The essay is a popular genre. The problem is that the number of essayists for space on the page far exceeds the available slots. Want to attract an editor’s attention with your essay and land a coveted spot in his or her favorite publication? Make sure you’re not making one of these common essay mistakes.
1. Using essay to vent.
Writers often use an essay as an opportunity to express a moralistic stance, rant about a controversial topic, or vent about a family member. Don’t. If you take a position on an issue, you will lose your reader the moment she (or he) gets your point across.
Instead, challenge the reader to take your stand without saying it outright. Give your reader a new way to look at the issue by sharing part of yourself and showing your expertise, and you may, in a roundabout way, change the point of view.
2. Eliminate superficiality on the page
Most critical first drafts come with at least three lines of superfluous throat-clearing that can easily go without impacting the piece. See how your essay sounds if you start with the fourth or fifth sentence instead.
Essayist Jody Mace tells a story about an essay she wrote about her kindergarten-aged son who kept feeling the woman’s breasts. “I started with a debate about raising sons to be gentlemen, and finally said, ‘My son is a mama’s man.” A friend told me, ‘cut it all off before “my son is a mama’s man.”‘ I did, and it was a great revelation. ”
3. The long script
Don’t be afraid of the butcher knife. When you’re revising and polishing an essay, make sure what you’ve written is sparse no unnecessary words, no superfluous anecdotes, and no-nonsense!
If you need to trim your piece to fit in a particular column, try cutting extra words or even extra graphics, and see if your piece still works. And don’t be so happy with the way you’ve turned a phrase that you keep in your piece even though it doesn’t add to or support your takeaway.
4. Don’t use day-to-day life as an example for the essay.
The job of an essayist is to extract universal meaning from the facts and experiences of mundane life. I’ve written about my brother’s toy collection, my grandmother’s cooking, my attempts to select the perfect wine to pair with a dish.
No matter what your story is about, it should involve some kind of personal transformation that allows you to see the world differently. Does your story make readers feel something, or think about a problem in another way? Is it going to motivate them to act (by calling their mom, for example)?
If your piece makes readers remember an event or life experience of their own, chances are you’ve created a great essay.
5. Using vague language
Many writers tend to use repeated words and phrases on occasion.
Try this self-editing experiment: Highlight all the adverbs and adjectives in your piece. Are they the best words for the job? Can you find the best, richest, or most meaningful words? Or will you find that you have used the same adjectives and adverbs over and over again? Each description should only appear in your piece once.
Look at your verbs – are they action verbs? Picturesque, forceful, and precise? Or do you have a bunch of “to be” verbs that don’t impart any meaning?
6. Being afraid of dialogue
Using direct dialogue is often more effective than telling the reader what someone said. Instead of saying, “The pediatrician told us that getting rid of thumb sucking is a habit of our son’s,” writes, “If you don’t stop thumb sucking before he is three, he will set his teeth and do damage,” our pediatrician warned.
Using dialogue is another way to show the reader the story instead of telling them. Concerned about the fallibility of memory? Quotes don’t have to be accurate; they just have to be exactly how you remember them. Unlike an informed piece, an essay is about your personal experience your perception of events.
If you are determined to stay safely on the surface of your story, the essay may not be the right way to write essays; you have to put your greatest hopes, greatest fears, and deepest regrets into them.
If you feel you are censoring aspects of your experience. Maybe this is not the right time for you to write this piece. Maybe you need more distance from the situation to uncover the deeper truths.
You have to be willing to let go and know that the more of yourself you bring to your writing, the better essayist you will be.
8. Taking rejection personally
Personal essays are deeply intimate, so it’s painful when editors reject them.
But good writers know that there are thousands of reasons why an editor might reject a piece. Perhaps something similar was recently left out (or something similar in the works). Or maybe that particular editor didn’t connect with your piece. That doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with someone else.
Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun. Writing is a very personal and difficult pursuit, but it should be an enjoyable experience, too.
What do you see for or struggle with when it comes to writing and submitting essays?