Career Advice

Selling Personal Essays in the Age of Oversharing

By Susan Johnston February 26th, 2014

There are plenty of wannabe David Foster Wallaces and John Jeremiah Sullivans out there dreaming of selling a first-person essay to the likes of O, The Oprah Magazine and The New York Times. But those coveted essay placements are so competitive, especially if you’re a writer who doesn’t have three names, and many print publications have sliced their editorial content due to reduced ad budgets. And now a huge number of oversharing bloggers write for free and add to the number of would-be essayists. The Freelance Strategist talked to three freelancers with impressive credits about how to stand out from the slush pile and navigate the ruthless essay-writing minefield.

New York freelancer Janene Mascarella, who has published essays in American Baby, Parenting, Working Mother, BabyTalk, Washington Post, SELF and Cosmopolitan, landed credits by asking editors what topics they’re looking for. “You’d be surprised how many helpful details they will send back,” she said.

Often, Mascarella takes a humorous approach to her essays because “Funny sells and sells fast … I sold an essay to SELF magazine without a clip or a clue because my essay pitch made the editor laugh.” Rather than submitting on speculation, Mascarella usually sends a short pitch tailored to a specific publication. “When I put too much thought into the pitches, it sounds forced,” she said. “When I keep it easy and breezy and entertaining with the promise of a strong and relatable takeaway — it’s usually a sale!”

Of course, most essayists face their share of rejection, and Mascarella is no exception. Before her most recent sale to Cosmopolitan, the editor responded to a pitch saying they already had a writer working on something similar. “So while I had her attention I quickly thought of another idea,” she said. “That second idea was a sale. Strike while you’re hot and don’t waste precious time feeling bad over a rejection.”

Chantal Panozzo, an American writer living in Switzerland, tries to equate rejection with progress. “It means you’re writing and putting your stuff out there,” said Panozzo, whose essays have appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Glimpse. “I recently got a rejection for a piece that had already been published by another magazine to great response the previous week. Now that was a great rejection.”

She generally submits essays on spec rather than pitching first. “I’ve been told I have a strong voice and I think the best way to show it is to write the piece,” she said. “It’s easier to break into new publications this way, especially if you are trying to build contacts and a writing career. There’s no risk involved for the editor — they can say yes or no to the piece.”

Panozzo’s essays cover a variety of topics — including adjusting to motherhood, befriending her Swiss neighbor, visiting museums with her father — and usually touches on emotions others experience but leave unspoken. “I am finding the most success with the pieces that make me a little nervous,” she said. “The ones where I wonder — ‘Oh, do I really want to put that out there? What will people think of me?’ But I’ve learned that the most common reaction in this situation is that readers are grateful for your bravery and honesty.”

Plenty of bloggers would love to make the jump from pixels to print, but Panozzo doesn’t see them as a threat. “For me there is a difference between a confessional blog and a personal essay,” she said. “A personal essay is something that’s crafted and has a universal message. A confessional blog post is usually more like a rant. I think there’s room for both.”

Jenny Rough, a Washington, D.C.-area freelance writer, sees pros and cons to the growth of confessional bloggers. “The high number of bloggers has probably opened the door to more opportunities for writers, and it has probably influenced publications to provide more outlets for essays,” said Rough, whose essays have appeared in publications including, Writer’s Digest, Los Angeles Times and online literary journal Compose. “On the other hand, there is a lot more noise and competition out there.”

Rough has sold essays in different formats including radio, magazine, newspaper and anthologies. “There are many different outlets for essays, so keep your eyes peeled,” she added. “Writers interested in longer, more reflective pieces might want to look for opportunities in anthologies, literary journals, or magazines that are generous with space. The front of the book or the back page of magazines are slots that tend to run short, digestible humor essays.”

Rough’s advice? “Write the best essay you can,” she said. “Write the story only you can tell. Once you have a well-written piece, it will likely find a home — that is, assuming you submit, submit, submit.”

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