Recently, a writer on Twitter bemoaned yet another rejection from a place they very much wanted to be published. A string of kind responses urged:
Just keep trying.
Publishing’s a numbers game.
Send out more submissions right away!
Kind, yes. Helpful? No.
They aren’t exactly platitudes—getting published in general is indeed a numbers game, requiring persistence and fortitude.
But getting published in a particular venue doesn’t happen by pulling up your socks for another try. Magazines, newspapers and websites are not interested in your perseverance. They are interested in your excellent, targeted writing that suits their audience and fits their voice. Whether you’re aiming for The New York Times, McSweeney’s, or Parents magazine, you must research and analyze what they already publish.
Sometimes you don’t even have to write the essay before selling it. Commercial essays, articles and 0p-eds often sell with a pitch—a short (short!) email addressing three simple questions: Why Now? Why Here? Why Me?
What’s culturally relevant about your personal story? Often, that’s the difference between the past and the present.
Last New Year’s, on my fifth glass of champagne, I was still rationalizing that I wasn’t really an alcoholic.
My dad, an alcoholic, always called St. Patrick’s Day, “Amateur Night.” As March 17 approaches, I’m already buying bottles of sparkling cider and soft lemonade.
Cultural relevance also means figuring out who cares right now. Does your story tie into a recent political speech, incident on live TV, or bestselling book? When you’re on your soapbox, what are you responding to or in dialogue with?
What makes this website, magazine or NPR station an ideal venue for your work? Researching their audience helps you make that case. Look at their ads—are they targeting consumers of McDonalds, Mercedes-Benz or Medic-Alert bracelets? Specific demographic information is often linked way down on the bottom of the magazine’s website. Look for “Media Kit” or “Advertise with us”—the venue compiles their own data so potential ad buyers know who exactly they’ll be reaching.
Why are you the best person to write this piece? What in your personal experience makes you an “expert” in this topic, whether that’s surviving a bad drug trip or getting your kid to eat their peas?
Boiling down those three key points into 100-200 words also show you understand the magazine’s voice and tone isn’t easy—but it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Literary media outlets usually consider only finished essays, but that requires specific targeting, too. For creative nonfiction, the most successful submissions very closely fit the tone and structure of what’s already published. It’s easier for editors to imagine publishing your work when they can feel how your essay fits their mission.
The New York Times Modern Love column is notable for the number of writers who have gotten memoir deals from their essays there. Modern Love has very clear guidelines. The essays are about “modern” love—some element in the story didn’t exist 20-50 years ago. They want submissions of 1500-1700 words. Most writers can follow those requirements.
But look deeper. Consult this list of Modern Love essays by topic and cross-reference chronologically. Has your topic been done in the last 3 years? Find another angle. Read all the previous essays in your category. Does your story seem too much like one already published? How is your angle new?
Do some literary analysis (which sounds terribly MFA-snobby, but it’s not hard). Notice that nearly all Modern Love essays start “in scene.” That is, we’re in the present, with the narrator, at a moment of action or crisis. Then the narrator loops back to the past, showing how they ended up in that moment. Then they move forward in time from the opening scene; what happened next? How did they come to realize the need for change? Modern Love essays end with another clear moment of action, realization or decision: based on everything I just showed you, here’s some beautiful wisdom.
Write your essay as creatively as you wish. But before you submit, revise it using the structure they usually publish. Yes, Modern Love is still incredibly competitive—but “keep trying” with essays you know are right for the venue and your odds are much better.
Another dream venue for many writers is McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. I’ve worked with writers on more than 20 pieces published by McSweeney’s, and they all have three things in common:
- Specific point of view. A clear answer to “Who are you and why are you telling us this?”
- Tight writing. McSweeney’s pieces don’t have a wasted word. When aiming for any humor outlet, do one more pass after your “final” draft and remove every word that isn’t absolutely necessary. (Rewriting by hand helps!)
- A little bit mean. McSweeney’s specializes in sharp, clever satire that cuts like glass. If your piece is “nice” or “sweet,” it’s not for them. Plenty of other humor sites have a softer edge.
Am I suggesting you subvert your creativity to someone else’s mold?
If you are a beautiful genius whose work defies categorization, who can’t be constrained by form, then you do you! Submit to literary magazines rather than commercial outlets or focus on publishing books. Or heck, start your own magazine where no two pieces are alike and the audience is different every issue.
But if you’d like to see your work in national publications—and get paid—it’s not enough to “keep trying” and hoping your work is what they want. Tailor your essay to smoothly fit their voice and mission. A couple of hours of analysis will not only improve your publication (and payment!) chances, you’ll also be a better writer—and that’s a win whether you’re published or not.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.