Turning Your Blog into Publishable Essays


Jennifer Armstrong
Rita Arens
Susan Goldberg

Rita: I just wanted to start out by talking a little bit about essays, blog posts and the difference between the two. I wanted Susan to talk about how to distinguish an essay and a blog post.

Susan: We will talk about anecdotes. For me, a lot of times the blog is the story, the anecdotes that stand alone on the blog. It's the moment in time. For me, those are things to use as a jumping off points for reflection in essay. Or the free writing part. A lot of bloggers will do that and a short reflection because blog posts are short. You can run into a problem thinking the story is stand alone for an essay.

Rita: The other thing is that your audience is familiar with your blog, so there is a shorthand we use with our blog. If you write a stand alone essay, you need to say, my daughter, or my son Steve. When you write an essay, you need to write it as the person as no idea who you are, has never read your blog.

Jennifer: I also think it's really important to make sure you are getting a bigger meaning from it. You have to look for that big universal meaning. In the perfect world, a timely meeting. What we call a "peg" in journalism -- if you want to sell it and make money.

Rita: Jennifer, how did you use your blog to propel yourself to sell essays?

Jennifer: I'm a trained journalist. I was a writer at Entertainment Weekly, which is great training, but it can get hard to find your passionate, authentic self voice. It took me years of trying to get rid of that. I have a partner in CA and through our blog we were able to find out what we cared about. We were both able to find our voices that lent themselves more to essays and things like that. My first agent found me through my blog. There are a lot of things that happened because of that.

Rita: I tried to be funny. Sometimes I'm funny. I found myself copying other people until I found my own voice, and that's ok. I did that for several years and then I wrote a sentence, and was like "Only I could have written that. I realized, oh, that's my voice. i didn't know it existed." I found that I have a much more serious voice than I thought.

Jennifer: The thought of "only I could have written that" is so important. The more details, it becomes more universal, ironically. If you can find that pace.

Rita: My dad used to say everything is interesting in the details. And it is. So when I'm writing essays, I try to think about that. Always work in the details.

Jennifer: If you write a niche blog, the opposite can be true. You can get in your schtik; my blog is only a small part of what I feel. There's a danger in staying in that narrow voice. No the whole you, but the internet you.

Rita: That's a good point. We talk about confessional v. oversharing.

Jennifer: We had a good conference about this. It's the #1 rule. When you teach university writing, girls always want to write about their break-ups, and it's sad, but they that's an essay and it's not. It's oversharing and broad and they need to take the small icky moment and pull it out and write an essay from that. They are confusing intimacy and honest with personal details about their lives. They're not the same things. It's almost a way of hiding into not delving into personal territory. It seems superficially shocking, but you're not getting into the nitty gritty of what scares you.

Rita: It's the raw stuff when you point out when you're wrong. That's hard to do, especially if you're publishing in a magazine. It's easy to be like "here's what I did," but there's a difference in saying "why" you did it. Try to find and say why you did what you did if you're putting it out there.

Susan: in the blog world, it's become the thing, with young women, it seems like it gets them attention to overshare without making sense of what they're writing about. It's fine, share it, it's raw, you can go back and make sense of it. I've gotten a lot of mileage about writing about my breakup. I've cancelled a wedding. It was a defining mount in my life. The key was to wait a few years and make sense of it instead of writing the horrible stuff. That's the difference. More recently, I wrote an essay/blog about my current boyfriend and it was not good. I was too close and too protective of him. I do tell my students, if you're going to write about yourself, you need to bring it. Be ready to lay it out there. People will know if you're writing around details. The more honest and forthright you can be, the better.

Rita: If you write about someone in your life, they better know it. I did a series on how to get a better marriage, and it was about me and my husband, i showed it to him. you can't hide anything. it's really, really important to talk to the people in your life and if they're not down with that, don't publish it. Especially if you live in the same house with them.

Jennifer: There a lot of sperm donors in my book and we have a lot of essays we rejected because of the masturbation. The people confused writing about that as confessional and making me look edgy they were confusing the two; they were boring, "another masturbation story." When you feel yourself going there for the sake of sounding fun, make sure you are doing it for a reason.

Rita: I think that's the difference between blogging and essay; blogging is a safe space. I think blogs are a perfect place to try out something in a safe space. It's a safe space to try stuff and say "does this suck, what do you think?" I do that a lot, try out different forms on my blog. I'll email people and ask them. Readers like having their opinions respected. You can create your own writing community. I'm on the board of a non-profit writing thing and I'm the only social media blogger person, everyone else is a poet, they don't know what to do with me. One of them is like "who reads your blog? Why do you do that?" I said, "I don't know, but I blog because I think of it as street performing." She had a daughter who was a street performer, that's the way I feel about blogging. Can you speak to how you try out on your blog?

Jennifer: I do photo essays or field notes or anthology notes; it is a safe space. It's a safe space for a narrow slice of my life. It's different than an essay space.

Susan: It took me a long time to figure it out, the journalism gets in the way. I was used to millions of people reading my stuff because I worked for a big company. It's a profound thought -- the street performing -- it resonated with me because it's so true. I don't care when I'm playing music, if you can get to that place it can be joyful. My partner and I say all the time, "just get it out. Just do it." We say that to each other all the time. It's better to just get that out there.

Rita: Take a step back emotionally from your writing. I did a graduate writing program. I would cry and cry. That 2 year degree took 4 years, it was brutal. It was like the military, they broke me. down, but I appreciated being broken down to realize "i am not my writing. I am an awesome person; if I write a crappy piece, it doesn't define me. If you can get to that place psychologically and emotionally. Get to that place if they take issue with your writing. If you're serious, it's important to get that wall.

Susan: The "You are not your writing" thing is so freeing, that thought is so important. If you guys can take writing workshops, at first you're scared to read your work aloud, but then you're like, who cares? Most places will not be like "you suck." By the way, if you guys have written for giant things, you need to think before your write, the trolls can pile on quickly.

Rita: That's a good experience though, if you're trying to write a book or a national magazine. ignore the trolls. That's a huge, freeing experience.

Susan: I refused to read the trolls when I wrote for Entertainment Weekly.

Rita: I write for BlogHer, that's a nice community. Most places don't have those people.

Jennifer: I have trolls.

Susan: I have thick skin, I ignore them. It will happen.

Rita: Can you talk about good writing versus good stories?

Jennifer: We were talking on the phone about this idea. I say good writing comes form good stories. People who can write a tiny nothing thing and make a great essay out of it; details pale in comparison to the fact that they can write about them. In anthologies, I will lean towards the writing, the way it makes you feel, the way you flow. If we're going to divide it up. If something fantastic happened to you and you want to write an essay because you have a good story, it's not enough. The writing of it is important, if not the most important thing.

Rita: If you have a good story, it's possible you don't have to be as good of a writer. It can write itself. You ask more of yourself and your writing if you don't have a fantastic story. I once used a piece in my class about a woman's hatred of carpeting. She's funny and a good writer; you can't call that a good story, it's not even a story, but she made it into something and that's great. That puts a lot of pressure on you to make it great as a writer, whereas if you have a good story, it will come more naturally.

Rita: You have to consider the audience and where you will place it. I have something I know is a good story, but I don't know if it's good writing. The guy downstairs in our duplex died and no one knew for weeks; no magazine wants to publish it. It's a good story. I thought, you know what, I'll self-publish it on Kindle. So, go ahead and write the thing and try to find an audience for it, but if it's worth it, I always try to sell it. Publishing is a marriage of art and commercial. They will only publish it if they can resell it. Your story may not always fit into the slats, but that doesn't mean it's not worth it. Try experimenting with self-publishing those snippets. You may not make money, but you can find an audience. No one will read it on your hard drive. That's one way to make sure no one will read it, leave it in your desk drawer.

Audience Question: Kim Tracy France.com, You mentioned earlier that a blog post is like an anecdote in an essay. Can you expand that?

Jennifer: Let's talk about structure. There is a similar structure. It's your example, it's your back-up, your proof. In personal essays, that's your anecdote. So I'm writing an essay about son wearing a dress, but the larger issue is gender nonconformity, so it's not about me. Usually you will write an anecdote, the moment of leaving him in the classroom, you are trying to get someone in there with, feeling what you're feeling. The anecdote gets people there with you, you're setting yourself up to tell the story. It's not passive, but active. You're going to reflect on that. What I suggest is that you keep a layer in that. Tell a story, reflect on it. Get to your next anecdote and build an essay on that. It leads to a sweet moment, or a surprise, and then you end with another anecdote. Circle back.

Rita: When you write, whether it's question or sentence form, you have to think of it as shifting gears. If you stay in one form for too long, the reader will get bored. I think that's great. The layering of it -- magazine articles, you will see good examples of those. Here's a story, and here's something that I think, which illustrates that, which leads to another point.

Susan: In journalism, we teach that structure. You change it, a lead, a nut graph (tell them what you are going to tell them, your thesis), your body, your bigger points, and then the kicker, the end, bring it all home thing. Another thing, for the anecdotes on your blog, if you're looking to sell you essays, combine a few of your blog posts, look at your tags and combine them to make an essay that might be timely.

Rita: I had a virtual assistant for a month, they are pretty cheap. I asked her to go to my blog and categorize, pull out the 10 best posts, sometimes it nice to ask someone else to be objective, who doesn't know you and they can point to those things for you, it can be hard to see what goes together in your own work

Question: WriteMindOpenHeart.com. Can you talk about cannibalizing your own work: I submitted a blog post entry to a national magazine. Does it lower your chances to get published in a magazine if you published it in a blog post?

Susan: Yeah, you are taking that risk. You lower the chance of publishing. You can write about the topic, but it's better keep the big, polished work, to keep it to sell.

Rita: Publishing industries are getting sick of previously published thing. Even anthologies want new pieces.

Susan: Sexy Feminism comes out in March; they told us not to put any on the blog. We got posts out of it, but nothing from the book is on the blog.

Jennifer: I get that. I don't like reading a book that I've read online. It needs to be deeper than what's on the blog. For parenting or personal development, if you see how you were two years ago, it's a good record keeping if you blog regularly. Your essay can become how your life shifted, or what you learned. There's a development in an essay, otherwise is a word story.

Question: Jessica Cribbs, Expressing Motherhood. Do you need an agent? If you're a mommy blogger, you can search outlets, do you need an agent to sell essays?

Rita: No. I didn't have an agent for my anthology. When I sold Sleepless for the Week, the NY agent couldn't sell it. I sent it out to smaller publishing houses myself, and I lucked out that they had read my blogs, so it just worried out. Never ignore small presses. I always start with the list of small presses and then go their websites; Help A Reporter Out, they have a twitter feed. www.haro.com. We should help each other like that, because not every one wants to be published in the same format.

Susan: I got my first agent by being published in an anthology. (Title: Altered) My first agent found me through my website, read the piece, and emailed me. That's how I got my first book. It can snowball the other way. So, no you don't need an agent to get in an anthology, but an anthology can get you an agent.

Rita: If you don't have a resume, write for free until you get to that point. I generally don't advocate writing for free, but if you need a portfolio its a good idea.

Question: Greencabin.com. I struggle in essays with conclusions. How to end without having to prove the lesson you are trying to teach?

Susan: I struggle with that. When something is happening to me, I think I have to wait until the conclusion. I try to write about it during, but it is easier to wait.

Rita: I feel like I'm too preachy all the time, I'm horrible. I'm trying to edit away from me. So a lot of times, i chuck the last paragraph, because I'm annoying on my soapbox. A lot of times i will focus the lens and just stop and let people get their own conclusions about whats important about this. When you're getting ready to wrap up, stop before you think you're done, because people have a tendency about needing to tie up everything. I think it's a good writing practice to cutting your writing in different places, you can always add it back then.

Susan: I just did that. My agent felt like a piece was too conclusive, so we just got it. It was a great solution.

Jennifer: I'm big on conclusions that don't conclude. Women want to make sure everyone's ok at the end. Go back to your thesis and look at what you wanted to do. Not if you did it, that's too tidy, but did you address it. Another trick, go back to the anecdote, is there a different piece that can reflect on that. Did the stakes go somewhere there? Look for the answers in the body of your essay. If you can't find something to conclude, than the essay is not focused enough. Look to the beginning, make sure it goes in some kind of circle, even if it doesn't necessarily close. It can be a place to lead readers but not try too hard to tidy up. Leave it a little open.

Rita: If you're having trouble closing something, I'll re-title things. In print, you can be more creative with your title. When people struggle with their titles, I go through through the piece title the piece something that's buried in there, it can be an Easter egg and inside joke for the writer. and it can be used for the ending, a way to wrap it up without writing a conclusion at all. Play with the pieces you have. Never ignore the title as a way to tie things back together.

Question: As you move into your blog to the other places, how do you deal with privacy? Do other places insist on real names, real places, or can you keep details private?

Jennifer: I use pseudonyms for my kids, not my partner. My partner reads things about our kids first, she is more relaxed about essays, but you can't maintain the distinction. I haven't found it to a be a problem.

Rita: In my anthology, I didn't insist anyone use their real names. The world is changing, I use my real names, but not my daughter's name. Refuse to reveal them, if your editor wants your piece bad enough, they will deal with it. If I put something forward, I don't use some goony nickname, because it does sound less professional. Use a substation to make it more formal.

Susan: I did a piece about dating writers. It worked for that piece because I was making fun of them with funny names. But I use "he" or "my ex." They can't find them through Google Search.

Rita: My best friend is a therapist, I was working on a novel with a therapy scene. She said it can be funny to say "Brown shirt shifted uncomfortably in her chair." Refer to people with non-names to suck some of the tension out of something super heavy if you don't want to use names.

Question: Just Breathe Mom. I'm a classic found my voice through pregnancy..triplets. It's a sea of mommy blogging. How did you find your voice? What's a good resource to start to get published?

Rita: Mediabistro.com. Pay $100 dollars a year, or not that much. It's very good. It's so awesome. Rent it out that way if you cancel. They do a session how to pitch Redbook. It's amazing. How to pitch is all I never look at it. They interview the editor. I would buy it and read it for how editors minds work. Always look for where the editors holes. BlogHer.com needs more life, green, money, health. Not Parenting. Look at the sections and look where the staff writers are writing a lot and pitch the back of the book stuff. Women's mags will have a back page, that's an essay usually. I've been shocked by how many mags are using bloggers. Just introduce yourself, "I noticed that you covered this area, here is my area of expertise." Even if you don't have a pitch, editors are time-constrained. I wrote one piece for an editor, this editor emailed me out of the blue after 4 years. If you can get to the point where you are friendly emailng back and forth, they might think of you. BlogHer FAQ down on the side: syndication on BlogHer, you can put in your information, that goes to 17 people who go through it every week. Just keep sending it, they don't get mad at you, it's not personal. Even if they don't write back, they might be filing it somewhere when they have a hole. Never feel bad.

Susan: I've been freelancing full-time for a year, and I've learned this year. There's this editor at O, I've been talking with, so it's going to be happening. Don't say "I'm sorry to bother you again.." It sounds sad. Don't use emoticons. It's fine, it's their job to find content. Use the phrase, "Just checkin' in." Which means, I"m going to nag you again. And it's fine." 3 months is good, they look that far ahead. You can tell when you check in if they're still interested. Set your calendar for another 3 months from there to check in with them again. I'll nag someone once a week.

Question: How long should you give someone? When you don't get a response, how long should you give them before you send it? Is there a difference between online and print?

Susan: Any encouragement, they mean it. Hit "reply" if they say anything nice to you, stay with that thread. Keep at it. They ignore you if they're not interested. Which isn't bad, they aren't just interested in THAT piece. Online, wait like a week. A monthly, wait a week or two three. Follow up and stay on top it. It's a good thing to follow up with email.

Rita: As an editor, there's so many people emailing you. I don't remember anyone. I forget everyone's face. Be kind to the editor, she won't remember you. It's not a bad thing, but hit reply so they know they talked to you and be a good reminder. If you start a new one, she may think she never talked to you. Say "Do you think you will use this?" It's fine to say "it's been long enough, you are professional. Sometimes it's fine to say you sent it to multiple editors. Don't send it to Vanity Fair and a free newspaper -- the free one will take it sooner. Don't do that. I have a specific technique, send it to the same tier, follow up a few weeks, then go up to the next tier down. Send it to multiple people. Even agents will not expect that, but they do expect you to tell them.

Rita: If you have no clips, send it to local. Use that, then go regional. If you get a regional hit, then go national. Once you get a national hit, you can do whatever you want.

Question: Patrica Patton. I sent mine to someone, it's been 3 months, it's a national thing one, they said they'd pay. And they backtracked. She said she was busy.

Susan: Give it another month and try again, and if not, then move on.

Rita: If someone follows up with me 2 or 3 times, I feel professionally bad. If you have gotten to that point of e-mailing back an forth, they will feel bad. They're people too. I would wonder about an editor who can't get it together after a couple of months.

Question: Do I need a contract if a specific price is mentioned in an email?

Rita: You can ask for one, but if you have an email, that's pretty solid. It's very difficult as a freelancer to get people to pay.

Susan: I spend most of my time bugging people to pay.

Rita: Value your time too, even if you've never been published. Cut bait and go.

Jennifer: It depends on how much you want it too. You're not going to lose anything if you move on. Don't feel personally bad if they say they're too busy.

Question: My question is about anthology. i want to to write for them, but don't know where to start. Do you write the essay first, or is there an anthology marketplace by subject?

Susan: Write your essay first. I have seen call-outs. It's hard to write for an anthology.

Jennifer: I will google personal anthology essay submission. Sometimes you see a topic and think "I can do that." It depends if you can connect with that. I've found good stuff by googling with key words.

Rita: Also check community boards. www.shewrites.com has a good forum.

Question: I'm not a writer by trade, I write comedy in a verbal form and trying to be a blogger. I write the way I tell you a joke and they say it's not right. I use …. for pauses. Is it important to make sure your writing style matches what you are doing? Or can I do my own voice?

Rita: Stalk Ann Imig. She does conversion back and forth from speaking comedy and writing. Read people who you love, who are funny. Some things are just not funny in writing. You probably need more words.