If there’s no such thing as a blog post, how do you explain all those rejections in your inbox?
We’re used to thinking of genres like the sections at a bookstore: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. The sections help guide readers toward the kind of books they want to read, but they aren’t very helpful to writers. You’re not going to have a lot of success if you try to publish a generic “nonfiction” book. Instead, you need to be more specific about the type of book that you’re writing. Is it a travel narrative? A cookbook? A guide for shaping eyebrows?
The term “blog post” is like those bookstore sections: useful for readers, but useless for writers. Writing a “blog post” is a great way to amass rejections, because the term oversimplifies an enormous category with many smaller sub-categories.
Academics studying genre theory eschew big bookstore categories like “blog post” in favor of much more narrowly-defined genres, because the more narrowly you can define a genre, the easier it is to figure out the rules of that genre. Once you’ve figured out those rules, you’re likelier to get happier news in your inbox.
Step 1: Identify a Genre
Writing without regard for a publication’s desired content is a great way to stay in the slush pile. If you want out of that pile, try identifying a genre.
Usually the accepted genres will be listed within a website’s submission guidelines (instructions, listicle, political satire, edgy personal narrative, advice for fledgling writers). Even if the guidelines suggest that a site is “open to anything, as long as it’s good,” some quick research will likely demonstrate otherwise. If there isn’t a clear set of genres listed in the submission guidelines, read the 20 most recent articles and make note of the genre of each. Identify which genres come up most often and tailor your submission accordingly.
In many cases you’ll also need to identify a subcategory or style. You may have written a hilarious account about what happened when you tried to order sushi for the first time, but the publication you are submitting to only accepts somber nonfiction stories about overcoming emotional trauma. While it’s true you’ve written a personal essay, you haven’t written the kind of personal essay the publication is known for.
Step 2: Collect Samples
You’ve decided you want to write a satirical list of rejected TV pilots, and you’ve found a website that accepts satirical lists! Great! But you’re still not ready to submit. Once you’ve clarified what you’ll be writing, it’s time to hunt for useful models.
Start with the website you’re submitting to and pick 5-10 examples. Then make a reverse outline of each one. Think of this as a little map of the piece that shows you how a writer got from start to finish. This step is crucial, because it helps you to identify features of your chosen genre that aren’t spelled out in the submission guidelines. The guidelines may specify that the site accepts humorous lists, but not that every list published in the last two years has exactly 11 items.
Once you have analyzed the examples from the site you’re submitting to, it’s time to look at examples of the same genre published on other websites, which can help you see how your chosen website sets itself apart.
Take all of the little maps you’ve made and develop a master map for that site.
Step 3: Pitch Into a Genre
Equipped with your new genre knowledge, you can start writing. Outline your own piece, using the master map you created for the publication you’re submitting to.
When you’re making a pitch, be sure to name the genre. Many publications limit your pitch to just a few sentences. Naming the genre is shorthand for “I get what you do here and I have written a piece that will fit perfectly on your site.”
Step 4: Rewrite Into Genre
Even if you’ve perfected the genre conventions of a particular publication, you still might get rejected. But once you start paying attention to genre, you’re likely to notice that rejections get a little longer and a lot more encouraging. Take these rejections as a sign that you’re on the right track and do even more genre research.
Before you resubmit your work, repeat steps 2 and 3 for the new publication. You might be tempted to submit the personal essay that just got rejected at On Parenting to your other big dream publication, but you’ll notice that Well Family doesn’t run nearly as many personal essays. Close observation can show you that most personal narratives published there need to be tied to a current event or new research.
Step 5: Use Your Genre Knowledge to Write More
All this genre analysis seems like a lot of extra work, but a strong understanding of genre can help you squeeze multiple pieces out of the same topic. The personal narrative you write for one site might inspire a how-to post for another site, all based on the same experience and research.
Mastering these techniques can also make you a funnier writer. You may not think of yourself as a humorist, but once you’ve mastered another style or genre, you’ll be well-prepared to skewer it. The same genre skills you learn to write “Do Not Sabotage Your Kid’s College Essay” for a parenting website can help you write “How to Write Your Teen’s College Essay” for conceptual humor websites like McSweeney’s.
Bonus: Be Strategic With Genre on Your Own Blog
The same lessons that work for freelancing will also help you refine the purpose and tone of your own blog. While it’s fine—encouraged, even!—to muck around and try lots of styles as you get started blogging, over time you may notice patterns in your own work. Your how-to lists might feel preachy, while your personal essays get a lot of attention. Use what you notice to refine the focus of your own site, so that readers will know what to expect and stick around for more of it.