By Lois J. Peterson
See Also: 7 Secrets to a Striking Essay
All I wanted was a pair of boots for plodding around my muddy garden. The local shopping mall offered rubber boots for girls, boys, and men. And low-cut high-gloss “fashion boots” for women. The outdoors shop had a good stock of rubber boots for kids, steel-toed boots for men, and hiking boots for women. At the secondhand store I found rubber boots for men, rubber boots for children, and a pair of women’s pink nylon boots that wouldn’t get me through the first puddle. I finally found a yellow pair of rubber sailing boots at the ship chandler’s, but I had no intention of wearing $89 dollar boots in the potato patch.
So, instead of working outside in the yard, I wrote an essay about looking for wellies. My vegetable garden didn’t get dug that year, but I did make a few dollars for the essay (which paid for the boots I finally did track down).
Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces Sell
There’s a great market for personal essays in magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Everyone, it seems, wants a glimpse into everyone else’s life and is eager for their opinions on just about anything. Consider the growth of ‘reality TV’ — you no longer have to be a celebrity to find voyeurs peering over your windowsill or past your shower curtain.
Personal essays (sometimes called opinion piece, or personal narratives) allows you to have your say, get your gripes and raves off your chest, and have a shot at publication. Many new writers first get published with an essay on child rearing or job hunting or how they helped a family member cope with a serious illness.
Perhaps you have strong feelings about the invasive use of cell phones, or want to share a compelling story about how one saved your daughter’s life. You might feel strongly about environmental issues, or want to relate how your handicapped son learned to ride a bike. You may have a story to tell about a personal crisis, or a high point in your career.
A Wide Range of Topics
Whatever you care about is fair game for an essay topic.
And that’s the first point. Be sure your essay is about something you care strongly enough about to wax eloquent and passionate about it. Readers wants to know what you know, feel what you felt, and understand where you’re coming from.
Conversational topics that get you excited, or news stories that make your blood boil or get you laughing out loud, are likely to be provide good fodder for essays. Small gripes and observations also offer worthwhile material.
However ‘big’ or small the subject is, however important or trivial it might seem on the surface, make sure you set it in a frame that allows your reader to identify, empathize, and be involved.
Ever got stuck talking to a bore at a party? They regale you with their life and opinions, but don’t leave enough air or space to let you in to trade tales; they relate their story to nothing bigger than their own experience.
Whether you’re writing about your kid’s first day at school or nursing an Alzheimic grandmother, winning a scholarship or finding the first spring bulb in your garden, make the frame wide enough to allow your reader to find parallels between your experience and theirs. Give them the opportunity to say, “Ah! Yes. I’ve never been there or done that, but I can relate to what the author’s talking about.”
Perhaps you feel strongly about the use of fireworks. Set your opinions against the account of the day your box of fireworks exploded, or support them with statistics on fireworks sales, how many injuries are reported each 4th. of July or Halloween, what it costs the local police department to patrol the streets on those nights, or share your memory of the first time you held a sparkler.
If you’re writing about the “small” personal occurrence — a move, your first pet — put it in a context that gives the reader insight to both the small moment and the wider perspective.
Details draw the reader in, generalizations keep them out. Be specific. Avoid using abstract expressions and phrases such as “the best day of my life”, “my happiest moment as a parent”, “I’d never known greater grief” to describe emotions of love, loss, anger, joy, satisfaction, etc. Make these emotions real and immediate by noting specifics and details that draw the reader into the experience, rather than just setting them aside as observers. The old “seduction not instruction” rule — showing rather than telling — makes for a more compelling essay, as it does almost any piece of writing.
Personal Essays and Craft
While personal essays allows for the use of many fictional craft elements — dialogue, setting, point of view, characterization – if you use facts to anchor your piece or as a springboard for your opinions, you need to double-check them for accuracy. One factual error can prevent the reader from believing much else that you have to say.
Here are some guidelines to help you write essays that strike a chord with the reader.
- Personal essays by definition contain a personal perspective. You should be there. Watch your construction. If every sentence begins “I”, you need to rephrase to provide a better rhythm and pace to your piece.
- No extra points for the number of facts you include. Academic essays contain more facts than opinion, personal essays contain more opinion than facts. But ensure the facts you use are accurate. Check names, spellings, numbers. Two sources of confirmation are better than one.
- Make connections. If you’re writing about a global theme (poverty, unemployment, child abuse) bring the subject closer to home by relating it to specific, individual examples. If you’re writing about more mundane subjects (left-hand turn signals, the search for the best French Fries, your daughter’s graduation) again, set your views against a wider backdrop or perspective so the reader can relate to it.
- Writing essays in a great way to get your opinions off your chest, but avoid philosophical rants which make no connection to your reader’s experience. Again, keep it personal while relating to a wider world.
- The hook is the device you use to get your reader’s attention. It’s the doorway through which you welcome and orient them to the piece. Try using:
- A question. (“When was the last time you went without a meal?”)
- A quotation from someone famous or something you’ve read/overhead. (“Be careful” were the last words my father said to me each time I left the house.)
- A strong statement that your essay will either support or dispute. (“If you eat enough cabbage, you’ll never get cancer.”)
- A metaphor. (“The starlings in my back garden are the small boys in the playground, impressing each other with their new-found swear words. The crows all belong to the same biker gang. You need to know their secret sign to join their club.”)
- A description of a person or setting. (“Michael once mowed the lawns around Municipal Hall wearing a frilly apron, high heels and nylons, with a pillow stuffed under his sweater so he looked pregnant. And it wasn’t even Halloween.”)
- Write as evocatively as possible. Employ all the senses. Using sight comes naturally to most writers; push harder to convey ideas and images through sound, taste, touch, and hearing.
- Think of your essay as a camera lens. You might start by describing a fine detail (your personal experience or perspective, a specific moment in the narrative), then open up the lens to take in the wide view (the general/global backdrop), then close the piece by narrowing back to the fine detail. Or go the other way. Start with the wide view, focus in, then open up to the wide view again.
- Take your ideas from wherever you can. Note your reactions to everything, pursue passing preoccupations and distractions, consider what makes you, glad, angry, passionate in what you read, see and hear. Mine your own past for incidents, images, lessons and epiphanies.
- In a personal essay you have the freedom to think what you like on a subject, but your reader should go away with a good idea of why you feel that way.
Personal Essay Markets
A range of markets are hungry for submissions of personal essays. The US print magazine Newsweek carries one a week and pays $1,000; its Canadian equivalent, Macleans, publishes “Over To You”. The CBC am radio program This Morning regularly airs “First Person Singular”, and I’m sure the public radio stations in other countries have spots for them, too. Writers Digest has recently taken its print essay Chronicle online, and pays $100!
Don’t overlook smaller, less high profile markets. Many consumer and commercial magazines publish essays, as do organization and business newsletters. Most local and regional newspapers carry essays on their op-ed pages, and more and more literary websites include them.
Before you submit essays, you should first check writers’ guidelines for word length and the range of topics the market considers. You don’t need to query; send the complete piece, and include an SASE and/or the required return information. You might consider multiply submitting essays to non-competing markets (publications whose distribution areas do not overlap), but do mention to the editors that you’re doing this. Individual publication guidelines will often tell you if this is acceptable.
Many forms of writing require authors to keep themselves out of the story. Writing personal essays and opinion pieces allow you to have your say, and guarantees you an audience who’s willing to listen.
Lois J. Peterson has published essays in a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Her piece The Road to Basra is currently online at Eclectica. She is coordinator of the Surrey Creative Writing Program in British Columbia, and has recently published ’101 Writing Exercises To Get You Started and Keep You Going’.