When I first started submitting personal essays for publication, most people told me to submit them “on spec.” After I figured out that spec meant “submit the full draft,” that’s typically what I did.
But then, in a writing workshop, an editor from a local magazine said she preferred to receive pitches for personal essays so she could help shape the draft.
I was suddenly confused. Which method was right?
Several years and countless submissions later, I have realized the answer can vary.
Many freelancers recommend never submitting on spec because there’s no guarantee of publication, but some writers routintely sell essays on pitch. Still other writers always submit full drafts.
Which method is best depends on different factors. Here are some tips to help you figure out how and when to submit personal essays.
When to send a full draft of a personal essay
1. Literary essays
Essays written in a literary style or submitted to literary journals are almost always submitted as full drafts. Because these types of essays are dependent on craft, it can be hard to know how the whole piece will end up based on a pitch alone.
2.When publications request full drafts
Before submitting, research possible markets for your essay. If the guidelines request a full draft, then send it. Following the guidelines shows you’ve done your homework and gives you a better shot at publication.
3.When you’re starting out
If you have just begun submitting your work and you don’t have many clips yet, it’s a good idea to submit essays on spec. This allows your writing speak for itself and it’s easier for an editor to determine if you are a good fit for their publication.
4.When your idea is hard to convey in a pitch
If your essay relies heavily on a unique voice or format, the full piece will probably serve you better. Sometimes you aren’t quite sure how your piece will turn out until you write it, so it’s easier to just get a draft down.
5.When you don’t want to be under deadline pressure to write it
The great thing about selling an essay on pitch is you can write it knowing your piece has a home. The downside can be writing under deadline pressure. If you feel like your topic will require a lot of writing time because of research, emotional content, or your desire to get the words exactly right, you may want to write the draft first.
When to pitch a personal essay
1.When guidelines or editors prefer it
You can search publication websites or sites like Medium for guidelines on submitting. If a publication specifically requests you send a pitch instead of a full draft, you should do it.
2.Essays with timely hooks
If you have an idea for an essay relating to breaking news, you may not have time to write a full draft before reaching out to your top outlet. Since there’s also a short shelf life on such ideas, writing a full draft could leave you with an essay that is hard to submit to other publications.
3.When you have a relationship with the publication
If you’ve written for an editor before and she knows your writing style and work, she may be more likely to assign you an essay based on a pitch.
4.When your essay requires a lot of research
Some personal essays also have reported elements. If your essay will require a lot of research or interviews, it makes sense to pitch it first.
Other pitching scenarios
Some scenarios don’t fit neatly into one of these guidelines.
What if a pub asks for pitches but you already wrote the full piece?
You have a couple options:
- Write a pitch but also paste the essay to the bottom of your email or mention you have a full draft ready. It’s still a good idea to pitch them on the basics of your idea, and if the idea interests them enough they can look at the draft.
- Write a pitch but don’t mention your draft. If an editor wants to shape the draft of a piece, he may not want to know it’s already written. If you go this route, you may need to significantly revise your original draft based on what the editor wants. If you are open to this kind of revision, it can be a good option.
What if you can’t find guidelines on what the publication prefers?
If this is the case, I default to submitting a full draft. This is how I have placed most of my published essays in the past, and it’s acceptable for many publications.
I also don’t write a full essay draft unless I can think of a few different markets I could submit it to, or I really want to write about the subject and won’t be disappointed if I can’t find a home for it.
If you’re unsure, you can always try a pitch first. If an editor wants a full draft before she commits, you can decide if it’s worth your time to write it.
Either way, the important thing is to not get paralyzed by the submission process. If you have a solid essay or idea, submit it.
Do you prefer submitting personal essays on spec or by pitching?
Are you looking to publish a personal essay on Longreads? Be sure to first read these guidelines I’ve put together, and scroll down from there to check out examples of essays we’ve published. (If you’d like to instead pitch features or blog posts, or want us to choose something you’ve published elsewhere as an Editor’s Pick, check out Longreads’ more general Submissions Guidelines for more information.)
What I’m looking for:
• Well-written, well-told stories with narrative arcs that are easy to follow, and which illustrate some relatable human experience readers will identify with, even if their own experiences in life have been quite different.
• The pieces should be 2,500 words and longer. The longest we’d likely publish is about 10,000 words. The sweet spot is usually between 2,500 and 4,500 words. We pay $500.
• All essay styles are welcome — singularly focused, braided, lyric, collage — as long as there is one clear thread that runs through the piece.
• The main story arc should begin close to the top of the piece. On the web, where it’s easy to lose readers’ attention, there’s not a lot of room for beating around the bush in the opening.
• The stories can be about very unique experiences, or fairly common ones. Good writing can make a reader understand a common experience in a new way.
• I’m interested in hearing from a wide range of voices from all backgrounds, genders, abilities, experiences, and perspectives, including those from writers who haven’t been published before.
What your pitch should include:
• First of all, the word “pitch” might be misleading. I mostly do not assign essays from pitches. I consider completed essays. Because I receive exponentially more essays than I can use, and I hate to keep a writer from publication, I encourage you to do multiple submissions. (Telling me in your email that you aren’t going to submit it elsewhere because Longreads is your first choice is nice to hear, but not helpful. It serves only to apply undue pressure.) If you sell your essay elsewhere, drop a line and let me know.
• Right at the beginning of your email — which you should address to firstname.lastname@example.org — give me a paragraph-long synopsis of your piece. Receiving as many pieces as I do, all of them several thousand words in length, I can’t read through them all. I need a strong paragraph telling me what the piece is about and also giving me a sense of your writing. I made the mistake of instead asking only for a “summary” in one of my earlier calls for submissions, and some people responded by writing things like, “This piece is about forgiveness” or racism or body image or… That just doesn’t give me enough to go on. Tell me not only what it’s “about” in a larger sense, but summarize the story for me.
• In the next paragraph, tell me who you are as a writer and as the person who is telling this story. Include some links to other work. If you haven’t published anything, that’s okay. Tell me that, and let me know why you’re still the best person to tell this particular story. Help me to easily assess whether your essay is for me. If it’s not, I will be more open to future essays you submit if you made this part of the selection process easier.
• Attach your whole essay, in a Word doc or a Google doc.
What I don’t like:
• Footnotes. I HATE FOOTNOTES. They remind me of term papers, and they’re also not terribly web-friendly. Instead of footnotes, insert links to your references. If you’re into those David Foster Wallace-y footnotes — like, you use them to expand on your thoughts, almost parenthetically — just make life easier for the reader (and me) by expanding on your thoughts right in the text of your piece.
• Locked PDFs that I can’t edit. Send me a Word doc or a Google doc that you’ve given me access to. And put your name on it. So many people don’t put their names on their documents, and then they float, nameless, around my downloads folder.
• When writers say, “I hate Track Changes” in Word or “suggesting mode” in Google Docs, and then update their piece with new edits that I have to hunt for.
• Please don’t @ me on Twitter about the essay you just sent my way, alerting me and the rest of the Twitterverse that you’re waiting to hear back from me.
• Definitely don’t address me as Daniel Jones, the editor of The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. (This has happened three times.)
• When people don’t take the time to first polish their work, and want me to do that for them. More than a few people have sent pieces that they knew were way too long, and wanted me to find the perfect essay within. One person sent me a 47,000 word piece someone else had written because they wanted to surprise that person with publication, and asked me to pick a portion to publish.
• If I take the time to email and let you know that I am passing on your essay (which I don’t have time to do for everyone), don’t write back, “Can I at least ask why?” or “Well, then can you just give me some feedback on it?” (Really???)
• Being scolded for not getting back to someone. In most cases, I only reply when I am interested in your piece, or if it’s close enough to what I’m interested in. In a perfect world, I would have time to get back to everyone. But I don’t. It’s weird putting out calls for submissions, and then not being able to respond to them all. As a writer myself, who submits essays elsewhere, I get how frustrating it is to send out into the void a piece of very personal writing that you’ve put so much of yourself into and never hear back. But that’s the reality. That’s why I suggest multiple submissions. That said, it’s okay to drop me another line to see if your piece has slipped through the cracks. But please, only do that once. It’s also okay to try me again with another piece if you haven’t heard back from me on your first.
What you can expect from working with me:
• I’m a very collaborative editor. If your piece isn’t already in Google docs, I’ll likely move it there and then make my edits in “suggesting mode” so you can see, and if necessary push back on, the changes I’ve made.
• I’m also not interested in making unnecessary changes, and I’m pretty easy-going to work with. As a writer I’ve had my share of bad and mean editors over the years — ones who felt they had to put their stink on a piece to justify their jobs; ones who took out all their aggression on writers. At one job, there was an editor named Mort who was so mean that after going over their work with him, writers would often run back to their desks in tears, saying they’d been “Mort-ified.” I know being edited can be anxiety provoking, especially when the work at hand is so personal. I am very interested in making the editing process a positive experience.
• I might need to change your title, or headline. People tend to be very attached to the ones they came up with. But online, “heds” need to give enough information about the central conflict of a piece to interest readers, without telling them the whole story. I’ll go back and forth with you to arrive at a web-worthy hed and dek that you feel good about. Just be glad this isn’t one of those places where a copy editor who has not been involved in the editing slaps a headline on just before publication, and it’s a real clunker. (This has happened to me too many times.)
Examples of essays we’ve published:
While it’s difficult to single out particular essays, here’s a mix of some we’ve published in the past year or so, to give you a sense of the range of subjects and tones.
Our Well Regulated Militia, by Alexander Chee
It was an honor to work with brilliant novelist and essayist Alexander Chee. After one of the many senseless shootings in this country, Alex wrote this piece for us about his feelings regarding gun control as the son of a late firearms enthusiast. It was recognized as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2017.
On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect and Human Dignity, by Britney Wilson
Civil rights attorney Britney Wilson recalls a ride home from work on NYC’s paratransit that exposed her vulnerabilities as a Black disabled woman. It was recently picked up by This American Life and adapted as a segment. When I emailed Britney to congratulate her, she wrote back, “Thank you for seeing the value in this story. I pitched this essay to seven different outlets, some of which told me things like, ‘It’s a beautifully told, horrible story, but we don’t think it would generate national interest.’”
Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces, by Minda Honey
While visiting national parks to detox from the oppressive whiteness of the MFA experience, Minda Honey is reminded the only places to retreat from whiteness in this country are the spaces women of color hold for each other. Personal narratives by people of color are especially important right now, when we have a racist president who serves as a painful mirror through which even the most liberal in our country must view ourselves, and our difficulties in confronting our country’s deeply rooted racism.
I Want to Persuade You to Care About Other People, by Danielle Tcholakian
This piece gave me hope. After changing her conservative grandfather’s mind about affirmative action, Danielle Tcholakian commits to trying to get through to people whose politics are very different from her own. Danielle is a great reporter, but she’d never written a personal essay before. She could have fooled me.
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, by Michele Filgate
Michele Filgate reflects on her teen years with an abusive stepfather and a mother whose silence protected him. It’s a story she says she had been struggling to tell for 14 years. Unfortunately, it remains painfully relevant now.
Feeling Unsafe at Every Size, by Eva Tenuto
Here’s another story that spans back many years but remains unfortunately relevant. Months before women were emboldened to join the the viral #metoo campaign on social media that was inspired by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men getting busted as sexual predators, Eva Tenuto found the courage to share this story with us. She’d been living with shame about it for decades. Then, around the election, hearing Trump’s predatory attitudes towards women transported her straight back to a high school teacher’s abuse of power and the relentless criticism of her junior high peers that made her an ideal target.
Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America, by Sorayya Khan
Sorayya Khan recalls racist threats to her young sons after the 2001 attacks, and worries about them as young men living in “Trumpistan.” (Seeing a recurring theme here? It’s stunning how many subjects are affected by the election of our current president.)
From a Hawk to a Dove, by Ray Cocks
Vietnam Veteran Ray Cocks, who’d eagerly enlisted in 1967, writes about how he was forever changed by the realities of war. After struggling with alcoholism and PTSD, he becomes a pacifist, and later returns to Vietnam to offer healing there. I find that to be incredibly inspiring, especially at this difficult moment in our country.
Unprepared: The Difficulty of Getting a Prescription for a Drug That Effectively Prevents HIV Infection, by Spenser Mestel
Spenser Mestel finds it difficult to get a prescription for Truvada in Iowa City. It provides an eye-opening look into the politics around HIV prevention.
The Pleasures of Protest: Taking on Gentrification in Chinatown, by Esther Wang.
Working as a tenant organizer in New York’s Chinatown opened Esther Wang’s eyes to the ugly—and complicated—realities of gentrification in New York City.
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad (Airplane photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Curing My Flight Anxiety, One Book Tour at a Time, by Jami Attenberg
Yet another brilliant novelist, Jami Attenberg, discovers a surprise antidote to the anxiety that has plagued her each time she’s had to get on a plane to promote a book. Some of my favorite personal essays and memoirs are those in which great writers take familiar experiences and deliver them in a way that crystallizes your own, or helps you too see them in a different way.
My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, by Emily Gould.
I’m a longstanding fan of Emily Gould’s writing — fiction and non-fiction — not to mention her taste in books. She observes life’s mundanities with a sharp eye, allowing the reader to identify, but also see things in a slightly different light. In this piece, she writes about the time after her son was born, when she read 25 books about babies and sleep, but wound up only more confused.
Flying Solo, by Jen Doll
Memoirist and YA author Jen Doll tries to make sense of a breakup that happened the day before a romantic vacation — and blindsided her in the same ways the presidential election did. Jen applies humor and absurdity to a painful breakup in a way that is imminently resonant, and fun to read.
Harri Tahvanainen/Folio Images
The Doctor Will See You Now, by Sarah Miller.
Sometimes it’s incredibly refreshing to read essays that take a less serious view of even the most serious matters. In this one, Sarah Miller uses dry wit to eulogize a relative who was kind of a jerk, and whose death, frankly, doesn’t faze her.
You can find a complete list here. I look forward to your submissions!
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Sari Botton is a writer, Longreads’ Essays Editor, and editor of the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY, and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.