Modern Love: Cracking the personal essay formula

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The “Modern Love” column is one of the most popular New York Times features and a much sought-after credit for freelancers. Attaining that goal isn’t easy. Just one out of every 100 “viable essays:- “meaning essays that are reasonably well written and targeted to the column” are chosen for publication, says its editor Daniel Jones.

“Modern Love” is not just a writer’s prize. It’s the personal essay in its purest form, universal stories of “love, loss and redemption” told with uncommon skill and grace.

 On Twitter, Facebook and Q&A, Jones has generously shared the requirements he’s established for serious consideration. Writer Laura Copeland has tracked these down and generously collected them in a Google Doc. 

I was thrilled when I found this resource. I’m a huge fan of the personal essay, having published several over the years. I’ve taught it in numerous seminars, helping shepherd many into publications, and persuaded teachers to add the assignment to their curriculums. Jones’s observations and recommendations constitute a master class, rich with advice, much of it applicable no matter what form or genre you work in. It’s worth your attention but as it’s long, I’ll present a sampling here and recommend you read all of Jones’ good advice, linked below.

Remember why people read stories

“To find out what happens,” Jones says.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a reader’s curiosity, whether you’re writing a short story or a personal essay. Too often people give everything away at the start. In newspaper articles, you’re supposed to put all the important information at the top, right?”

Modern Love essays, like good fiction and narrative nonfiction, should unfold “a dramatic arc, with mystery and surprise. If the surprise in your story is the fact that your unlikely relationship led to marriage, don’t say in the first line: “I met my future wife at a cocktail party…” 

Be generous with the reader…..but GRADUALLY.

Cliche alert

In the many essays Jones reads every month, the same words, phrases “or stylistic tics” appear again. In other words, the worn-out use of cliches. They’re not just annoying, “they signal trouble with the writing to come.”  Ever use any of these? Don’t if you want to avoid rejection.

  1. I’ll never forget
  2. I’ll always remember
  3. If I had to do it all over again
  4. Literally
  5. A. Sentence. With. A. Period. After. Every. Word.
  6. I curled up in a fetal position
  7. I curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s

Submission guidelines

If you’re prone to touting the power of your essay, “describing its plotline or listing your degrees and writing credits” in a cover lettter, don’t bother, 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…I judge a submission solely on the writing before me.” A perfectly suitable cover note will say nothing more than: “I wrote this essay with your column in mind. I hope you enjoy it.”

More than one at a time:  

When I started freelancing in the 1970s, simultaneous submissions were frowned upon. The North American Review said it would never again consider a writer who sent a story to another publication. It was unfair. Writers could wait months for a reply only to get a rejection and have to start over. Considerate editors like Jones no longer have a problem with writers sending their essays to places other than the Times. With that in mind, I recently submitted a short story to a dozen publications.

But if you’re lucky enough to get accepted, let the other editors know immediately. There’a chance they’ll be impressed and look for your work in the future. One thing is certain, if you wait and waste their time they going to be “really annoyed.”

When the answer is No

Rejections hurt with any story, but hearing no about your personal essay has a special sting.”You may feel like it’d you being rejected,” says Jones, who’s been on the receiving end, too. What you may not know is that the editors are looking for a different mix, a fresh voice, a compelling angle,  or heeding a suggestion to shift topics from their boss. As someone who once considered laminating his desk with rejection slips, I find his bottom line comforting: “There is no bar of quality to clear that then ensures publication in any particular column. Other factors will always be in play, and you can’t know what those are, so try not to let any one rejection paralyze you or even set you back.”

 Further reading

Jones recommends two books for those interested in mastering the personal essay::“The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative ”by Vivian Gornick and “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Kidder’s longtime editor, Richard Todd.

For models you can study, Jones has edited “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss and Redemption.”

You can read Copeland’s entire compilation here

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