How to Pitch Personal Essays (to me, and Narratively Memoir)

Lilly Dancyger
Nov 27, 2017 · 5 min read

I’m always looking for new writers for Narratively’s Memoir section. If you’re interested in submitting your work, it will make both of our lives much easier if you’re crystal clear ahead of time about what exactly I’m looking for. So, here’s a detailed run-down of everything you need to know about sending me your work — everything I’m dying to see more of, and everything I never want to see again:

There’s a slew of publications out there that publish 800-word personal essays about every small interaction and realization in your day-to-day life; parenting anecdotes, romantic mishaps, chance encounters that all wrap up neatly with a hard-earned lesson at the end. Some of these are well-written and heartwarming. Please do not send me these.

I want the bigger, deeper stories. And by “bigger” I don’t necessarily just mean longer (though sometimes that too), I mean more ambitious. Intellectually ambitious, emotionally ambitious stories that come pouring out of your depths — not the pithy anecdotes you scrape off the top like a pudding skin. I want the stories you’ve been trying to figure out how to tell for your whole life. The complicated, messy, human stories that bring the reader deep into your life.

And I know every editor says this, but I want stories I haven’t seen before. I want surprising stories, ideas that turn common tropes on their head and twist them.

Here are a few of my favorite Narratively memoir stories, to give you a more specific idea of what I’m looking for:

In this reported memoir story, the writer goes searching for a specific Nazi that was a part of her family’s lore. This is an epic, investigative family story that required real out-in-the-world research. And through the process of that research, the writer’s perception of her family and herself changed. I would publish one of these every day if I could.

In this piece, the writer brings us inside her experience of growing up with facial disfigurement, and how it impacted her feelings of self-worth as a child and adolescent. This is not a self-pity story, or a medical curiosity story, but an honest narrative of coming to terms with oneself and defining beauty. It’s a gorgeous piece, and the standard to which I hold any submission that, on the surface, is about dealing with a medical issue.

This piece about a harrowing rescue mission brings readers inside the world of Search and Rescue teams—we love stories about unusual jobs like this because they allow readers access to an experience they might otherwise never get to know. This piece does double duty by painting a picture of the ins-and-outs of SAR, while also telling a gripping story about one specific mission.

This piece about mourning a sexually abusive father takes two worn-to-death tropes; the death of a parent and sexual abuse, and makes them both new again by combining them. It’s not your usual dead parent story, or your usual childhood trauma story. It’s complex, and intimate, and leaves room for doubt and imperfection. This is what I mean by something I haven’t seen before.

In case you’re wondering, here are some other done-to-death tropes that I never want to see again, with a few rare exceptions if you can really turn them upside down and make them new again:

-How a cancer diagnosis changed everything

-Parenting a sick child

-Death of a parent

-The story of your abortion

-The story of your time in the Peace Corps

-Your “Eat, Pray, Love” story about finding yourself while traveling

-The dissolution of a marriage you were sure was going to last

-How a certain food always reminds you of home

That’s not to say that you can’t write about any of those topics (or that they’re not incredibly important and meaningful experiences), but know that they’ve each been written about approximately 17 million times, and you’ll need to work extra hard to make them feel fresh and surprising.

What’s left, you ask? So, so much! There are no particular subjects I’m most interested in, though I do tend to enjoy a good “my secret past” or “dragging the family skeletons out of the closet” story. What draws me to a piece is not just the category of the subject matter, but how clear it is that you have something to say. Start with an experience that changed you — not something that slightly shifted your perception just enough to write a “huh, never thought of it that way” piece, but something that truly shattered and reconstructed your world. Or start with a question at the heart of who you are, something that’s obsessed and confounded you for as long as you can remember. That might be something about your identity and where you fit in the world, or your family and where you come from. Or… you tell me.

A few more important general notes:

Remember that the publication I work for is called Narratively. That should be a pretty good indication that I’m looking for narrative writing. To work for us, a story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with some compelling, active scenes throughout. This should truly be a story, not a diatribe, not a mediation, not a study. Definitely not an op-ed. A story.

Don’t send me time-sensitive pitches. I don’t care about news pegs like Father’s Day or Christmas or National Cupcake Day. I especially don’t care about them if you send me a story that’s pegged to one of these dates expecting a three-day turnaround. Most of our stories spend 4–8 weeks in production, so keep that in mind if you’re pitching something tied to a holiday or an anniversary — and know that most of our stories don’t have news pegs at all, so there’s never a need to force one that’s not really there. (But by all means feel free to send me stories related to topics that are on everyone’s minds — guns, healthcare, reproductive rights — stories that are timely because they’re topical, as opposed to stories that are pegged to a specific event.)

Don’t send me reported pitches. Those should go through Narratively’s other Submittable channels, which you can find here.

The nitty gritty:

Pay: Yes, we pay for all published work. The rate for personal essays starts at $300, and can go up from there if it’s really epic, if it includes reporting, etc.

Pitches vs. Submissions: We require completed submissions for personal essays. This is not because I enjoy making writers do extra work, but because so much of a personal essay is about tone and execution, and there’s no way to know ahead of time if it will work — especially if I’ve never worked with you before.

Word count: Aim for 2,000–3,000 words. There’s some flexibility there, but if it’s under 1,500 words or over 4,000, it probably won’t work for us.

If you’ve read all of this, hopefully you have a pretty good idea of whether that story you’re kicking around would be a good fit or not. If it belongs on my list of best Narratively memoir stories ever, email a detailed pitch or completed draft to lilly @ narrative (dot) ly. (Important: Include “Narratively” in the subject line.)

Want to see more stories I love, and hear about it when I’m looking for something specific? Follow me on Twitter: @lillydancyger

And sign up for Memoir Monday, Narratively’s memoir newsletter, co-curated by Catapult, Tin House, the Rumpus, Longreads, Granta, and Guernica.

Lilly Dancyger

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BURN IT DOWN (Seal Press ’19) | Editing essays @Narratively & @CatapultStory, books @barrelhouse | Freelance editor for hire: