Are Personal Essays Dangerous for Freelancers?

By Lynsey Grosfield April 19th, 2016

As a preteen growing up without regular Internet access, I remember clandestinely hoarding issues of Twist and Cosmopolitan, often poring over the personal essays and letters contained within to try to get some sorely needed information about taboo topics like sex, bodies, and relationships.

The demand for personal essays has only exploded even more in the digital age. Between blogging and social media, there is an increased comfort with dissecting every kind of experience online—particularly women’s experiences. And since sensationalism usually dictates virality, the more polarizing the piece, the more ad revenue publications can potentially drive. Welcome to what Laura Bennet, an editor at Slate, calls “The First-Person Industrial Complex.”

But could writing confessional, intensely personal first-person essays be a career killer?

Typically, a personal essay doesn’t nab the same chunk of change as a reported article, due to the assumption of less work. The Establishment—which is funded by females and is “female-focused” in its content—pays $125 for a personal essay, but $500 for a reported feature. Beyond not netting the same paycheck, “the personal essay economy,” as Bennet calls it in her Slate piece, “can be a dangerous force for the people who participate in it,” and a “professional dead [end], journalistically speaking.”

Glancing through the “It Happened to Me” catalogue at xoJane, perhaps the most infamous collection of personal essays on the web, shows a sea of women’s faces. And while writing one of those essays may net a quick $50, it may not be worth having “I Never Stopped Sucking My Thumb,” or “I Had a Threesome with My Best Friend and Our Engaged Boss” as an eternal first search result in Google, whether the consequences are fair or not.

An added concern for female writers simply lies in the nature of the work, particularly when it comes to sharing highly personal stories on an Internet that is often unkind to women. According to the Pew Research Center, young women are the most severely harassed demographic on the web, and digital writing puts the author in closer contact with readers—not to mention sometimes vicious online trolls—than ever before.

In an article titled “Journalism Is Not Narcissism,” Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Gawker, doesn’t mince words about these mini-memoirs and the millennial writers who supply them.

“For those who own the publications, they’re great—they bring in the clickety-clicks,” he wrote. “But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom. And young writers who’ve paid good money to attend journalism classes should not be set on that path.”

When asked if deeply personal essays could be a potentially career-killing move, Nolan elaborated in an email: “I do think there are very talented writers who get stuck in the ditch of writing purely about themselves and never make it out. To me it poses a high risk of squandered talent. That said, there are people who make careers out of it and like it. It’s a matter of taste to a certain extent.”

For more insight, we reached out to three writers—Niki Leith, Dana Hamilton, and Alana Massey—to see how publishing personal essays have affected their careers.

Niki Leith

For many young writers, xoJane’s “It Happened to Me” series is where their career in first-person writing begins.

That was the case for Niki Leith, whose “It Happened to Me” essay on xoJane, “My Professor Sent Me an Unsolicited Dick Pic,” has generated 225 comments and 280 shares since it was published in March. Though she doesn’t obsess over comments and shares, she says most have been very supportive.

Leith has written for blogs and literary magazines in the past, but this is her first piece after a hiatus from writing while studying microbiology. When asked if she has been able to leverage this essay into more work, Leith said: “It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a piece published that has a high hit count. It has helped me open doors with similar publications that I had previously not had luck cold pitching.”

Though the exhibitionist professor is not identified in her essay, Leith does worry that he—or other unwitting essay subjects—will find her work. “I always make an effort to never give away any identifying characteristics when writing negatively about someone,” she said.

Overall, she believes that writers are largely in control of what they put out in the world, and need to think carefully and rationally before penning essays under their real names.

“The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you are mostly in control of what it knows about you,” she said. “If you choose to take your Internet life to another level, you need to think about it in terms of your off-line life. Is this something you would want people you work with to know? Your family? If not, then maybe it’s an essay better left for your journal. ”

She also doesn’t necessarily believe publications are exploiting personal stories: rather, they’re meeting a demand.

“Their job is to provide readers with writing they want. Your job is to protect yourself.”

Dana Hamilton

With over 575 comments and 800 shares, Dana Hamilton‘s essay for xoJane’s “IHTM” section, “I Started Recovering from Bulimia After Volunteering at African Orphanages” certainly brought quite a bit of traffic—and ad revenue—to xoJane. It was Hamilton’s first professionally-published essay, submitted after receiving positive reactions from her 1400 fans on The List App.

Reactions in the comments section and around the web were swift and merciless, with many calling the piece cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, exploitative, and racist.

It was a lot of negative attention for an author who normally writes novellas for HarperCollins under a pseudonym.

Hamilton believes that her essay was misrepresented by the publication: “It was given a clickbait headline, and [they] positioned my story in such a way that it made it seem like I had a white savior complex.”

In a way, Hamilton is glad that the editors at xoJane didn’t provided any preparation or support for the potential fallout.

“I got into writing freelance because I had always dreamed of writing for magazines, but didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it,” she said. “That first article with xoJane was a total crash course in what it’s like to do this for a living. It was a learning experience and I’m grateful for it.”

She’s since written five more essays for the publication, which take a decidedly lighter tone. The first piece has still garnered the largest number of comments.

Hamilton hasn’t leveraged the popularity of this essay into other writing gigs, but not because she’s embarrassed of it: She sees herself as a comedian who writes about sex and relationships, and has sold pieces to YourTango, Ruby magazine, and Marie Claire. This more serious piece doesn’t fit in with the rest of her clippings, so it is not included in her portfolio.

Her advice for writers looking to get in the personal essay game is similar to Leith’s.

“The thing is that no one is twisting personal essayists’ arms to submit these stories,” she said. “There are plenty of stories in me that I will never write and there are plenty of stories that I will. I do believe it takes a certain person to write them and make a living doing it.”

Alana Massey

Alana Massey—a prolific writer who has been published in the Guardian, The Atlantic, and Matter, among other publications—is a great example of someone who has built their writing career on the back of personal essays.

Like Niki Leith and Dana Hamilton, she got her foot in the door at xoJane: Her first 26 essays were for the outlet, with titles like “I’ve Never Had an Orgasm and I’m the Only Person That Doesn’t Care” and “My Male Cat Has Totally Softened Me to the Idea of Having a Son Someday.” On her personal blog, she notes that she still considers her work there some of her best writing.

After the success of her early spate of essays, she started branching out into other kinds of writing, including doing reported pieces that net $2 a word. She also has an upcoming book of essays titled All the Lives I Want. Now, she sets a minimum of $500 a piece, and puts her foot down in payment negotiations.

As someone who has been deeply involved in the personal essay space, she believes there are many misconceptions surrounding the form and its place in the contemporary media industry.

“I think we have these categories like ‘trauma,’ ‘sex,’ ‘body image,’ ‘mental health’… these categories we think of as ‘most scandalous’ or ‘most personal,’ which is puritanical,” she said. “My most personal experiences and my most shameful secrets are not in those realms—they are times I’ve been cruel, or apathetic, or just not my best self.”

According to Massey, not every piece of confessional writing has the makings of a great personal essay. Newer writers may write tell-all mini-memoirs, but they end up becoming more of an object of curiosity for readers rather than something they can connect with.

“People’s meandering thoughts about their own experience aren’t that interesting, so making it something cohesive that a lot of people can relate to is a creative endeavor,” she said. “The task of the essayist is to make the personal relatable, and to make it external. I think that is one of the reasons I have been able to turn it into a substantial part of my job.”

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