“Like many Millennials,” says writer Laura Copeland, “I often romanticize turning a pivotal moment in my life into the next great American essay, as defined by its acceptance into the New York TimesModern Love column.”
Millennial or not, Copeland’s first step in this process was the inevitable: procrastination research. Down the research rabbit hole, she discovered that Modern Love editor, Daniel Jones, is a magical wizard providing an abundance of tips, via social media, on writing personal essays.
Confident other people would benefit from Daniel’s wisdom, Copeland collected all the tips she could find into a Google doc and made it public.
If personal essay is your specialty, you’re going to devour, bookmark and obsess over this doc.
Like Copeland, I’ve been working on my own maybe-sometime-Modern-Love-will-publish-it essay for the last six months. And while I think it’s more than worth reading the entire doc yourself, I’m going to share the tips that resonated with me most. (Also keep in mind, these are amazing all-around tips for writing essays, no matter where you submit.)
On writing: Tell the story
Jones has shared many tips on essay structure, but they can essentially be boiled down into these three categories:
- “Don’t underestimate the power of a reader’s curiosity” (this includes the editor — don’t give away the ending in your cover letter).
- “A happy ending is when the writer understands something he or she didn’t understand before.”
- “It’s more intriguing for us to be dropped into the action than to receive all the background information up front.”
Remember why people read stories: because we want to find out what happens.
When I read this tip I immediately went back into my essay and cut the first two paragraphs, moved my “what happened in the end” to the actual end, and added one sentence of clarification halfway through.
Turns out, we don’t really need all that backstory. Even though you want to draw people in at the beginning, that’s not a free pass to give away the ending.
On patience: Embrace the process of discovery
This is probably the most important, difficult, infuriating and comforting tip in this compilation.
I started writing an essay about a fight I had with my childhood sweetheart. It morphed into a story about emotional abuse. Which then turned into a story about how my first boyfriend is impacting my brand-new marriage.
Writing the first draft of this story was easy. I tied it up in a neat little bow and sent it on its way to my first workshop. I expected showers of praise. What I got was a lot of “I don’t buy it.”
What followed has been a hot mess. I re-write this thing for an hour every damn day and it’s still not close to being done.
I’ve learned that writing for Modern Love isn’t like journalism or writing a blog post. It’s therapy. “Ideally, writing a personal essay is a process of discovery,” Jones says. “You only understand the point of your essay after you’ve spent a lot of time and effort working on it.”
It’s different from how we’re often taught to write. Don’t come up with the pitch or the sound byte first. That’s not the point.
When I read that I actually felt relieved. This incessant editing and reworking is the work. And now, instead of getting frustrated every time I haven’t perfected this thing, it’s actually given me a lot of comfort in the process. My six-months-and-counting essay has been through a memoir class, a re-write, a professional editor, another re-write, two writer friends and now a third re-write.
Jones has emphasized that Modern Love stories are often the most important experiences in a writer’s life. These can’t be whipped up in a weekend. “The editor wants to think this is your best story, not one of 20 essays you’ve dashed off and sent out to dozens of outlets all at once,” Jones says. So take your time.
What if you’ve already submitted and were rejected, or told to rework? Don’t immediately send back a few minor edits. “The editor doesn’t want to see it back so soon, and, fair or not, he’ll think you rushed it and won’t view the revision optimistically,” Jones warns.
On editing: Words to avoid
The more I read Jones’ tips about submitting to Modern Love, the more I realize he’s not actually inundated with bad writers. That said, I love the polishing part of my job, so here are a few tips Jones provides on writing:
- Remove words like “that,” adverbs, exclamation points and double spaces after periods.
- Choose adjectives that will work harder for you (not filler adjectives like “amazing” and “terrible”).
- Avoid overused transitions like “fast forward in time.”
- Get rid of profanity.
On submitting: Be professional and humble
Before you jump on me for the obviousnessness of this tip, read the document. I was shocked by some of the emails Jones gets when he turns down an essay. He’s received rejection responses like “your loss” and “lame.”
Just because that particular essay wasn’t right for an editor doesn’t mean the next one won’t be. Don’t let a hot temper screw up a relationship with an editor.
I was also pleasantly surprised to read about ambivalence towards writers who brag about their accomplishments. Jones says, “I pay little attention to someone’s writing background when I read an essay. I don’t even have time to read a cover note that’s more than two sentences long. My eyes glaze over at lists of books or articles. I judge a submission solely on the writing before me.”
I can’t tell you how much this speaks to my soul. I’m not particularly accomplished, and the fact that Jones doesn’t only want to publish successful writers fills me with hope. But even if I were, or if I did want to spew the few accomplishments I do have, I hate that bragging is the only way to represent the quality of your work.
Plus, is it just me, or is it obnoxious when writers list off every publication they’ve ever written for? I want to smooch Jones for being open and candid about this issue.
Other ways to be professional include immediately letting Jones (or any other editor) know if your piece has sold elsewhere. And don’t pitch a million places at once with the same story. This saves everyone a lot of time.
Right now: Stop your procrastination research
Before you leave to devour this amazing document: Don’t get hung up on every tip.
Read and absorb what you can, but remember to trust yourself and your writing. Copeland said it best: “In hindsight, I should’ve added a disclaimer to the top of the doc: ‘Use your time wisely. Each minute you spend reading writing advice is a minute you won’t spend writing.’”
After reading and re-reading Copeland’s compilation, I feel both hopeful and defeated. I don’t think my essay is quite there yet. I had originally written it as a scene — one story out of my life — with a neat conclusion.
If I’m being honest with myself, my essay needs to be bigger. So I’m starting a fresh document and we’ll see where it takes me. And maybe, fast forward in time, I’ll soon update you with a post titled “How I Got Published in Modern Love.”
To see all of Jones’ tips as compiled by Copeland, check out this Google doc.
Do you have a personal essay in you? Which of these tips most resonated?
Modern Love isn’t the only outlet that publishes great essays. If you’re looking for ideas for where to submit your work, check out our list of 19 places to pitch your personal essay.
About the Author: Marian Schembari
Marian Schembari is a writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner based in Germany, who left her heart in San Francisco, New Zealand, London and New York. Part of her heart belongs to the internet, too. Marian believes in the internet’s power to invite a real, deep look into our own unique stories and our feelings about them.
Marian Schembari | @MarianSchembari
Filed Under: Freelancing
Jon Morrow explains how to use the power of guest blogging to catapult your blog to success.
Get It Now
Lately I have been thinking about those tens of thousands of passed-over stories and all the questions and lessons about love they represent. When taken together, what does all this writing reveal about us, or about love? Here’s what I have found.
First, and most basic: How we write about love depends on how old we are.
The young overwhelmingly write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?
Those in midlife are more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?
And older people almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be. Their message: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.
In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.
What do we consider to be a good meeting story? When it involves chance more than effort. You get bonus points if the chance encounter suggests compatibility, like mistakenly wheeling off with each other’s shopping carts at Whole Foods because your items had so much overlap, you got the carts mixed up.
“I get those beets all the time!” “You like Erewhon Supergrains, too?”
Pretty soon it’s time to get a room.
It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results. High-volume online daters worry about this, along with those who routinely attend singles events.
The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)
When some people write about love, they can’t find the right words to capture the intensity of their feelings, so they rely on stock terms that are best avoided. These include (but are not limited to): amazing, gorgeous, devastating, crushed, smitten, soul mate and electrifying.
Popular phrases include: “meet cute,” “heart pounded,” “heart melted,” “I’ll always remember,” “I’ll never forget” and “Reader, I married him.” Then there is everyone’s favorite stock word regardless of subject: literally. As in, “our date was literally electrifying.”
Women and men may feel love similarly, but they write about it differently.
A lot of men’s stories seem tinged by regret and nostalgia. They wish previous relationships hadn’t ended or romantic opportunities hadn’t slipped away. They lament not having been more emotionally open with lovers, wives, parents and children.
Women are more inclined to write with restlessness. They want to figure love out. Many keep mental lists of their expectations, detailing the characteristics of their hoped-for partner with alarming specificity and then evaluating how a new romantic interest does or doesn’t match that type.
They write something like, “I always pictured myself with someone taller, a guy with cropped brown hair and wire-rim glasses who wears khakis or jeans, the kind of person who would bring me tea in bed and read the Sunday paper with me on the couch.”
Men almost never describe the characteristics of their ideal partner in this way. Even if they have a specific picture in mind, few will put that vision to paper. I wonder if they’re embarrassed to.
Another list women frequently pull together is “The List of Flawed Men,” in which they dismiss each man they have gone out with over the last year with a single phrase. There was the slob with the sideburns, the med student who smoked too much pot, the gentle Texan who made felt hats but couldn’t commit, and the physically affectionate finance guy who always dropped her hand when he saw his friends.
This series of bad encounters has left them exasperated to the point of hopelessness, so they try to see the humor in it.
Men rarely compose that kind of list, either. In this case, I wonder if it’s because they’re afraid to, not wanting to be seen as belittling women. In general, men write more cautiously about women than the other way around.
Love stories are full of romantic delusion, idealizing love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.
A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future, where her long-held fantasy becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.
A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away. And he keeps going back to her in his mind, and probably also on Facebook and Instagram, thinking, “What if?”
I don’t know if men are worse than women when it comes to romantic rejection; they are clearly worse when it comes to literary rejection. Even though only 20 percent of submissions come from men, they send more than 90 percent of the angry emails I receive in response to being turned down. To these men, no does not mean no. No means the start of an inquiry as to how this possibly could have happened.
One man sneered at me: “You didn’t even read it, dude.”
To which I replied, sincerely: “Dude, I totally did.”
Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.
Good writing about love features the same virtues that define a good relationship: honesty, generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, humor and self-deprecation. Bad writing about love suffers from the same flaws that define a bad relationship: dishonesty, withholding, defensiveness, blame, pettiness and egotism.
It has been remarkable to watch the evolution in stories I have received from gay and lesbian writers. A decade ago, their stories focused on issues of marginalization, identity, coming out, and of strains with family members. Within a few years, their focus had turned overtly political in the fight for equality and marriage.
Today, gay writers have largely shed that baggage. They write about looking for love, marrying, starting a family, being a parent, even getting divorced. Sexual orientation that had once been central is now incidental. Which seems like a nice change.
With Valentine’s Day near and the right words about love always so hard to find, let me close by simply wishing you an amazing celebration of electrifying romance you never forget and always remember.
Attention College Students
If you have a personal story that illustrates the current state of love and relationships, email it to us at email@example.com. The winning author will receive $1,000 and the essay will be published in a special Modern Love column in May.
Details appear at nytimes.com/modernlovecontest. For more information and commentary as the contest progresses, follow Modern Love on Facebook (facebook.com/modernlove) and the Modern Love editor on Twitter: @danjonesnyt.Continue reading the main story