Flashback Friday: Prospering From Personal Essays

by Abby on October 7, 2011

Since we are on our way to a family wedding this weekend (with a TODDLER, Lord help us!), I am republishing this piece I wrote a while back. New online writing classes start next Weds. 10/12 so if you’re interested, don’t wait to register!

Prospering From Personal Essays

make money writingIt’s funny how for us writers, success is a moving target. When I was just starting out, the biggest thrill I could imagine was seeing my byline in print. Next, it was getting paid — something, anything — for my writing, then breaking into national magazines, then advancing from shorts to features.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that success meant getting my words published. Not some impersonal service piece edited by committee — my own words, written in my own voice, about my own life. So it makes sense I’d set my sights on personal essays.

Here’s the thing about essays: lots of people want to write them. Everybody thinks their own experiences are fascinating, and non-writers think penning a first-person essay is a piece of cake. Of course, we real writers know better. Even so, essays are appealing to lots of people.

Many magazines, however, have only a single slot for personal essays, and more and more are turning to celebrities and book excerpts to fill those slots. The remaining essay markets (web sites and op-ed pages, for instance) may pay little, if anything. So what’s the upside?

As I know from teaching many sessions of my class, Personal Essays that Get Published (Level 1 and Level 2), there are great rewards to be reaped from writing personal essays.

For some people, simply getting their thoughts down on the page is enough. One student wrote a touching letter to her daughter on her 18th birthday, a missive that’s sure to become a cherished keepsake for her family. Other students have written about a beloved grandparent, the pain of losing a baby, and the story of how they met and fell in love with their spouse. Many of them may only share these essays with their families.

For others, getting published is the goal. Many of my students have their work published for the first time after taking my class. The fact that it’s a personal essay makes it all the more rewarding. I remember one student who fretted throughout the class that she wasn’t a “real” writer. She couldn’t take herself seriously, and feared no one else would, unless she got published. She ended up selling her essay to the New York Times.

“But you can’t make a living writing essays, right?” I’ve been asked many times. While it’s true that not many writers make a career out of writing only personal essays, it’s also true that some of my biggest paychecks have come from essays. In my class, I teach writers how to make their essays more marketable (by adding facts and statistics, for example) and how to find alternative markets for their work. (Hint: think beyond the newsstand.)

Ultimately, every writer has to decide for herself what constitutes success and prosperity. If it means sharing your life experiences in your own words, personal essays may be just the thing for you.

LAST CALL O’ THE WEEK: Still some spots left in my 6-week online writing class, “Personal Essays that Get Published,” which starts Weds. 10/12. By the end of the class, you’ll have 2 ready-to-submit essays and a list of potential PAYING markets to send them to. Some students make their money back by selling a single essay. Former students have been published in the New York Times, Southern Living, Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, regional parenting mags, websites, and more. Registration closes this week, so don’t wait!

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