An Interview with Amy Paturel, Freelance Writer

Amy Paturel has covered everything from food to sex in essay form. You’ll find her byline in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Parents and more. She has won “honorable mention” awards in the American Society of Journalists and Authors personal essay category.

Here’s Amy Paturel in conversation with Viney Kirpal, a health and personal essay writer. You will learn immensely from Amy’s tried and tested writing methods and independent approach here.

Viney: I’ve read somewhere that when you send your writing to editors, it gets accepted. I’d love to know more about this.

Amy: I wouldn’t say that when I submit my writing, it gets accepted. What I will say, specifically with regard to essays, is that if I believe in the story, I am relentless in my pursuit of a sale. So out of every 10 essays I write, about 8 will make it to publication. That isn’t because I knock it out of the park every time I write a piece. It’s because I never give up on the story. With every rejection, I tweak and revise. I send the story to trusted writer friends and solicit feedback. I study publications where I think it might fit and try to follow suit in tone and style. I allow the story to change course if necessary. Sometimes personal essays need time to ferment, transform, and evolve. Take, for example, a story that I originally crafted about using music as a way to connect my son with my late father. It started out as a straight personal narrative, but as the years passed and my son grew older, I realized there was a reported angle to the story. At the time, I had been studying the publication Wired — and I really wanted to work with the editor there. So naturally, I came up with the idea of how to create a playlist that connects generations together.

 Viney: I’ve read that essay. It’s very well-written. How do you know when your essay is good enough to submit for publication?

Amy: My stories tend to have a natural evolution. They start out as a mess of notes. Over time, I revise and craft a cohesive narrative. I read the story aloud, cut unnecessary words, change passive voice to active, and make sure I’ve selected the most descriptive and powerful adjectives and verbs. Once I feel like the piece is in solid shape, meaning that it has a clear take away and every sentence supports that overarching thesis, I share the story with a trusted set of five or six writer friends. These writers are people I admire and respect, people whose work touches me deeply and inspires me. With their feedback, I do another round of revisions, then circulate it one more time. If the general consensus is that the story is salable, I hit send.

Viney: It’s interesting that you take lots of feedback, and re-work the story before sending it. But, is there a method you use to spot trends and create fresh angles?

Amy: I’m not the type of writer who spots trends and fresh tangles. Rather, I follow my curiosity. So instead of covering the latest health craze, or fashion trend, or even a new parenting strategy, I gravitate toward topics I’m passionate about and that are immediately relevant to my life. I know several writers who spend a lot of time on Twitter and can write stories based on an editors’ call for submissions. That’s a great approach if you work that way. Unfortunately, my mind just doesn’t operate in that fashion.

Viney:  And that’s what makes Amy, the award-winning Amy, a top writer. I too can’t chase things that don’t interest me. Do you have an ideal pitch structure which helps convince editors to take something not terribly fashionable?  

Amy: The ideal pitch structure often depends on the publication I’m approaching and the type of story I want to write. Pitching a reported essay is NOT the same as pitching a personal essay. With a personal essay, editors usually prefer to see the essay in its entirety. Reported essays, on the other hand, require a pitch. After all, you don’t want to put a ton of legwork into researching and reporting a story that will never land.

Whether personal or reported, my pitches typically start the same way: With an opening paragraph highlighting what the story (or idea) is about, and why it’s relevant to that publication’s readership. I make sure I can summarize the story in two sentences or less.

Then, if it’s a personal essay, I’ll paste the entire piece into the body of an email. For a reported piece, my goal is to convince the editor that the topic is worthy of coverage — and that requires research. The end result usually includes the following:

  • A compelling opening anecdote, similar to what I might craft for a narrative essay.
  • Data, statistics, and/or recent research findings.
  • Three or four experts I plan to interview for the story.

The idea, of course, is to build a case for why the story is important to readers. Here’s an example from a story in Good Housekeeping (republished on

Viney: Do you think a writer needs a degree in journalism to become a successful freelancer?

Amy: Absolutely not. Some of the best writers I know are not formally trained in journalism. I did not get a degree in journalism, but rather transitioned to writing after a career in public health (public health is nothing if not clear communication about health risks). I was working for LA County’s Department of Health Services as an epidemiology analyst when I decided to dabble in freelance writing. At first, I had no idea what I was doing. I read everything I could get my hands on about freelance writing, and I made a lot of mistakes in those early days (before I finished all of that reading!). That said, I was lucky. I built up dozens of clips through CBSHealthWatch in my niche area (nutrition). So, when I finally got up the nerve to pitch print publications, I had a body of work to show editors — and I nabbed an assignment from my very first pitch about “good” bacteria. At the time (2001), probiotics weren’t mainstream, so it was a solid idea. I sold the story to Health Magazine and it hit stands in August or September, 2001.

Viney: Thank you, Amy, for a number of unique ideas about finding one’s way into good publications. Your final answer will breathe hope in every aspiring writer that success in writing is a journey and not a destination. Thanks again.

You can learn more about Amy, view her published clips, and learn about her essay classes at  Follow Amy on twitter @amypaturel.






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