More about my overly-picky editorial demands

7/15/2022 Update: After reading several dozen submissions, I see some patterns both in the type of material I've received, and in my reactions to it.

The #1 piece of advice I can give you, the potential submitter, is to put your work aside for a few weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. I'm seeing too many under-edited pieces. You shouldn't be submitting your first or second drafts--to anyone, anywhere, ever. While I'm happy to hone accepted work, if there are too many flaws to begin with, I might not accurately apprehend the shimmering brilliance that is your writing. You might need to uncover it for me by taking a few more passes at editing it yourself. As of this writing, there are four and half more months before deadline. So, no excuse to submit early drafts.

I'd like to see more humor. No matter how serious the subject, don't be afraid of poking fun at yourself and others, acknowledging the absurdity of situations, or even engaging in silly word play. Humor allows your readers to take a break from the gravity of subjects like sexual harrassment or glass celings; breathe; and re-engage. For readers who disagree with you or are resistant to a point you're making, humor may disarm them and make them more open to what you have to say.

A successful personal essay includes a story with sensory details that allow readers to imagine themselves in your place, as well as reflections on your experiences. I'm seeing essays that fail on each side: Some that are simply anecdotes with no context or internality--something that you might share with coworkers in the break room after an interesting weekend--and some that are excessively internal or abstract. Neither extreme is desirable.

To correct overly-internal writing, add action and description. Instead of telling your reader what to think or feel, lead them to it through sharing the experiences that made you think or feel the way you do. They'll probably react similarly. And even if they don't, at least you've made them feel or think something. Writing in abstractions rarely does.

To make an anecdote into an essay, expand the scope. Make sure there's a narrative arc (a beginning, middle, and end). Contextualize your experiences both within your own life and within society. Pose at least some of the following questions to yourself: How did I feel about these experiences at the time? How do I feel now? If I could do it again, what would I change? How did my experiences change me? What other episodes from my life or others' am I reminded of? How prevalent are these problems, and how can they be addressed? Is there relevant research?

I'd like to see fewer essays that rely heavily on dialogue. In nonfiction writing, every word between quotation marks must represent verbatim what someone said. If you're writing page upon page of dialogue--unless you are in the Guiness Book for your extraordinary memory--you're not writing nonfiction. Even in fiction, it becomes boring to lean too heavily on dialogue.

Of course, what constitutes excellent writing depends on the personal taste of the reader as well as the competence of the writer. Two of my favorite essayists are Marjorie Williams and Poe Ballantine. It may be of more use to read samples of those authors' work than it would be for me to write at length about what makes me say Yes to an essay. I can't recommend Williams' book The Woman at the Washington Zoo highly enough. You can access many of Poe's short pieces on the Sun website: if you read nothing else, try "Nomads" or "No Talking to Imaginary People."

If you've made it to the end of this, you're awesome and I want to hear from you.