Notes From a Hired Pen

How to sell essays

I just wrapped up edits on the first essay I’ll have published in Runner’s World. I write for the magazine often, but I’d never landed a personal piece, and the process was very different from pitching an article.

That’s common in the magazine world. Selling essays is a different type of freelance activity than selling articles. Essay writing requires more risk in terms of time spent writing, editing and pitching, but the reward can be much richer, too.

Here are four tips:

1. Write the essay. I do this first. While I may have an outlet in mind, I write what I want to write first so that a potential outlet doesn’t influence what I’m trying to say. Sometimes essays change course during the writing process. Without sticking a label as to where the piece is going first, I’m more likely to follow those different paths and sometimes end up with a much better piece. That’s what happened here. I didn’t even have the regular column when I wrote it – but I did soon after and decided to run it in that space instead of pitching it around.

2. Pick your targets. After you feel your essay is ready to go, THEN figure out where it could fit. That’s where you can tailor to the audience. You may not want to keep “shit” in a piece you’re sending to Christian Science Monitor, for example. If your essay is 900 words and they only run 600 word pieces, cut 300 words (but keep the extras in a separate file just in case they want more, want changes, or you submit it somewhere else that wants 900 words). I always try to pick three or four places the essay can go, and rank them in order of who I’d prefer, then pitch away. That way, when you get a rejection (and I’m sorry to say that essays are rejected often), you can revise and send off to the next publication on the list. I got a particularly nasty rejection from Big Women’s Magazine (which reminded why I don’t write for Big Women’s Magazines) not too long ago, but I pushed past that by sending it to the next outlet on my list almost immediately. You may be able to find writer’s guidelines online. You may not. If you do, follow those guidelines. If not, do the obvious: read previous essays and edit accordingly.

3. Submit it – the whole thing. This is called submitting on spec and in Jen’s Rules of Freelancing, acceptable only with essays. Most editors want to see the whole thing. They don’t want you talking about what you’re going to say. They want you to say it. Exceptions to this are when you write for a publication often. I sent a few notes about a piece I was working on to an editor who asked me “what do you have right now?” The essay wasn’t done then, but after she said she’d like to see it, I finished it up and sent it off. I’ve also had an editor take a pitch for a news story and ask me to write an essay, which happened here. But those are exceptions to the rule. You don’t need to do a the whole introduction song and dance when submitting the essay, either. I usually write a line about who I write for with a link to my website, then copy and paste the pitch into the body of the email.

4. Keep trying.  I didn’t get into the writing and editing process of essays because that’s an entirely different topic that has inspired many books and writing classes. But! If your essay isn’t landing anywhere, it could be the essay (no offense). I’ve had a hard time selling a Jersey Shore piece I wrote last summer (knowing that it wouldn’t run until the following year). I wasn’t sure if something was wrong it, or no one bit because the essay has nothing to do with Sandy (and many editors won’t reply to essay pitches to tell you why they’re passing, which is frustrating but a fact of freelancing). I sent it three friends, and each pointed to the same issue with the piece. I revised and sent it to the next outlet on the list and am still waiting to hear back.

As I pointed out at the top of this post, you’re taking a risk in spending time on essays because, unless you have an assignment up front, you’re spending time on something that could never see the light of day. I have dozens of essays that went nowhere, but I still do it because I enjoy the process. Sometimes it’s nice to share *my* experience versus giving advice or telling you the best beach spots for your vacation.

If you want to publish essays, you must make that time. I used to work on essays for a half hour every morning, but that stopped when I got a dog and she required morning walks. Now, I write when inspiration strikes. Almost all of the essays I’ve published in the last two years have started with me charging into my office after a run or a long drive and typing out the wisps of the idea before they fly out of my head. I wrote the first draft of the Runner’s World piece while sweat still ran down my legs after a long hot run. I wrote this one in one shot after driving back from the shore (it’s the only time I’ve done one draft plus light editing on a piece before submitting – incredibly rare for me). Most of the time, those initial fragments won’t make the final piece, but I need to get the idea down on paper and then go from there, even if it means coming back to the piece two days or two months later.

The Runner’s World essay should be in the magazine sometime this summer. I’ll post it here when it does.

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