on writing

How to Write for
The New York Times Magazine

These days it’s easy to submit an essay to the Lives page.  The submission email address is lives@nytimes.com, found in the page footer (print and online).  In 2001, when I pitched No Tears for Frankie,it was a secret.

Below are my tips for scoring a Lives byline. I make no guarantees for publication except one: If you don’t try, I guarantee it won’t happen.

1. Tell a story from your heart that you’ve been yearning to tell.  One that simply won’t go away.  You know which one.

2. Write it as if you were writing a letter to someone.  Dear ______, and let it rip.

3. Write by hand.  It’s more organic. Flesh to the page connects more readily to your story’s truth.

4. Keep writing until you finish.  If this story is one you’ve been burning to tell, it’ll pour from your pen and shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. OK an hour, max.  Any longer means you are not writing.  I wrote the first draft of No Tears for Frankie in 10 minutes. The story wouldn’t quiet down until I put it on the page.

5. Do not read what you have just written.

6. Seriously.  Don’t read it.

7. Put your story away for two weeks.  It’s baking.

8. While your story bakes, read the Lives page of The New York Times Magazine, an essay each week for a month.  Enjoy.

9. When two weeks are up, pull out your story and read it.

10. Keep what you like, what rings true and reads smoothly with authenticity.  Trash the rest.

11. Find three people you trust to be candid with care about your story.  Ask, what’s memorable? What resonates?  How does it make them feel?  Anyone who focuses on fixing your grammar or spelling is not the best choice of reader.  That’s a role for dictionaries and style guides; consult them after you’ve learned how your story rests on the human heart.

12. Use what you learn from your readers to add to or subtract from your story as you see fit.

13. Bake again for a week.

14. Read your story out loud.  You’ll catch bits you hadn’t noticed before.  Clunky wording, notions untrue, extras that don’t add. Out loud, writing falls differently on the ear than when read silently.

15. Repeat steps 12, 13 and 14 until you hear nothing you want to change, you love it so.

16. Is your story under 1,000 words?  That is the length of the Lives page essay.  If not, continue to read aloud and trim until you get there.

17. Email your essay to lives@nytimes.com.

18. No matter what happens, here’s what matters: you did it and you ROCK!

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