Linda Apple has the recipe for what it takes to get a personal essay published in the famous, Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She’s published stories in thirteen editions and teaches a workshop titled “Inspire! Writing from the Soul!” Her book by the same name also instructs writers on how to share themselves through personal writing. Join us as we pick this expert’s brain and learn how to create a piece of our souls on paper.
1.You’ve been published in several editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. What has led you to have so much success writing for this market?
I believe there are a couple of reasons:
Technically, I use the creative nonfiction style of writing. Anthologies like Chicken Soup insist on verifiable truth in their stories; however, they like them written with fiction techniques such as description, internalization, emotion, dialogue, and an observation, epiphany, or simple lesson at the end.
The other reason is my motivation. I am a strong believer in writing for my readers. If any of my experiences can help or simply bring a smile to their day, I feel successful.
2.What makes a personal essay different than an article or essay?
Simply because it is personal.
That said, it can be confusing to tell a difference. All three are very similar in style because they are all nonfiction, are informative, and the author offers a point of view. Where they differ is subtle. For instance:
Essays are usually written to convince and are more formal. The author introduces a premise or thesis. Then in the body of the essay writes the main points and sub-points, elaborating on each. Finally, the writer concludes, summing up the points and offering his or her point of view.
Articles are written to inform, not convince. The writer often uses the creative nonfiction style. Articles are not structured and developed like essays. The paragraphs are shorter and contain references and links as a way to end the piece instead of a conclusion.
Personal essays are what I call conversational—very informal. They are written to share life experiences with the readers. The goal is to entertain, inform, and to offer the wisdom gleaned from the experience. These essays are sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious, sometimes thoughtful.
“Decide what you want your readers to ‘take away’ from your experience and keep that in mind as you write.”
3.In workshops and in your book, Inspire: Writing From the Soul, you teach other writers how to write personal essays. What are two important tips you always tell writers?
First, write for your readers. How will your life experience benefit them? Decide what you want your readers to “take away” from your experience and keep that in mind as you write.
Second, write conversationally. Imagine yourself sitting across the table from your readers enjoying a cup of coffee together. This keeps our stories from being “preachy” or condescending. Conversational writing is comfortable for our readers, and they enjoy the warmth of our words.
4.How can writers find markets for their personal essays?
Read writers’ magazines like Writers Digest. They always have market opportunities in them. Of course, Writer's Market is a great resource. I recommend you purchase a current copy; however, they are expensive. If you can’t afford one, go to your local bookstore, grab it off the shelf, get a cup of coffee, and peruse through it. Finally, go to writers’ e-zines, blogs, groups, and conferences. They are a wealth of information on opportunities.
5.Do you generally start with an idea from your personal life and then find a market to fit your idea, or do you start with a theme such as Chicken Soup for Teachers?
Both. When I saw the call out for Chicken Soup’s Thanks Dad book, I thought back to my childhood, looked through a few pictures, and saw one of Dad helping me learn to ride a bike. Having sold to Chicken Soup many times, I’ve learned to not go with the obvious and tried to think of a new angle. My dad is actually my stepfather, and I thought of how he wasn’t there for the “firsts” others think are important—first smile, tooth, word, step. But he was there when I needed him most. They bought it! I also try to keep thoughts written down, especially after coming through a season of failure, sorrow, or trials. I write about the experience and what I learned. I also keep notes on the funny things that happen. Humor sells!
By nature, I’m a teacher, and I like to use ideas from my personal life to write about life’s lessons. Then, I try and find a market. I’ve been successful in the devotional market with these. I also use them in my blog, www.lindacapple.blogspot.com. While I’m not paid for this, the numerous reprint permissions I receive are very satisfying.
“There is so much that goes into choosing a story. You would be surprised how many stories are submitted that are about the same experience...”
6.If someone wants to break into the personal essay market, how would you advise them to begin?
I’d enter contests! This helps in many ways. It is a great motivator to write. If you win—great! If you don’t—and you are wise—while you are recovering from disappointment, you will rewrite and improve it! This helped me in my early days of writing. Everything I’ve ever entered in a contest—whether it won or not—has been published.
Now, I rarely enter contests because they distract me from my other writing. But if a contest offers a critique service, I may enter it as a way of testing the waters to see how it is received.
Also, submit to Chicken Soup-type books. Don’t be discouraged if your story isn’t accepted. There is so much that goes into choosing a story. You would be surprised how many stories are submitted that are about the same experience—such as in the Fathers and Daughters book, Chicken Soup was covered over in fathers walking daughters down the aisle stories. Tip: write about something unusual.
7.What makes a “good” or “publishable” personal essay?
Stories that put readers in the scene, makes them feel what the writer felt, and leaves them better for having read it.
“Use the creative nonfiction style.”
8.Is there a formula or certain format for this type of writing?
Use the creative nonfiction style. For instance, write one definitive scene—think “snapshot” rather than movie. Use the senses to unlock the readers’ memory and connect them to the story. Include internalization, what you were thinking and feeling. This adds intimacy to your story. Dialogue is a good way to add information without weighing the story down, and then give your readers something to apply personally or improve the quality of their lives.
I begin by defining inspirational writing. Most feel it is “religious” writing, and that is not always the case. I help the writer to dig deep in their personal life for material, then teach how to write these experiences in the creative nonfiction style. (Are you sick of those three words yet?) I have a few common errors tips—some of which actually made it in the first edition of my book—quite embarrassing and humbling I might also add! Then I end it with encouraging words to dispel the reasons we feel we can’t write.
10.Do you receive a one-time payment or royalties for your Chicken Soup for the Soul publications? Do you do book signings where you sell these books for profit?
Over the years, it has changed. Presently, Chicken Soup pays $200 for a story plus ten books, $100 for each devotional plus ten books. These books can be sold at your speaking or writing events. They also offer a discounted price to the writer to sell at back-of-room settings.
11.Besides Chicken Soup for the Soul, what are some other paying markets for this type of writing?
Country Woman magazine: http://www.countrywomanmagazine.com/
American Baby magazine: http://www.parents.com/american-baby-magazine/ Guidelines: http://www.parents.com/parents-magazine/writers-guidelines/
Mature Living magazine: http://www.lifeway.com/
More magazine: http://www.more.com/
Cup of Comfort is being retired by Adam’s Media and is no longer accepting submissions. That said, Chicken Soup for the Soul puts out so many books that it is a full time job keeping up with them!
12.How did you get started writing personal essays?
When I first started writing, I tried to write toward the market. I studied magazines and tried to write along the lines of what they printed. I also entered a lot of contests. It wasn’t until Chicken Soup had a story call out for Nurse's Soul that I wrote a personal essay about my mother who was a nurse at that time. They bought it. From there, I wrote personal essays for contests and started winning. I continued to submit to Chicken Soup books, and they kept buying them. I realized this was my niche.
13.What is your favorite subject to write about? Have you had more success with certain topics or subjects than others?
My favorite subjects are lessons learned from nature, humorous happenings, my faith, my family, and wisdom found in quotes. All of these have served me well.
14.What are common mistakes you see when you read unpublished personal essays?
The best way I can describe this is a piece of black words on white paper. No dimension, no depth, just a report on the facts. For example: Dad taught me to ride my bike. He ran behind me to keep me from falling, tiring him out. This is flat.
Readers want a word picture: Dad bought me my first bike and taught me how to ride it. I can still hear his feet pounding behind me. But when he let go, I’d fall. He would be a few yards back, hunched over bracing his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He’d smile, face red and glistening with sweat, and say, “You did good, Sis. Let’s try again.”
In the above example, I use the senses, I “show tired” instead of “tell tired,” and use dialogue. This gives it dimension and tells a story.
“Rubbing shoulders with writers does not make you a writer.”
15.If you had to give writers only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t give up! Keep writing! It is so easy to get discouraged in this business. Remember that you are dealing with personal opinions and preferences. One day you will do as I did and strike a chord with yourself and then others. Don’t be “that kind” of writer who just talks writing and only goes to writers’ groups and conferences to socialize. Rubbing shoulders with writers does not make you a writer.
16.What is your writing routine like?
I usually begin around 10:00 a.m. and write till noonish. Break for lunch, and then write until 4:00 p.m. THAT SAID, I am what I call a “writerfly.” I can only sit for twenty to thirty minutes at a time, and I’ve got to get up and flit to another flower. So, I’ll go outside or read a few chapters in a book for about fifteen minutes and then go back to my chair. The important lesson here is GO BACK TO THE CHAIR! For more on our writing elements, go to:
See if you can find your element!
17.What gave you the idea to write the book Inspire and create a workshop to go with it?
After I’d sold several stories to Chicken Soup, writers kept asking me for my secret. Their interest inspired me to teach workshops. Then one day Dan Case asked me to write a book about it.
18.How do you keep track of your ideas for personal essays?
I keep folders in my word program. When something happens or a thought occurs, I’ll just jot it down in one of them.
“Out of respect, anytime I write about people and use their name, I get permission.”
19.Do your family and friends make it into your stories? Do you have to get their permission first?
All the time! With five children, their significant others, and seven grandchildren—plus a husband who sticks ice cream cones in his ear (funny story just waiting to be written!)—not to mention my own antics, I’m never without material! My friends are not safe either, I might add.
Out of respect, anytime I write about people and use their name, I get permission. I give them a copy of what I’ve written for their approval. When I submit to Chicken Soup if I can write the piece without using a name, I do. They will want anyone whose name is mentioned to sign a permission release form.
20.What’s the best part about writing personal essays?
It is a way to redeem the negative events in our lives by sharing our experience and how we overcame with others in similar struggles. Years ago, my first husband left our daughter and me. I grieved over the time we had been together. It seemed as if those years of my life had been wasted. But when I started writing about that experience, how I overcame the rejection of divorce, and what I learned as a way of helping others, it gave purpose to those years.
Personal essays also give us a voice with future generations. Long after we are gone, our words will live and hopefully encourage people a hundred plus years from now.
Find out more about Linda by visiting her website:
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. She is a columnist, instructor, and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Books page in The News-Gazette and a writer for AOL’s City’s Best St. Louis page. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians.
She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911, and is an instructor for the Children’s Writers’ Coaching Club and the WOW! Women On Writing Classroom. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com.
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