I meet a lot of writers who want to write essays.
Scratch that. They want to be paid when they write essays. Now there's nothing wrong with wanting to write—and get paid for writing—essays. However, if you're an avid reader of popular newsstand magazines, you know that most of them aren't packed with essays. Many don't run essays at all; and the magazines that do run one essay each issue, usually on the back page and often from a writer who's well known to the magazine and/or the reading public.
I like to encourage students and not squash their writerly dreams, so I gently suggest that they turn some of their essay ideas into something I call a "reported essay." A reported essay reads like a magazine article—you've got your lede, your nut graf, original reporting and quotes from sources and experts—but the article includes those elements of essay writing that writers find appealing; the personal anecdotes, funny stories, teaching moments, and/or resolutions to situations that can help other readers.
Here are a couple articles I've written that I consider "reported essays":
Deciding to Have One Child
Cookery Books: Britain's Gift to America
I could have chosen essay form to detail my decision to limit our family size to one child or written a funny essay about how I travel to England with an empty suitcase to fill with cookbooks, but I've grown to love the marriage between personal experience and reportage.
Why should you consider reported essays?
Magazines buy more reported essays than essays.
Go to your local newsstand and flip through a couple consumer magazines. They're typically filled with stories written by journalists and freelancers who've injected a bit of themselves into their articles. These types of articles are staples for a lot of magazines, whereas these same magazines may buy one (or none!) straight essay for each issue.
There's just a bigger market for reported essays over essays with no reporting.
Competition to place essays is fierce.
It's simple: you've got a lot of writers wanting to sell essays and a limited number of outlets that will buy those essays. If you want to sell more work, you need to broaden your horizons.
You can sell a reported essay on proposal.
If you want to sell an essay, you must write the essay first then send it in to the magazine. It's one of the rare instances where a writer 'writes the article first" rather than querying for it. Why? You can't tell the editor, "I'll write a touching essay about what it meant to find my birth father after 30 years of searching." He needs to read your 500 words, to feel what you went through during your search, to see how you changed through the experience, and to find some emotional connection to your story that will not only resonate with him, but will elicit an emotional response with his readers. Only by reading the finished product can he learn if your story is, indeed, touching.
If you reslant your idea and position it as a reported essay, however, you can query for it. You might open your query with a brief overview of how you found your birth father, then explain to the editor that your proposed article will show how three other adults found their birth parents through social media sites as you did, as well as provide tips for other readers in their search for birth parents. That's just one tack you could take; there are dozens of other angles you could consider.
The material would be better served in an article.
I've read a lot of essays in my career, many of them beautiful, tear-provoking, or hilarious. However, the ones I see as a teacher usually don't deliver that emotional "bang" an essay demands. If you consistently struggle with this aspect of essay writing (I'm raising my hand here; essay writing demands digging deep into yourself, and frankly, I get squeamish around my own blood and guts), you may find a much better match in the form of a reported essay, where your ace reporting can bridge emotional gaps.
I'm not saying that you should give up essay writing, or even suggest that the reported essay is an "easy way out." If you've got a story that would make a wonderful essay, go for it. On the other hand, if you want to increase your income or end a losing streak on essay sales, consider adding the reported essay to your arsenal.
Are you an essay writer and would you consider this other form of writing? Do you enjoy writing reported essays? Add your comments below.
(This article previously appeared on the Renegade Writer blog, which is no longer publishing.)