Don’t believe the naysayers. The long-form essay is not dead. It is alive and well, but you have to know where to find it. Long-form personal essays are a mainstay of publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Sun Magazine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Dame Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Slate, newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and too many other publications and websites to mention.
Reading long-form personal essays requires a patience and time commitment that stands in direct contrast to the itty-bitty nibbles we are served on social media and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sounds bites of 24-hour television newscasts.
What is a Personal Essay?
I have written about personal essays before, in my blog article of July 23, 2019, “With Creative Nonfiction, Reality Meets Great Storytelling.” Truthfully, I dedicated one paragraph to talking about personal essays, because the article was kind of a scatter-shot look at the genres within CNF.
So then, what is a personal essay? It is notoriously difficult to nail down but here goes: a personal essay is a combination of a super-short memoir, a touch of biography or autobiography, a pinch of journalism, and a slice of compelling nonfiction storytelling. Got that? No? Alright, how about this—
A personal essay is about a topical subject discussed from a personal perspective, yours or someone else’s. A personal essay must have, at its core, a discussion of an event, person, or situation to which the essayist adds personal experience and a unique point of view.
Personal essay is related to the op-ed, too. I’ll go into that in another article.
Examples of Great Personal Essays
In the event that this definition has only muddied the waters, it might be best to direct you to some great essays written by some great essayists. These are in no particular order, no particular category.
After the Shooting: A Year in the Life of Gwen Woods, by Jaeah Lee, The California Sunday Magazine, August 3, 2017
My Family’s Slave, by Alex Tizon, The Atlantic, June 2017
A Rattle with Death in Yosemite, by Kyle Dickman, Outside magazine, June 20,2018
Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong, by Michael Hobbes, Highline, September 19, 2018
I’ve randomly chosen essays that have been recognized for their outstanding quality. If you want to read others, visit longform.org. There you will find hundreds of quality personal essays. Categories include Health, Crime, Science, Politics, Arts, Business, Tech, and Sports. Don’t be intimidated. Get a feel for the purpose and intent of the long-form essay and give it a go.
A Good Length
The word count of the essay varies depending upon the publication. Suggested word counts for the top 20 magazines, newspapers, and websites that use personal essays span 800 to 15,000 words. The average is 800–1,200 words. Review the submission criteria of your target publications before you write. No need to construct a brilliant 3,000-word essay if the publication you have written for has a word-count limit of 1,000.
If you are an accomplished writer with name recognition, magazines and big-city newspapers will snatch up your essays. But if this is your first foray into getting published, Writer’s Digest suggests your chances of success are better if you submit essays in the 500- to 900-word range. A word count of 800–850 seems like the sweet spot for a newbie essayist.
Define to Impress
Tell your friends and colleagues that you hope to be a published long-form essayist. When they inevitably ask, “What is a long-form essay?” impress with the reply, “A universal truth with a personal perspective.” That’ll get their attention. Now, write!
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.