Writing a Personal Essay? Here’s How to Approach the Submission Process

Writing a Personal Essay? Here’s How to Approach the Submission Process

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:

  1. 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.
  1.  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?

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