Long before that Natalie and Caroline essay went viral, the personal essay had already been enjoying something of a resurgence. But, writing and commissioning this intensely personal journalism comes with its own unique set of risks and rewards – as well as a lot of ethical questions. So, how do you get it right?
From influencer exposés to op-ed pieces with a personal starting point, to newsletters, essays on medium and blogs, personal content is everywhere. But despite the current interest in one particular format – the personal essay – this is not a new area of journalism. In fact, it’s been around for centuries and played a big part in telling important stories.
“I think personal essays have a really important space in journalism,” says Sirena Bergman, a writer for outlets including The Independent, VICE, and the Guardian. “They can really help shine a light on issues from a personal perspective, and share stories and voices that we wouldn’t otherwise hear,” she adds though stresses that “of course, there’s always going to be a moral quandary around it.”
Do You Really Want To Write A Personal Essay?
Perhaps the most important question you, as a journalist, need to ask yourself in this context is whether you really want to write a personal essay. And it’s not just about if you want to write a personal essay now, but whether you want to write personal essays in the long term and make it a specialism.
In recent years, the personal essay has increasingly been seen as a way to get your foot in the door as a journalist. And this is especially true if you’re a woman, person of colour, don’t have any contacts in the industry or have little in the way of experience or training.
“As someone who has been a writer since what feels like the womb (and a woman of colour most definitely since then too) it doesn’t take long to guess what I’ve been asked to speak on the most,” writes Tahmina Begum in Underpinned. “We’re tasked to undo the racial prejudice against us, when sometimes all we want to do is write about a book. Where we travelled to last summer. Our favourite strawberry jam.”
“It can feel like the most accessible route I think,” agrees Anna Codrea-Rado, who runs FJ&Co, a platform to support freelance journalists. While writing a personal essay to get into journalism isn’t necessarily bad in itself, Anna points out that it’s not always a choice that’s beneficial in the long term.
“[If] your longer term goal is to become a memoirist or an essayist, or a columnist, then personal essays might be a really good way to start,” she continues. “[But] if your longer term goal is to write investigations, or write features [it’s perhaps not the best route]”.
‘In Five Years You Might Wish You Hadn’t Shared The Story’
Another key point to consider is how the publication of your personal essay will affect both your life and the lives of those you are writing about. “If you’re writing about family and relationships and friendships, the people within that story may not have consented to have their story told,” adds Sirena.
And then there’s the ‘what happens next’ factor. “I’ve written things in the past which have had a bit of a snowball effect that I didn’t necessarily think about,’ she acknowledges. “When you’re writing about your personal experience, it’s gonna be there forever, that doesn’t go away.
“And you need to think really carefully about how that’s going to affect you in the future, because it could be that five years in the future you wish you hadn’t shared that story.” Generally, she warns writers to be cautious about what they share.
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“Often editors will commission pieces on a hate-bait basis,” she says. “They know something will go viral and that the writer will get pilloried for it, but that it will drive news and traffic to the site.
“And, I think, there’s a real ethical concern that editors need to be thinking about more, especially when you’re dealing with inexperienced young women, who are typically much more likely to get abused online than anyone else. I’ve had that experience of being that person and I think it really can take a significant toll and that’s something we all need to be a bit more aware of as editors as well.”
Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, Tanya Gold lays bare the harsh reality of being at the centre of a Twitter storm. “I turned on Radio 4 and they were talking about me,” she recalls. “Piers Morgan asked me to come on Good Morning Britain so he could teach me to be a good feminist and I wept.
“‘Here’s a daily reminder’, wrote one Twitter correspondent, ‘that you: you’re a f*****g c**t. They wrote satirically, ‘F**k you Tanya Gold. Eat a dick.’ Some people – women mostly – wrote to say they wanted to sit on my face.
“Someone wrote: ‘I HOPE YOU DIE OF HEART DISEASE! YOU FUCKING OBESE WHORE!!! DIE ALREADY!!! KILL YOUR F*****G SELF!!! OBESE WHORE!!!’ This person is apparently a personal trainer.”
Going Viral For All The Right Reasons
However, that isn’t to say that personal essays can’t be done well. Charlie Lindlar, who commissions for HuffPost UK’s Personal section, points to two examples which went viral for the right reasons.
“In the days of HuffPost UK’s blogging platform, we had an amazingly courageous woman called Charlotte Kitley, who wrote about living with stage IV bowel cancer. She knew she was going to die, and wrote mostly on managing that. When Charlotte died just over five years ago, her husband sent over a posthumous piece for us – a last message to her kids on what she wanted for them.
“It went hugely viral and I like to think offered readers a stark sense of what happens when you lose a loved one to cancer, but also some comfort and reassurance that they will always be with you, in one way or another and always rooting for you.”
Another piece was by Charlie’s former editor, Poorna Bell, who “wrote a wonderful piece in which she talked for the first time about her husband Rob dying by suicide. It’s one of the most painful things I can imagine it’s possible to experience, but Poorna wrote so lucidly about her complicated feelings around his death.
“I think, again, it spoke to people who could never comprehend what that’s like, while also touching so many people who’d also experienced suicide, and spoke to their own feelings too.”
So, how do we get the balance right?
Setting Clear Boundaries In Place Early
Regular Twitter users will have spotted editor callouts for personal essay pitches, or you may even receive them in a round-up to your inbox. However, freelancer Rachael Revesz feels there are more fruitful ways to break into the market.
Rather than trying to shoehorn your experience into a specific callout, she suggests that you “identify what it is you want to say, what point you’re trying to make, how that pertains to your own life and then think ‘where would this be a good fit?'”
Once you know where works, you can pitch the idea while making it clear what you are (or are not) intending to mention in the essay. This sets boundaries so it’s less likely an editor will ask you to add in details you’re uncomfortable with – and do follow up on any changes or edits.
For Charlie at Huff Post UK, it’s all about two things. “Open up readers’ eyes to perspectives and situations they have never experienced before, and secondly, hopefully offer comfort and solidarity to people who have been through the same things, and help them feel reflected in the media they read.
“We are looking for people who can vividly transport our audience to somewhere else, put readers in their shoes, and help them get what it’s like to be someone else or experience something they might not yet understand.”
And for Lily Dancyger, who commissions person essays for Narratively, it’s all about a “strong and original story”. “Your story really has to have that special something,” she continues, ” a new angle, a hook, something surprising and unusual, to stand out.
“Having a unique experience to write about is an important starting point, but then you have to be able to write about it in an evocative, skilled way that draws readers into the story and really paints a picture.
“I get tons of submissions where there’s really gorgeous writing but nothing original about the story being told, and tons where there’s a really interesting and unique experience, but the writing just isn’t up to par. Both of those are passes for me.”
A Duty Of Care To Writers
For editors though, it’s also important to remember your duty of care to writers, as the emotional toll can go on long after the publish date. “While investigative and deeply-reported work carried loads of its own risks, those risks are often bound to the organisation,’ Charlie tells Journo Resources. “With personal pieces, it’ll be the writer who takes the hit if it’s not the right piece or if their work is mishandled by editors.”
He has a personal checklist when commissioning. “I think our duty of care is to always think with any piece why are we doing this, what can our readers learn from this and does our writer really know why they’re writing this. If it’s a yes on all three, the piece will usually turn out great.”
Want to see some examples of personal essays done well? We’ve collected a whole thread of them here, as there were just too many for this article.
He adds: “Where I think the personal essay format strays is when writers feel they need to release their hardest traumas online without a lot of productive purpose behind it. The last thing we want to do is risk exposing writers to further trauma or abuse or harassment from what they might write.”
“I think editors have a responsibility to prevent writers from making fools of themselves,” agrees Lily. “There are definitely editors out there who hang writers out to dry because they know they’ll get hate clicks and traffic and traffic is traffic, but that’s not what most of us are doing.
“I’ve definitely suggested to writers before that maybe they need to sit with a story a little longer before trying to write it, or steered them in another direction when it was clear they hadn’t yet processed whatever they were writing about. That’s an important part of the job.”
‘Push Back On The Rate. Think About The Fee For Emotional Outlay’
And then we come to the rate. And, as you’d probably have guessed, personal essays are traditionally poorly paid. They require no reporting or investigation, goes the argument, so they’re cheap. It hardly seems a coincidence that the personal essay boom of 2008 coincided with a global financial crisis and plummeting rates for writers.
However, despite the bleakness of the market, Anna believes it’s important that writers take into account the emotional cost of writing the piece, not just the amount of time it will take. “If you are thinking about writing personal essays, and you’re talking to editors about it, don’t just accept a really low rate just because it’s a personal essay.
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“Push back,” she stresses. “Think about the fee you’re getting for the emotional outlay you’re putting in. I actually think it’s really counterintuitive, but for a feature – which has very little emotional labour on your part – is paid so much more than when you are literally pouring out your heart and trauma.”
And, she hopes if more people did this, the impact on the personal essay market could be transformative. “In many ways, I think they’re actually undervalued. We could have a much higher calibre of personal essays if they were paid better and if editors did a more through job on them, and only really commissioned for a good reason.” And, in case you wondered, clickbait is not a good reason.