November 21, 2019
If you've been a long-time reader of the eNews, you know that I often list markets that aren't technically for children's writers. I've done so in this issue, for example.
There are several reasons for this. For one, children's writing builds certain skills that are appreciated but fairly unusual in adult writing. Children's writers tend to be good at writing short and direct. Children's writers tend to be good at listening to how their writing sounds, because euphony is so important to publishable writing for children and young adults. Children's writers simply tend to understand the work of producing good prose and poetry economically. And that means that children's writers who expand into other markets often do it really well.
This is especially true of essay writing (and you'll notice that one of the markets I list this week takes essays). According to Merriam-Webster, an essay is "an analytic or interpretive literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view." Usually an essay combines information with opinion. Essay writing can be really indulgent. They can be a kind of therapy on a page as writers unload their feelings and opinions. Essays like that can be extremely hard to sell (though they could be blog posts if you decide to build your own blog). Many writers try essays, but few really succeed because publishable essays aren't really about the writer (though they appear to be). They're about giving something to your reader through the experiences you share.
I know, as instructor for the Institute, that many students loved to write essays, but they tried to do them for kids or teens and the result was almost always not publishable for the children's market. The reality is that children's magazines rarely publish essays (though the letter from the editor is often an essay, and some rare magazines (for kids) will have humor essays, but they're usually all done by one author). Teen magazines publish essays a bit more often, but the essays are virtually always written by teens. When they aren't, they are written by credentialed experts in their field. So essays are outside the reach of most children's writers unless they consider crossing over into adult writing
What's In It For the Reader?
The personal essay is a sharing experience, but it goes beyond that. It offers the reader something tangible to take away. So you need to approach an essay in two parts. The first part focuses on the reader. The second part focuses on you. What can you say that will offer the reader either some useful insight or offer the reader some thought-provoking experience?
For example, an essay about the struggles of being a writer might offer the reader some insight into how to overcome their own feelings of self-doubt. An essay about navigating the elder-care system on behalf of an aging relative will offer the things you learned from the experience so the reader can make use of your experience when navigating their own situation. An essay on the struggles to help your college student slowly take on the mantle of adulthood might make a reader think about their own steps in helping children mature. So while you're telling the stories from your life, you need always to do so with a through-line of what the essay may offer the reader.
Essays are mostly for adults who are interested in the story you tell. And so the "lessons" you learned in the experience need to be presented carefully and not shoved at the reader as absolutes. As humans, we tend to resist when other people demand we do things or think things their way. So any "learning" aspect to an essay needs to be handled delicately. Readers will pay attention if your attitude is "we're all in this together," but will resist if the attitude is "I'm the expert so listen and learn."
The Second Ingredient: You
The second half of any essay is the story you bring to it. An essay that simply gives your opinion with no support isn't very helpful (well, unless you are a credentialed expert in some field) and likely isn't very interesting either. Since we are not credentialed experts (mostly), our support for the things we are trying to offer the reader is our personal experience. Suppose I decide to write an essay on the puppy I once had. She was the smartest dog I'd ever seen, and I had a lot of experience with dogs. I had her for five months before she died in an accident. I'd had other pets before her, and I've had other pets since. More than thirty years have passed, but I still grieve for that dog. So, I could pretty easily write an essay that would depress the heck out of the reader. But that is not actually a useful thing for the essay to do.
People rarely read to be depressed. But suppose I still want to write an essay about Mouse. What could I do? I certainly remember many astonishing and really funny things that happened with that dog. So I could use those with the goal of writing an essay on the theme of how much we gain from having a pet that is fully integrated into our lives (and I could simply skip the death scene). But no matter how I write the piece, I would have to bring the reader into the anecdotal moments for the essay to be effective. I would have to make the reader feel something. Evoking feelings is one of the strengths of essay writing. We are social creatures, so we're always looking for connections. For essays to work, you need to share things that are meaningful to you. That can be tough, but it's foundational to essay writing.
So How Do You Sell an Essay?
Markets for essays are often interested in only a single slice of possible essays. The Boston Globe, for instance, accepts essays about relationships. Extra Crispy buys humorous essays about food. Guideposts essays offer inspiration and hope. Good Old Days publishes nostalgia essays about growing up prior to 1960. Parenting magazines that take essays will always look for something that touches on a specific aspect of parenting. For instance, if you've parented a special needs child, you might write an essay about your experience navigating the school system.
Not every magazine that lists "essays" in their guidelines (or whose listings in a market guide that include "essays") are going to be open to a particular essay you've written. You'll need to think very much about what your essay is saying so that you can decide who might be interested in it. A good market guide that includes markets for adults will definitely have magazines that buy essays. You can also try a web search for essays markets as there are various places online with lists. Keep in mind that it will take researching each market to be sure that it's interested in the kind of things you're writing. Sending essays that don't match the magazine’s focus wastes your time as well as the time of the editor who reads the essay.
Don't be afraid to give essay writing a try. It can be an interesting way to mine your life and the things you've learned from it to help others.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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