Starting an Essay

Sorry for the radio silence, friends! I just got back from my big Patagonian adventure.

Los Torres in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, by Rachel Rosolina

It was more incredible than I could have dreamed.

One goal of this trip was to write about it once I got home. Here’s a rough look at my process. A lot of it happens simultaneously or gets cycled back to.

Make Connections

Because I’m antsy, I even started a Google Doc of ideas before leaving. It is a holding place for various ideas that have connected with this trip in my head. On the list of topics:

  • Forest bathing (walking through the woods to relieve anxiety)
  • Travel anxiety
  • Connections with nature
  • Snippets from the trip (using my journal as a huge reference point)


Once I have a rough set of connections, I write about each of them and see where they lead me. I write a lot and delete a lot. Kill your darlings, as they say. At this stage, I can generally start to see what the main point of the essay is—and, honestly, it’s not always what I thought it would be. Finding that core helps everything else fall into place.

Pick a Structure

Sometimes the structure is obvious for a piece. Most of the time it’s not. I often begin with my standard structure of a braided narrative using various strands from my connections list. It usually works best when scholarly or scientific knowledge is set next to more narrative text.

Another structure I’m considering is that of Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia. He has short bursts of narrative that seem completely separate from one another. These paragraphs reflect the sparseness of the scrub brush land, but still give you a wider picture of the region and the author.

Play with Sections

Using my sections, I arrange and rearrange within my structure (or choose a different structure altogether). Seeing how sections interact with one another is one of the magical parts of essay writing. Sometimes the space between two sections says exactly what you intended but couldn’t put into words.

EcoCamp with Nieto in the background by Rachel Rosolina

I hope this overview helps you as you play with narrative in essay form!


Modern Love: A Challenge

One of our all-time favorite columns to read is Modern Love from the New York Times. It is “a series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.” These nonfiction gems explore every facet of love imaginable, from romantic love to watching a parent grow old to giving up a baby for adoption to welcoming refugee families to a community. This collection of work gives love a shape that might surprise you.

Our challenge for you as we begin a new year and look toward Valentine’s Day is this: read a few of these essays (here are their top 10) and write your own. Who have you loved? Who have you lost? Tell us your stories!

So, here’s the deal:

  • Write an essay about love (be sure it is nonfiction) in under 1500 words.
  • Send your essay to
  • We’ll post it on the site!
  • Feel free to send as many as you like.

Friday Fun Facts: Publishing Essays, Stories, and Poems

Saturday Evening PostI realized earlier this month that it has been four years (!) since I last submitted an essay anywhere. To break the spell, I’ve already sent out one new essay and plan to send out more in the coming weeks. Before I could send my piece out, though, I had to give myself a refresher on how to properly submit to a journal or magazine. I thought I’d share these tips with you as well!

  • visit this web-site Make sure your piece fits the literary magazine. Lit mags often have themes even if they take all three genres, so don’t send your story about animals to a journal focusing on women’s rights.
  • Full Report Double check the reading period. Most lit mags have a window of a few months each year during which they accept submissions. Don’t send things outside this window.
  • Know whether the lit mag allows simultaneous submissions. Submitting simultaneously means you are submitting the same piece to several lit mags. Some allow this, and others don’t.
  • Keep your cover letter concise. The cover letter is not a place for you to tell the lit mag all about your piece. Your piece is for that. In the cover letter, note the name of the piece, the genre, and the word count if they request it. Also note whether you’re submitting multiple places simultaneously and that you will alert them if the piece is picked up elsewhere. Include a short publication history if you’ve got one. I often list my MFA in creative nonfiction, when and where I graduated, and the other places I’ve had essays published. That’s it. You don’t need to give them any more info.
  • Pay attention to their submission guidelines. For instance, be sure to include your contact info and word count on the first page if they require it.
  • Put your name in the running head of your document. Whether electronic or hard copy, it’s nice to have the author’s name on each page (unless the lit mag tells you otherwise).
  • Stay organized, and don’t expect to hear back for months. I suggest keeping a spreadsheet of where you’ve sent each essay, when you hear back, and what their answer is. That way you don’t duplicate and you get a feel for what each journal is looking for. Also, it takes a long time to get through the slush piles of manuscripts. You may not hear back from them for three to six months. Patience is a virtue!
  • Don’t let a no get you down. The first time I had an essay rejected, it was heartbreaking. After that, though, it stopped bothering me. Sometimes it takes sending the same piece out hundreds of times before you find the right match. Just keep going (and don’t take a four-year break like I did!).

Bonus advice!

Extra bonus advice!

  • Don’t forget that the time changes on Sunday!

Writing an Essay

Tell It SlantIn 2009, I received my master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. Through three years of workshops, I learned a lot about structure, audience, and craft. Despite these lessons, for me, one of the hardest parts of writing an essay has always been figuring out a topic. Or, to be honest, not giving up on the topic in the first three paragraphs.

A turning point in my schooling was a visit from the illustrious Brenda Miller, coauthor of Tell It Slant and author of Season of the Body, among other masterpieces. Reading these two very different books and working with her in a small group changed my approach to essay writing. Continue reading “Writing an Essay”