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Turning Experience into Dollars

Writing.ie | Resources | Essential Guides | Make Money From Writing

Caren Kennedy

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I don’t know about you, but I find cash helps in the writing game.  Naturally, penning a best-seller is the way to go, but until that happens what else can you do?  One option is to turn personal experience into dollars by writing essays for the biggest and best paying market there is – the US.

Why not?  With the Internet, it’s as easy to write for a US publication as it is for a British or Irish one.  The number and variety of publications available there is vast and many are open to freelance submissions from overseas, especially those dealing in personal essays.

Although relatively short – most essays are circa 1,000 words – they can be an excellent money spinner.  I was paid $250 upon acceptance for an 800-word essay I sold to one magazine which was not published until three months later.  Virtually all British and Irish publications pay only at the end of the month in which a piece is included, which may be months after acceptance.

No, you won’t get rich writing essays but earning a few quid isn’t the only reason.  Many people find the process of reviewing episodes in their life enjoyable and therapeutic.  I know I do.  Moreover, essays offer writers a wonderful chance to see their name in print and bump up portfolios.  This in itself can be a great motivator when tackling more sustained pieces of writing such as scripts, novels, and non-fiction books.

The problem may seem to be how to find out what publications there are, what they require, and how to write ‘US-English’.  This is not a problem.   This is the best news of all.

Writers’ Guidelines Regardless of circulation size, the vast majority of US publications have a website where you can obtain information about them.  Most also include Writers’ Guidelines which give comprehensive details of requirements for topics, themes, styles, response times, as well as instructions on formatting conventions and how to submit.  Some will also include tips on how to succeed with them, along with an editorial calendar so you can see what it is they are looking for and when.  Others will go even further and list what they do not want.  

US-English While US-English is broadly the same as that used in Britain and Ireland, there are subtle variations you need to be aware of.  Basically this means leaving out the ‘u’ in some words (color for colour; labor for labour) and using the ‘z’ as an alternative spelling to words such as civilisation (civilization).  Other spelling anomalies are less obvious, such as tire for tyre and check for cheque.  However, if you switch your computer’s language setting to English-US the spell check facility will identify discrepancies and suggest US equivalents.

As well as spelling differences, there are many words that require translation – pavement to sidewalk; life to elevator; flat to apartment; car to automobile; lorry to truck; rubbish to garbage and so on.  There is an US-English Dictionary available from Cambridge Dictionaries Online, if you want to learn more.

There are also certain grammatical differences but I wouldn’t worry too much about these.  Due to the overall language similarity, submissions will not be rejected if otherwise suitable – a sub-editor will probably make any necessary changes.

Payment US editors never hesitate to state how much they pay and when – for some publications this can be two or three times the highest fee paid by a top-notch European publication.  Some will pay by cheque, while others prefer to make payment using facilities such as PayPal.  All will send at least one complimentary copy of the publication in which a piece appeared.

What makes a good personal experience essay? In personal experience essays, writers use material from their own lives and share it in a way that offers insight to the individual emotional experience and reactions to events.  Or as veteran memoir writer Barbara Abercrombie put it: “We read essays to find a new window to the world, to laugh, to learn something from other people’s trials and attempts in life.”

Anecdotes, funny experiences and ‘lessons learned’ all make excellent topics.  As do confessional stories – where the author confesses to some form of addiction or tells of an agonising choice he or she had to make.  However, when writing for the US, your choice should be something people everywhere can relate to.  Family life, work, dating, divorce, animals, illness, weddings, pregnancy etc., are all universally appealing subjects and easily understood.

Humour Although the definition of ‘humour’ varies widely, first-person is often the easiest way to write tongue-in-cheek, particularly when poking fun at yourself.  It’s honest and safe for the reader to enjoy and creates a familiarity that frequently connects regardless of location, particularly when writing about the humdrum of everyday life.

The big names all have a short personal experience humour pieces somewhere and often pay big bucks for ones that chuckle off the page.  For example, The Smithsonian pays up to $1,000 for 500-650 amusing freelance words used in their Last Page column.

Sourcing  Markets There are a number of ways to find names and contacts details of US publications.  The simplest method is to register with The Writer’s Market (the US equivalent of Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook), which maintains a comprehensive database available to search online for an annual fee.  Alternatively, organisations such as Writers Weekly and World of Freelance offer free access to more limited lists of paying markets.

Writing  Samples Writers’ Guidelines will only tell you so much.  To succeed, you must also study the publication of your choice in order to get a feel for what actually gets published and to ascertain if it suits your own individual writing style and taste.

Some outlets include links to writing samples, while others publish content on their website, in whole or in part.  Alternatively, many have an automated service for purchasing back copies.  If this isn’t the case then email the publication directly and ask for some back numbers of recent issues and details of cost.

Another, less costly, way is to identity who has written for the publication and Google the author’s name.  Most writers post samples of published work on their own websites or blogs and you can study them there.  By the way, this latter method is a great way to track down potential markets for your own writing.

Six  Paying  Markets To help get you started, below are six paying markets which welcome freelance submissions.  With the exception of Underwired, all publish writing samples online.

1.      Christian Science Monitor is an excellent starting place for new writers.  Its Home Forum section welcomes amusing and touching personal essays (400-800 words). Guidelines: http://www.csmonitor.com/aboutus/guidelines.html#homeforum

2.      Skirt accepts 5-6 personal essays every month on topics relating to women and women’s interests.  However, ‘women and women’s interests’ should not limit your choice of topic. Guidelines: http://skirt.com/contributor_guidelines

3.      Underwired is another women’s magazine and welcomes personal essays (800-1200 words) for themed monthly publications listed on the website. Guidelines: http://uwmag.com/submission-guidelines-mainmenu-39.html

4.      The Sun publishes personal essays, interviews and poetry.  There is no minimum word count.  Submissions accepted by post only. Guidelines: http://www.thesunmagazine.org/writer_guidelines.html

5.      Chicken Soup for the Soul– you’ve seen the books!  Each has a distinct theme which is then broken down into sections. Guidelines: http://www.chickensoup.com/cs.asp?cid=guidelines Submission process: http://www.chickensoup.com/form.asp?cid=submit_story

6.      Brain, Child  is a quarterly publication which describes itself as a ‘literary magazine for thinking mothers’. Guidelines: http://www.brainchildmag.com/contact/guidelines.asp

SUBMISSION  TIPS Writers’ Guidelines.  Do exactly what it says on the tin.  Obtain them.  Study them.  Follow them.  It’s a message that can’t be over-emphasised and doing so gives you a cutting edge over the competition.  There is nothing an editor hates more than receiving a 2,500-word tear-jerker submitted in the body of an email when the Guidelines clearly state a need for positive, upbeat 1,000-word maximum essays, sent via the online submission form.  It happens.  Don’t let it happen to you.

Titles.  Never underestimate the importance of an engaging title.  It’s the first thing an editor reads and must tickle interest if he or she is to read further.

Revision is essential.  Before submitting anything check the topic is strong enough, you’ve written the essay tightly, and that your treatment is lively.  Delete unnecessary words.  Replace vague words with visually stimulating ones.   Ask yourself: can the piece be improved in any way?  To speed up the process, read your work aloud and rewrite anything that sounds clunky or awkward.  Revise.  Revise.  Revise.  Again and again until you are satisfied.

Persevere.  There’s no magic Harry Potter potion that will make every editor love your work.  There are so many unknown factors beyond your control involved in getting work accepted that all you can do is keep on trying.  Study the guidelines, practise your craft, and I promise the rejections will get fewer, the acceptances more.

Want to know more?  To learn more about writing memoir and personal experience essays, below is a selection of titles taken from my bookshelf: Courage and Craft: Writing Your Life into Story, Barbara Abercrombie Writing from Personal Experience, Nancy Davidoff Kelton The Art of Creative NonfictionLee Gutkind Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser (Editor) Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, Sheila Bender Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris The Best American Essays 2010, Robert Atwan (Editor)

About the author

© 2011 Caren Kennedy, October 2011 Caren Kennedy is also one of our Writing.ie guest bloggers.  To read her posts, visit Word Play.  Caren also facilitates a Writing TV Treatmentsonline workshop for Inkwell.  Over 8 weeks (4 modules) Caren gives one-to-one mentoring and instruction on writing for television and developing ideas into storylines.  By the end, students who complete all assignments will have created a polished Treatment showcasing their own idea for a TV series.

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