My very first published piece was an essay that appeared in a local anthology. I learned about the opportunity from our own Saturday Writers group. Local anthologies and small presses provide a perfect avenue for publishing credits as well as experience. To keep up with new call outs, I check writing websites, "like" writer-focused sites, and keep in touch with writer friends on social media. Writers are generous people and always willing to share information about new possibilities for publication.
I like to hone my skills by entering contests. This is an excellent way to gain credibility and possibly earn prize money in the process. Most writing groups and many writing-themed websites sponsor at least one yearly contest. It's unusual not to find a category for personal essay.
After gaining more confidence with local publications and contest wins, I began to look at submitting essays to larger venues. When I sold an essay to the Cup of Comfort anthology, I couldn't have been more thrilled. For the first time I realized I could actually earn money doing something I enjoyed.
Although the Cup of Comfort series is no longer published, markets for personal essays have not disappeared. I've had three essays published by Sasee. Sasee is an upbeat monthly magazine geared toward women. It appears both on line and in print. The editor provides an editorial calendar upon email request. The calendar describes the general topic plan for each issue.
One of my favorite places to submit essays is to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. They publish about a dozen books per year, each with a specific theme. Chicken Soup has published 9 of my essays, but my heart still thumps with excitement when I find an email from the editor indicating they're interested in a story. They do keep a file of all submissions. I was shocked recently when they sent me a contract for a story I had submitted to them 2 years earlier. The Chicken Soup folks are easy to work with and turn out a high quality publication. Payment is $200 and 10 copies of the book in which your story appears.
Whether submitting to a contest, local anthology, or national publication, there's a critical element for success. Always be certain to read and follow submission guidelines. Never exceed the word count or submit a piece past the deadline date. It helps to read stories editors have previously selected to publish. This gives you a feel for what they want. Pay attention to the publication's style and target market. For example, you'll never sell a dark story about doom and destruction to Chicken Soup, no matter how brilliantly it may be crafted. Chicken Soup only buys stories written to inspire and uplift readers.
When I send a story out into the world, the last thing I want is for someone to reject it. Unfortunately, most writers garner far more rejections than acceptances. I try not to take it personally. In many cases the piece simply didn't fit what the editor needed. I don't give up on a story I think is good. Instead, I rework the piece and submit it elsewhere. One editor's rejection can be another editor's gold.
Writing a personal essay is rewarding, revealing, and as relevant to the modern reader as it was to readers decades ago. If you're interested in publications seeking personal essays, I've included links to a few potential markets that may spark both interest and ideas. Good luck!