Since 2019 I’ve been working with Reckon Women to elevate Southern women’s voices. Each week we publish an original personal essay by a woman with ties to the South in the Reckon Women Voices column on ReckonSouth.com. Many of the pieces are also featured in newspapers across the region and even throughout the country. (One recent piece landed in a newspaper in Syracuse, New York!)
If you’ve been wanting to submit a story for Reckon Women Voices but you’re not sure where to start, here are my top tips for writing your story. (If you’re not a Southern gal, you can still use these tips to write personal stories to pitch to other publications.)
Look within and look around.
When I encourage the Southern women of the See Jane Write community to submit a story for Reckon Women they often say, “But I don’t know what to write about.” To that I say, look within and look around. The most compelling stories are those about transformation. Look within and ask yourself what transformation you’ve recently experienced. Write about that. But also look around. Consider your reader and be sure to write your story in a way that will be useful to her, whether it’s inspiring, educational, entertaining, or all of the above.
And stop trying to think of a topic that’s never been written about. EVERY topic has been written about. But not by you. Your personal story will make the subject matter fresh.
One of my own pieces for Reckon Women that I’m most proud of is an essay about how breast cancer affected my self-esteem. There are countless essays out there about breast cancer and about self-esteem but those other essays aren’t MY story.
And I wrote the essay so that it would be inspiring for any woman, whether she’s battled breast cancer or not.
Say one freaking thing! Don’t try to tell your whole life story in one essay or explore every single facet of what it means to be a woman in the South in 2021. FOCUS!
If you have trouble with focusing your writing, try this – write your headline first.
Before I wrote my piece on breast cancer and self-esteem, I wrote this title in my notebook: “How breast cancer ruined and restored my confidence.”
Figure out what overall point you’re trying to make and sum that up in the title of your piece. If you can’t sum up your essay in a headline, it’s probably because you’re doing too much, boo.
Related Reading: How to Write a Good Personal Essay
Know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
While it’s fine to do some freewriting to get words on the page, once it’s time to edit you need to give your story some structure. Personal essay writing is tough because you have to be both concrete and concise. You want to follow the advice of “show don’t tell” and add scenes to your piece. But with limited space, you also must hurry up and get to the point.
An outline can help you do both. Your outline is your map or better yet your GPS. But Siri can’t help you get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re trying to go. That’s why it’s important to know the point you’re trying to make and the transformation you’re trying to demonstrate.
Once you’ve figured that out, ask yourself why this transformation was needed in the first place. Who were you or what were you struggling with before the transformation? Start your story here, then take us into the scene or scenes that sparked the transformation, your ah-ha moment. And finally, paint the picture of what life is like now that you’ve had this revelation.
My essay on breast cancer and confidence started with one simple line from my journal: “I miss my eyebrows.” Losing my eyebrows – a side effect of chemo – crushed my self-esteem. But scrolling through old pictures of myself on my phone and realizing that, in spite of everything, I didn’t want to be pre-cancer Javacia, changed everything. Cancer had made me stronger and wiser and I was proud of the woman I’d become. That was my transformation, and it took me to the revelation of the final lines: “No, I still don’t feel pretty. But cancer has taught me that pretty is overrated.”
Learn more here about what kinds of essays we’re interested in for the Reckon Women Voices column and how to submit your story.