respond to — and because I am ramping up from 8 essays a month to 10 or 12, I thought it might be a good idea to post here clarifying what I’m looking for, what are the best ways to pitch me, and what you can expect from working with me once I choose your essay.
What I’m looking for:
• Well-written, well-told stories with narrative arcs that are easy to follow, and which illustrate some relatable human experience readers will identify with, even if their own experiences in life have been quite different.
• The pieces should be 2,500 words and longer. The longest we’d likely publish is about 10,000 words. The sweet spot is usually between 2,500 and 4,500 words. We pay $500.
• All essay styles are welcome — singularly focused, braided, lyric, collage.
• The main story arc should begin close to the top of the piece. On the web, where it’s easy to lose readers’ attention, there’s not a lot of room for beating around the bush in the opening.
• The stories can be about very unique experiences, or fairly common ones. Good writing can make a reader understand a common experience in a new way.
• I’m interested in hearing from a wide range of voices from all backgrounds, genders, abilities, experiences, and perspectives, including those from writers who haven’t been published before.
What your pitch should include:
• First of all, the word “pitch” might be misleading. I mostly do not assign essays from pitches. I consider completed essays. Because I receive exponentially more essays than I can use, and I hate to keep a writer from publication, I encourage you to do multiple submissions. (Telling me in your email that you aren’t going to submit it elsewhere because Longreads is your first choice is nice to hear, but not helpful. It serves only to apply undue pressure.) If you sell your essay elsewhere, drop a line and let me know.
• Right at the beginning of your email — which you should address to email@example.com — give me a paragraph-long synopsis of your piece. Receiving as many pieces as I do, all of them several thousand words in length, I can’t read through them all. I need a strong paragraph telling me what the piece is about and also giving me a sense of your writing. I made the mistake of instead asking for a “summary” in one of my calls for submissions, and some people responded by writing things like, “This piece is about forgiveness” or racism or body image or… That just doesn’t give me enough to go on. Tell me not only what it’s “about” in a larger sense, but summarize the story for me.
• In the next paragraph, tell me who you are as a writer and as the person who is telling this story. Include some links to other work. If you haven’t published anything, that’s okay. Tell me that, and let me know why you’re still the best person to tell this particular story. Help me to easily assess whether your essay is for me. If it’s not, I will be more open to future essays you submit if you made this part of the process easier for me.
• Attach your whole essay, in a Word doc or a Google doc.
What I don’t like:
• Footnotes. I HATE FOOTNOTES. They remind me of term papers, and they’re also not terribly web-friendly. Instead of footnotes, insert links to your references. If you’re into those David Foster Wallace-y footnotes — like, you use them to expand on your thoughts, almost parenthetically — just make life easier for the reader (and me) by expanding on your thoughts right in the text of your piece.
• Locked PDFs that I can’t edit. Send me a Word doc or a Google doc. And put your name on it. So many people don’t put their names on their documents, and then they’re floating, nameless, around my downloads folder.
• When writers say, “I hate Track Changes” in Word or “suggesting mode” in Google Docs and then update their piece with new edits that I have to work extra hard to find.
• Please don’t @ me on Twitter about the essay you just sent my way, alerting me and the rest of the Twitterverse that you’re waiting to hear back from me.
• Definitely don’t address me as Daniel Jones, the editor of The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. (This has happened three times.)
• When people don’t take the time to first polish their work, and want me to do that for them. More than a few people have sent pieces that they knew were way too long, and wanted me to find the perfect essay within. One person sent me a 47,000 word piece someone else had written because they wanted to surprise that person with publication, and asked me to pick a portion to publish.
• If I take the time to email and let you know that I am passing on your essay (which I don’t have time to do for everyone), don’t write back, “Can I at least ask why?” or “Well, then can you just give me some feedback on it?” (Really???)
• Being scolded for not getting back to someone. In a perfect world, I would have time to get back to everyone. But I don’t. It’s weird putting out calls for submissions, and then not being able to respond to them all. As a writer myself, who submits essays elsewhere, I get how frustrating it is to send out into the void a piece of very personal writing that you’ve put so much of yourself into and never hear back. But that’s the reality. That’s why I suggest multiple submissions. That said, it’s okay to drop me another line to see if your piece has slipped through the cracks. But please, only do that once. It’s also okay to try me again with another piece if you haven’t heard back from me on your first.
What you can expect from working with me:
• I’m a very collaborative editor. If your piece isn’t already in Google docs, I’ll likely move it there and then make my edits in “suggesting mode” so you can see, and if necessary push back on, the changes I’ve made.
• I’m also not interested in making unnecessary changes, and I’m pretty easy-going to work with. I’m old (52 in October) and have had my share of bad and mean editors over the years — ones who felt they had to put their stink on a piece to justify their jobs; ones who took out all their aggression on writers. At one job, there was an editor named Mort who was so mean that after going over their work with him, writers would often run back to their desks in tears, saying they’d been “Mort-ified.” I know being edited can be anxiety provoking, especially when the work at hand is so personal. I am very interested in making the editing process a positive experience.
• I might need to change your title, or headline. People tend to be very attached to the ones they came up with. But online, “heds” need to give enough information about the central conflict of a piece to interest readers, without telling them the whole story. I’ll go back and forth with you to arrive at a web-worthy hed and dek that you feel good about. Just be glad this isn’t one of those places where a copy editor who has not been involved in the editing slaps a headline on just before publication, and it’s a real clunker. (This has happened to me too many times.)
Okay, I think that about covers it. While I’m a little scared of the tsunami of submissions this post is likely to bring on, I am looking forward to reading your work.
P.S. On Sunday, September 10th, I’ll be talking about this at Hippocamp 2017, on a panel entitled: Essays & Articles: Finding Homes for Your Creative and Journalistic Work.
P.P.S. If you need further evidence that personal essays are alive and well, a little more than a month after Tolentino posted that piece about the death of the boom, she sold her own essay collection to Random House.
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Sari Botton is a writer, Longreads’ Essays Editor, and editor of the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY, and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.