Let’s get personal: Essay-writing for journalists

By guest blogger Hope Yancey

Back in 2010 and 2011, a section of my local newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, solicited short essays on the topic of style. I sent some on spec and eventually saw a few printed on various style-related topics — including my misguided preference for novelty holiday sweaters,  attempting to wear contact lenses,  thank-you notes as an indication of style and one misadventure in scarf-tying.

These lighthearted works were fun to write and brought in modest paychecks. I enjoyed the experience, but I also wished I could write for publication on a regular basis.

Later, I came across a notice advertising a need for freelance correspondents to write features and neighborhood news for the same newspaper’s community news sections. The pieces I had written for the style column gave me the confidence I needed to apply, not to mention a handful of useful clips for my portfolio. So, you could say my path into freelance journalism began with a personal essay.

I retain a certain affection for essay-writing, even though I went on to write articles for the paper for several years on the arts, education and nonprofit happenings, and write posts for a magazine’s food blog. I love personal essays because they are personal. That, and they are full of the same kinds of sensory description — following the same commandment to show, not tell — that are the hallmarks of most good writing. In some ways, personal essays also are easier to write than articles, despite the creative energy involved, because they require less research or interviewing.

Between regular writing assignments now, I’m returning to my roots. I’m keeping my writing skills sharp by rediscovering my love of the personal essay as a literary art form, something I hadn’t found much time for at my busiest.

Literary magazines and journals, whether online or print, are plentiful. Most seem to pay in the form of complimentary copies of the journal, if they pay at all, so this is not an endeavor that will help meet the bills for us freelancers. The rewards of trying them out and searching for a literary home for our most personal writings are more intrinsic than that.

Many literary journals have a nonfiction or creative nonfiction department for essays and similar works. Their websites will specify if they take “simultaneous submissions,” or if one must avoid sending the work elsewhere while it is under consideration. Some desire a cover letter with an entry; others want none. When I do include a cover letter, I keep it brief, perhaps referencing how I found the journal and why I think my writing would be an appropriate fit. I might type a sentence or two introducing the material. It’s not all that different from the query letter one might send with an article pitch, except here I am sending the finished piece. Each journal has its own personality or focus. As with any publication, it is best to read submission guidelines closely and samples of published work to gain a sense of the flavor of the publication and what it’s seeking.

Don’t be discouraged if at first it’s difficult to transition between journalistic writing and composing personal essays. I’ve found sifting through personal artifacts and contemplating my treasured objects or family photographs in a new way to be a rich source of essay ideas. Tapping into the humor in everyday life can provide inspiration, as well.

One lesson I learned from my scarf experience years ago: When you get stuck, just hang on, tie a knot in the thing somewhere and keep going.

Hope Yancey is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, N.C., and a member of the SPJ Freelance Community. Follow her on Twitter @Hope_Yancey.

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