Should Journalists Consider Personal Essays?
The personal essay has become an industry darling. With its combination of relevance, ease and popular demand, writers may start considering their personal lives as fair game for pieces— but should journalists turn to the personal essay?
Traditionally in journalism, objectivity has been considered sacrosanct. A good piece would require extensive reporting, multiple sources and a ruthless extermination of personal opinion. The use of first person would be lazy at best and dangerous at worst.
However, the astronomic rise of the personal essay has called that into question. The form relies entirely on a subjective view; what matters is the narrator, his or her interpretation of events and their voice. Emotional punch is as important as accuracy.
Journalism centers around raising awareness of today’s issues, and as humans, journalists are inevitably impacted by the news stories we report on. As writers, we can render these stories well, and easily, as an essay. It begs a question for journalists: given the opportunity, is the personal essay a form to adopt?
“The personal essay is one of the hottest kinds of writing,” says Jennifer Mattson, a former journalist for CNN, CBS and GlobalPost, who also teaches personal essay writing at New York University at the School of Professional Studies. “There’s a huge readership for this.”
Personal essays appeal to readers partly because they’re easy to read and partly because they often reveal embarrassing secrets. For outlets, they‘re inexpensive to produce and generate clicks, turning them into an industry staple. Top-tier outlets now pay for personal essays: Vox, Buzzfeed, The Guardian and The New York Times all solicit first-person pieces.
Accordingly, Mattson doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea that personal essays are a throwaway form of journalism.
“There are places like Modern Love, which is considered the most coveted place to get a personal essay published and there’s some great writing there. Many of those personal essays have launched people’s book careers.”
“What you have to do is write a great story,” She advises. “A great personal essay is a combination high quality writing and adheres to the truth of whatever happened.”
When asked if personal essays were looked down upon in editorial spheres as a whole, Mattson said, “It really depends on the writing.”
“You can have really well-thought out, smart personal essays or pieces where the writing is weak, that tend to be salacious.”
The personal essay, because of its inherent bias and tendency towards the scandalous, is vulnerable to becoming journalism’s form of reality television. Done incorrectly or carelessly, it has the potential to tarnish a reputation.
xoJane released a torrent of fury after publishing an essay in which the writer called her mentally ill friend’s death ‘a blessing’. Another piece, considered racially tone-deaf by readers, left the writer traumatized, the publication lambasted (and elicited an apology from the editor.)
Additionally, although most everyone finds their lives interesting, writers may face a mountain of rejection if their particular brand of interesting isn’t applicable to the wider world. “Not every story is worth writing about in a personal essay,” admits Mattson.
Emotionally, it can be hard to get a piece of reporting turned down by an editor. It is harder still to submit a personal story only to be told it isn’t quite newsworthy.
Should you publish a personal essay?
Journalists considering publishing a personal essay should run through a list of questions before adopting this somewhat controversial form.
Is it useful?
Ask yourself — is your story relevant to anyone outside of your circle? Is it harmful? Is your take on it sensitive to others’ experience?
Difficult though it may be, try to hold your essay up to the standard you would any other work: is this story balanced and serving a greater good?
Are you okay with it being attached to your name: socially and professionally?
Only in her late twenties, Natasha Chernier submitted an essay to Jezebel about a sexual relationship with her biological father. The essay went viral, and though Chernier’s life seems to have moved on, typing her name in Google immediately retrieves coverage of the essay in The Daily Mail, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post.
This isn’t to say that Chernier made a mistake, but it does highlight the possibility of your career being pinned to your personal life.
“If it’s not something you want the world to know about, you probably shouldn’t publish it for the world.” — Jennifer Mattson
Before you send in a personal essay, imagine a future employer doing a quick scan finding your piece and reading it. Or if you mention anyone you care about in your piece, how do you feel about them seeing themselves referenced (even if not directly by name)?
“If you are writing about things that are personal and somewhat private, the question is whether or not you feel comfortable with everyone seeing it,” advises Mattson. “Because once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.”
Are you ready for the fallout?
Journalists can be sensitive about their work; even in research articles, a lot of a writer’s personal time, connections, relationships and feelings can be invested. Writing about yourself adds an extra element of vulnerability.
Once you publish your story, it is no longer your just yours. It becomes subject to public scrutiny and comment. Many times, writers are flooded with messages of support. Sometimes, the the opposite.
Mattson advises approaching publishing a personal essay the way you would publishing something on social media — understanding that everyone will see it, and not everyone will like it.