How to assign and edit a personal essay without being a soul-sucking monster

Backstory: This is a document I wrote for my colleagues at CNN when I was leaving last fall. I edited the First Person essay series, and having bared my soul a time or ten in that format on that platform, I wanted to make sure that my successors knew the proper care and feeding of the writers. In light of today’s Slate story on the perils of personal essay writing, I’m sharing it publicly.

So you want to convince a colleague to bare their soul in front of the universe. Good for you! And good luck!

Pick your writers carefully. You will be pitched. OH, you will be pitched — but as you well know, this kind of story isn’t for everyone. As a gut check, can you see yourself feeling OK dealing with this person while they’re crying? Because they will cry. So will you.

Let them lead on the topic because holy crap, will they surprise you with a thing that defines them to them, but you never knew about them — or never thought they’d talk about.

But emphasize that this is a collaboration. You have their hand every step of the way, including that they have the right to pull the plug up until the very last minute. This may be the scariest thing they’ve ever done and they need to know that you will keep them safe — may include letting them know when something is genuinely TMI, or when they actually need to rip the scab open a little further. Make sure their boss knows what’s going on.

Suggest that they see a therapist possibly before and definitely after, and make sure that the people in their lives (especially any who are being mentioned) are OK with what’s happening. They may not be, and that’s actually OK. People in our lives (especially parents) have a vested interest in keeping the version of us that they know pristine in their heads. They might not want to understand their loved ones as complex people in pain — it ain’t about them.

Emphasize to the writer that this is them taking control of the story. It’s their life and they get to frame it. They are penning the definitive version. They win.

That first draft is never the last. It’s a process that may take a week or two, but it’s great not to leave it open-ended because the fear factor kicks in on these more than most.

Shoot a note to [art director] and she’ll walk them through the image process.

A day or two before, have a phone call where you go through what happens next. Which is basically that their world will explode. The piece goes up and everyone in their life comes to them to congratulate, apologize and work out their own guilt and issues. It’s intense. Let ‘em know that it’s OK to tell people that they appreciate all the commentary/well-wishes/etc. but they need a little time to process. These go up on Fridays, which is good for buffer. They should plan something really nice for Saturday/Sunday — a pedicure or dinner with a friend or a really good nap. And consider taking Monday off.

The day it goes up, check in a bunch. I have a 100% “I’ve been crying at my desk/in the bathroom/in the Starbucks line” rate thus far. It’s cool, because it’s all been tears of release and joy. But when it goes live is good, then a time or two later in the day. I send flowers, but I’m sure hugs and booze are good, too.

I like to make sure they they have a hand in the title and all the social language, and have a discussion about if they want to open up the comments or not. Most probably won’t, but that’s totally fine — the point gets made.

Oh and, I ask past participants if they’d be willing to talk it through if the person is nervous. I know [redacted and redacted] are, and I suspect [redacted] is. I definitely am. There’s an unofficial “First Person” club and we wear it like a badge of honor.