Many highly respected, award-winning authors began as freelancer authors, writing narrative essays, and other articles, humorous or serious in nature. Narrative essays are drawn directly from the author’s real-life experiences but aren’t necessarily factual or accurate.
They often detail an experience or event and how it shaped the author on a personal level. For those of us who wish to earn actual money from writing, the narrative essay appeals to a broader audience than short stories, so more magazine editors are looking for them.
I have mentioned one of my favorite narrative essays before, 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by the late David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. It is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair. Wallace wrote it from his own point of view.
At the outset, Wallace tells us how he was born several hours’ drive from the fair but had never attended it. He was a slightly arrogant city boy without knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals.
In pursuit of his dream, Wallace left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back after graduating high school and college. He was overjoyed when he was assigned to report on the fair for Harpers. As a naïve young correspondent, he didn’t think about the fair beyond the fact that he was getting his first official press pass, making him a “real” reporter.
Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how it represents Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.
He was shocked and repelled by some aspects of showing farm animals in a fair. Raising and caring for hogs or sheep can be a dirty business and he was unprepared for the sights and smells.
But he saw the joy and pride people have in their livestock and their skills. By connecting with their enjoyment, he was able to write a narrative that made his name as an author.
But just what is an essay in the first place? The primary purpose of an essay is to offer readers thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to have some idea of the craft of writing.
That means we must understand and write to the publishing industry’s standards of grammar and mechanics.
A narrative essay is a story that begins with an experience. You know how that experience began and ended, so you must plan how you want your account to be perceived. You must develop both content and structure.
Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has
- an introduction,
- a plot,
- a setting,
- a climax,
- a conclusion.
It’s not a memoir, so we can’t ramble on. Authors must choose words that convey the intended mood concisely.
We must be intentional with how we phrase things because narrative essays often present profound and (sometimes) uncomfortable ideas. A skillful writer can offer these concepts in a way that the reader feels connected to the story, even if they disagree.
A good essay is a conversation in an entertaining form, one that expresses far more than mere opinion.
Names should be changed, for your protection, as narrative essays give readers the author’s personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way.
An honest narrative essay contains an author’s opinions. Sometimes those sentiments are not glowing accolades.
Those who write narrative essays can make a living because literary magazines have open calls for them. Editors and publishers are seeking well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics.
Some will pay well for first publication rights.
HOWEVER – if you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing.
Never submit anything less than your best work. After you have finished the piece, I suggest you set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:
- Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
- Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
- Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
- Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
- Dropped and missing words.
If you want to work as a freelance author, don’t be afraid to use your words – readers of narrative essays have a wide vocabulary. That said, never use jargon or technical terms that only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece in a publication geared for that segment of readers.
Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be bold. I enjoy reading works by authors who are adventurous in their prose.
And on that note, we must be realistic. At first, you will have trouble selling your work. This is because you haven’t gained a reputation yet, and your work might not appeal to the first editors you send it to.
If you put two people in a room and give them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, you’ll hear two different opinions about it. They probably won’t agree with you.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.
I always say this, but it is true: the way you handle critiques and rejections tells editors what kind of person you are to work with. Rejection gives you the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground.
- If an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.”
- If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.
When you receive that email of acceptance, do that happy dance, and don’t be shy about it.
There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=1093971404 (accessed July 12, 2022).