Interview with Noah Michelson, Head of HuffPost Personal

An Interview with Noah Michelson, Head of HuffPost Personal at HuffPost, one of the most popular news and culture websites in the world. They are open to writers from diverse backgrounds.

Noah Michelson was in conversation with freelance personal essay and health writer, Viney Kirpal.

During this frank one-on-one, he talked at length about what makes a personal essayist a delight for an editor to work with.

Viney Kirpal (VK): Noah, it’s great to have you with us! Thank you for agreeing to share your wisdom with the readers of Freedom with Writing.

Let me begin by asking you what makes the personal essay an evergreen genre? What are readers really looking for?

Noah Michelson (NM): Personal essays can be about anything. Sometimes they’re written in response to a current event or a news story, but more often they’re about something a writer experienced and how it affected them or what they learned from it. These experiences might include being misdiagnosed by a doctor or being discriminated against in the workplace or the death of a pet. I’ve found there is no topic that won’t work as long as the writer is approaching it with honesty and their essay offers the reader the chance to learn something new or share an experience that is meaningful. Readers want to encounter stories they haven’t seen before, but they also want to read pieces that are able to describe things they might be feeling or have felt in the past in ways that truly resonate.

VK: More women than men pen personal essays, though some have criticized it as exploitative. What’s your take?

NM: Whenever someone is sharing something incredibly personal, there’s always the opportunity for exploitation. Writers really need to be sure of why they are telling the story they’re telling — what is their goal and what is the goal of the editor or publication that wants to publish it. I always say “people before profits,” meaning, I never want to publish a piece unless the writer is 200% confident that it belongs out in the world — no matter how intriguing or “clicky” it may be or how much traffic it might generate.

What’s more, if they’re writing about someone else, like a spouse or a family member or an ex, I ask that they show the piece to that person before I publish it. The internet is forever — and so whatever you put out there is not going away, and once it goes up on our site, I can’t take it down. I want writers to really be certain that their story belongs out in the world and that they’ve considered how many people will see it and who might be affected by it — positively and negatively.

VK: That’s a very important point which every writer of the personal essay would do well to remember! By the way, I’ve noticed you’re very selective in your choice. What do you look for, what stories make it happen for you as you finalize an issue?

NM: We get close to 150 pitches a week and of those, we only accept 1% or 2%. An essay has to either offer something new that I haven’t seen before or offer a new take on a universal topic. If you’re going to write about grief, for instance, how are you going to make it different from the thousands of other essays that have already been published? I always suggest writers ask themselves, “Why am I the one that should be telling this story? Why does this story belong out in the world? And why now?” I also always want something at stake in the piece — something risky and worth talking about / reading about, some tension or issue that ends up being resolved or, if not, some perspective on why it can’t be resolved. Show me — and my readers — life and the world in a new way. Make me think. Make me feel. Give me something I want to send to a friend and say, “Did you see this?”

VK: As head editor, what do you find most engaging about editing the personal essay?

NM: I feel incredibly lucky to get up every day and help people tell their stories. I never know who or what is going to land in my inbox. I take this work very seriously as I know people are entrusting me with their very personal pieces — I’m not just editing an essay, I’m helping to shape and share an intimate part of someone’s life — and I want to do right by everyone who ends up on our site. The most gratifying part of my job is when someone emails me and says, “I read this essay today and I felt seen.” That’s huge! And engaging with so many different writers from so many different backgrounds is thrilling.

VK: Indeed it is so! With an incredibly rich experience behind you, what three most important tips would you like to give to aspiring writers?

NM: 1. Look around you for stories. You never know when or where you might discover an experience that’s worth writing about. It might be an interaction you witness at the grocery store. It might be something you thought of during a conversation with your mom. Stories and ideas can sprout up anywhere.

2. Keep a notebook or a notes page in your phone where you can jot observations or ideas you might want to explore.

3. Zoom out as much as you can as often as you can. Try to look at the big picture of what you’re writing and see if it makes sense. What is the arc of your story? Have you left anything out? Are you getting lost in too much detail? The more you can zoom out in hopes of getting the fullest and clearest picture of what you’re writing, the better your piece will be.

VK: Thank you very much, Noah. That was a wonderful experience of learning for all of us! Hereafter, if 200 pitches start to land in your inbox every week, please don’t blame me!

Thanks again for your time. It was a pleasure talking with you.

For those interested in submitting a pitch to HuffPost, you can refer to their pitching guidelines here.



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