Personal Essay Tips from Samantha Ducloux Waltz (Is that a great name or what?)

Samantha Ducloux Waltz had been threatening to attend the reading series I host, The Northwest Author Series, for months, when she finally showed up two weekends ago to hear poet extraordinaire, Sage Cohen. While there she was so kind as to remind me that I had hit her up for some tips on writing personal essays for this blog…like weeks ago. (Where is my head sometimes?)

Samantha was one of the first fellow writer folks I met after moving to Oregon in 2004. If I am remembering correctly we both volunteered to sit in the Willamette Writers booth at Wordstock, Portland’s Annual Festival of the Book. Since then, it seems like I hear repeated announcements about Samantha’s personal essay publications. Her essays appear in the Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup series, as well as a number of other anthologies, and have won several awards.

Here’s those tips she shared with me that I have been keeping all to myself…

If the question is how to write a better essay then I think the keys are:

  • Strong techniques that we use in fiction like characterization, dialogue, time, place, rich language, etc. — the old show don’t tell.
  • A good idea that is developed through scene. At the heart of an essay is a strong, universal concept.
  • I always, always, always run my work by other writers. Have someone critique your works who can give good feedback. I’m amazed, sometimes, that something isn’t clear. Or something falls flat. In my head it was so wonderful.
  • Keep trying. I wrote a couple of things for A Cup of Comfort before I got anything accepted. And I get rejections right along with everyone else so I have to keep trying along with the new kids on the block.
  • Study your markets. The tone of my Chicken Soup pieces is different from the tone of my Cup of Comfort pieces. Those aimed at anthologies not part of series are harder to analyze, of course. Redbook has a very distinctive tone. So does Newsweek. I’ve been in Christian Science Monitor, a wonderful market for the personal essay, but I’ve been rejected too.

The markets that pay me wouldn’t buy my groceries. A Cup of Comfort pays $100.00. Chicken Soup pays $200.00. The other anthologies I’m in pay between $50.00 and $100.00. But I love being in books.

And yet the markets I write for are very competitive. A Cup of Comfort volume uses forty to fifty stories selected from 3,000. Chicken Soup has more stories in a volume, but may have more submissions.

Getting started is the hardest. Getting that first publication. Then you start getting calls for submissions from editors and you get to go to the top of the slush pile.

If the question is how to make more money, there are some magazines that pay a whole lot more. Redbook and Newsweek would be examples. I haven’t tried these markets yet, but it is one of my New Year’s resolutions to do so.

Samantha’s website is Paths of Thought.


4 Responses to “Personal Essay Tips from Samantha Ducloux Waltz (Is that a great name or what?)”

  1. 1 Mommy Writes April 30, 2008 at 10:09 am

    I was so glad to see this post this morning (plus the Gold Star post) 🙂 As a former Writer Mama student (woo hoo) I hope you will pick up some future books and see my name also. Since I took your class, two of my essays have been selected as finalists for A Cup of Comfort – one will be published this September and the other is still in the finalist stage. Another four essays will be published in an anthology (3) and magazine (1) in the next few months. Thanks for your wonderful and ongoing inspiration and resources.

  2. 2 Abby May 2, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Great tips! I’ve submitted to these anthologies often & keep hoping for an acceptance. Persistence is key, too, since I have sold some essays on the 5th (or 9th or 14th) try.

  3. 3 Mommy Writes January 1, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Janine: I’m weeks — months — sometimes years behind. I operate like Horton the Elephant. I wanted to thank you for your response to my personal essay comments in Writer Mama, and to tell you I’m looking forward to being in Writer Mama together. I hope your move went well. Keep writing — I enjoy your energetic voice. Samantha Ducloux Waltz

  4. 4 Abby January 1, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Abby: I’m sorry I didn’t tell you months ago how much I appreciate your response in Writer Mama to my comments about writing personal essays. I appreciate the reminder that persistence pays off. We all need it when a rejection arrives. (And they will. If we send ’em out, some will get published and some won’t. Unless, I suppose, we’re Anne LaMotte or Barbara Kingsolver.) And I want to tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I laughed when I read about Seasonal Activity Disorder. Ah yes, it was perfect. Again, thanks for your response. May 2009 bring health and happiness to your entire family and a truckload of writing contracts for you. Samantha Ducloux Waltz

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