How To Write A Personal Essay That Will Get Published Online, In 11 Practical Steps
I'm not gonna lie: the hardest thing to get printed on Bustle as a freelancer is a personal essay. That said, personal essays are also what I'm most in need of as our features editor. The reason they're so difficult to get accepted is not because I don't need or want them — it's because they are among the hardest to write well.
Though personal essays sometimes have an unfair reputation for being somehow "soft" or "self-indulgent," in my opinion, they are actually one of the most effective ways to communicate a point, experience, or even a feeling to a wide audience. So if you're thinking of pitching a personal essay to Bustle — or any other online publication, for that matter — know that we very much want to hear your stories.
But before you pitch, there are several things you can do to ensure you have the best chance possible of actually getting your essay printed. When it comes to writing for the web, the rules are not the same as they might be in school, or in a literary journal — and you're going to need to know how to adjust your essay accordingly.
Here are my tips, as the editor who decides what runs — and the writer who's totally been there.
1. When In Doubt, Start With What's On The Tip Of Your Pen
Having an idea of what you're going to write about is obviously where you want to start. Sometimes I get pitches that seem like four essays in one — even though the topics might be interesting, there's too much material to fit into an (ideally for us) 1000-1400 essay with any real resonance.
So how do you narrow things down — or figure out what to write about in the first place? I recommend free writing to find out. Take out a journal and write longhand for ten to twenty minutes. Don't let yourself pause — the important thing here is to keep writing without censoring yourself. Don't worry about it being intelligible. If you're stuck, write, "I'm stuck, I'm stuck," until something else comes out. You might try starting each sentence with "I remember" or "I see/smell/hear/feel" in order to drum up more details from the recesses of your mind.
2. Scan Your Freewrite For Details
When you're done with your freewrite, your creative muscles will already be warmed up — and you'll be able to see the patterns in your verbal diarrhea. Chances are, there's more good stuff there than you think. You might pick out a particular moment — a line even — that sparks a memory.
I suggest starting small: perhaps you notice that you're writing a lot about your ex. Is there one line about them that stands out to you, like maybe the memory of the time they snatched the remote away from you? Then I recommend starting your essay at that scene, and going from there. Remember, you can always change your beginning — the important thing is to pick a jumping-off point that feels doable rather than daunting. Is there a memory you can start with? Some dialogue? Remember, details are your friend, and, as a rule, the most powerful personal essays are quite specific.
3. Map Your Arc
Structure is the main place I see personal essays stumble. I like the advice I heard on a Moth podcast a few years ago, which I'll paraphrase here: Every good story gives the audience a sense of where the protagonist began, a moment of change when something in the protagonist shifts, and ends with a sense of where the protagonist is now — and why it matters.
Now, that might sound a lot like a beginning, middle, and end — but it's not quite the same. This kind of arc can be nonlinear as well, as long as it communicates those three things. (Nor should your essay ever be tied up in a pretty, simple bow.)
For example, I wrote a personal essay about my experience of realizing that being gluten-free wasn't right for me. The essay began with a very visual moment of me squatting in the woods, anxious about whether I'd be able to poop. (Hey, whatever draws the reader in.) From there, the essay then details my experience — why I became gluten-free in the first place, and how I started questioning whether I needed to be. The essay then ends back in those woods — chronologically, we're in the same moment we started, but are left with my aha moment, and a clear sense of how my perspective changed.
I picked such a graphic scene to begin and end my essay because looking back on an experience that spanned two years, I didn't know where to start. But in journaling, I found that my mind kept returning to that moment in the woods as a turning point and a clear image connected to my experience. Starting it with a scene made an overwhelming essay feel much more doable. Knowing that would be both my starting an ending point, it became much less daunting to write everything in between.
I suggest mapping out what your arc is, and making sure it's clear in your mind before you start writing. It will make your essay much clearer, and easier for the reader to draw meaning from.
4. Write Like Your Family Won't Read It
This advice comes straight from the most talented personal essayist I know — Bustle's own Gabrielle Moss. She jokes that this is easier for her since she's actually estranged from her family, but even if you're not, it's good advice to write like they aren't watching. Often, we censor ourselves way more than we need to, and it keeps us from writing with the kind of honesty that makes an essay connect.
See if you can write as though no one's reading. Tell yourself you can always edit out certain details later, and try to write with as much honesty as possible. You'll end up with more details this way, and likely, a much better personal essay.
If you feel scared about telling the whole truth, think about the personal essays and books that have most affected you. Chances are they resonated because they were honest, and expressed something you'd felt that you hadn't been able to put into words yet. If you can tell your story honestly and with vulnerability, it is a real gift to give your reader. They aren't going to judge you for it — in fact, it's exactly what will make them respect you as a writer.
Which brings me to...
5. Value & Cultivate Honesty
Whenever you write, keep the question Am I being honest? in the front of your mind. If something reads somewhat disingenuous, or you're only telling half the truth — know that readers and editors can smell it a mile away. It's natural to want to protect your ego or privacy, but try to stay genuine and raw; it's a personal essay, after all. Often, a couple days of distance between you and a first draft can help provide perspective on this one, tempting as it is to keep tinkering.
As a writer, it's also important that you continue working on your own self-awareness. Therapy, meditation, walking, yoga, journaling, spending time alone — all of these practices help us get to know ourselves better so that we can call ourselves on being disingenuous in our writing (and life). The time you spend processing your thoughts is what gives your words meaning, so you should spend as much time getting to know yourself as you do trying to write honestly.
6. Make The Personal Political
This doesn't mean you literally have to make every personal essay political (though I love that too and here are some great examples!). What I mean is, as you're writing, try to keep this question at the front of your mind: Is this relevant to someone who doesn't know me?
Now, this certainly doesn't mean you need to explain yourself, or your point, explicitly. Some of the best personal essays let the reader infer meaning, simply by evoking universal feelings. That said, I often see writers stumble under the assumption that because an experience was important to them or happened to them, it will be important to everyone.
That can be true — but you need to have a sense of how it matters before you start writing, otherwise it can be easy to get too caught up in your own *feels*.
Ask yourself: How is this relevant to people who don't care about me personally? Does my story represent a larger struggle or common experience?
The answers should be yes, even if you're writing, say, about the experience of coming out, and know all women are not gay. This essay is a great example of a writer communicating a very specific experience in universal terms that the reader can empathize with.
7. Review Your Essay For "Texture"
It's a writing class cliche, but it's true: show, don't tell. That doesn't mean you can't ever tell; it just means that after you've written your essay, you should review it for texture, as I like to think about it.
A good essay usually has some moments of telling, some scenes, some beautiful descriptive language, some dialogue, and often, some outside perspective (i.e. stats, quotes from other essays or articles, social/political context). Those are not hard-and-fast rules of course — you might write an essay that is pretty uniform and simple in style, like this one. But where I see most people tripping up is in describing everything and showing next to nothing.
Once you've finished a first draft, look at the essay and see where you can replace a telling graph with a scene or dialogue that illustrates the same point.
8. Be A Ruthless Self-Editor
Often, I get personal essays that have clearly not been closely edited. They have typos, lack structure, or have too much repetition and rambling. When you're pitching for online publication, you need to assume that the editor reviewing your essay is completely inundated with emails and pressed for time. She has potentially already read dozens of pitches that day. One way to make your essay stand out among them is to make sure your copy is as clean and tight as possible.
After you feel pretty good about your draft, read it out-loud to yourself.
Ask yourself: Where can I condense this? Do I repeat myself anywhere? Are there any places I could turn a "telling" graph into a scene or dialogue, or otherwise give it more texture? Does anything sound like something I wouldn't really say or believe? Is my arc clear?
Of course, you'll also want to read for typos, style, and punctuation. I also suggest trying to break your paragraphs up as much as possible so that you're not sending huge walls of text to an editor's screen — once again, the experience of reading something online is not the same as in print. You're targeting an audience with a shorter attention span.
You can read more about all my tips for being a good self-editor here.
9. Have Someone Else Read It Before You Pitch
I can't emphasize enough how valuable it is to have a trusted friend, partner — whoever — as an editor. I'm lucky in that my partner is actually a professional editor, but even if he weren't, I'd show him my work before sending it off to pitch because he knows me. Even if your trusted person isn't a writer or editor, someone who knows you well will be able to tell you where something doesn't make sense, and perhaps, where you're not being as genuine as you could be.
Ask them to consider the same questions I asked in section six, and also add: What did you think the point of this was? How did it make you feel? If they aren't getting what you want the essay to communicate, or seem unaffected by it, you might want to keep tinkering before you send it off.
10. Know How To Pitch To The Site You're Emailing
Knowing how to pitch is extremely important. Each site is different, and you should tailor your pitch to their preferences. But no matter the site, I do think it's safe to assume that any editor is relatively pressed for time. You want to package your piece as clearly as possible. Don't write a huge introduction, and I suggest copying and pasting the essay in the body of the email to save them even more time, unless they specify otherwise.
These days, many sites like ours also require images of the author themselves for personal essays, so you could make your piece even more approval-ready by attaching a few relevant photos of yourself as well. My article on how to pitch to Bustle will break down the details of what you need to know even further, so check it out, no matter what you're pitching.
11. Stay In Shape
It isn't easy to get a personal essay accepted to Bustle. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying, or pitch a rejected essay elsewhere. If you have several pitches rejected in a row, don't get discouraged — but don't keep trying the same things either. This might be when you want to follow up with me or another editor and ask what you could do to improve.
Of course, it is also very important that you continue to read writers you admire and study the craft of the personal essay. You can't expect yourself to spew genius if you don't allow other writers to inform and inspire you. You should also read personal essays on the sites that you are pitching to; if you're not familiar with the publication's tone and general form, it will be apparent to the editor and will put you at a disadvantage.
Finally, as every writer knows, writing is a muscle, and the more you keep exercising, the better shape you'll be in. Make your routine targeted, regular, and tailored to you, and you'll be kicking ass in no time.
Images: Pexels; Giphy