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Journalist Jen Mattson comes to Mills to talk about the art of the 800 word essay

Jennifer Mattson believes that everyone has a story created by experiences that no one else can ever have — it doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure anyone will relate to it. The key, she thinks, is finding an angle, figuring out what is special about  your story and telling it in an essay.

Mattson, an acclaimed writer, producer and editor came to Mills College on Wednesday, Oct. 22 and gave a workshop on the 800 word essay. Her visit from New York was sponsored by A Place For Writers, The Campanil, and Journalism and Women’s Symposium.

As a journalist who has seen the changes in the industry for the past several decades and has worked in breaking news coverage of Budapest for USA TODAY, as a writer for CNN and CBS, producer of NPR’s Tell Me More, and editor for The Connection. Throughout her lecture and exercises, she continually reminded everyone what was important.

Mattson said that the essay is a hot topic for publications today for two reasons: Readers connect with the bigger issues that essay can tackle , and publications are not looking for experts anymore — they want real people with real voices.

She outlined three different forms the essay can take: Op-ed, personal Essay and, what she calls, the modern narrative essay.

Personal Essay:

  • Uses “I” which allows people to relate.
  • Tends to be a story or observation that relates back to a larger issue. Emotional truth in which people relate.
  • Readers don’t have to perfectly relate to the subject itself because it is the emotional truth that people understand.
  • Often you will find that you don’t have a Hollywood ending, or you may not have gone through a huge personal change. Don’t look for an ending that has fireworks; just tell the truth.
  • The example Mattson gave was from a 2010 New York Times article by Laura Fraser. In the essay, Fraser  talks about her divorce and long affair with a man she met while traveling. Mattson pointed out that even though many who read this haven’t been divorced and have never had an affair, what speaks to us in this article is Fraser’s honesty and truth. You can find the article here.


  • Argues one side of an argument.
  • You need facts to back it up and prove your credibility.

Modern Narrative Essay:

  • A reflection on a larger topic.
  • Usually in the 2nd or 3rd person.
  • Essay that is closest to regular reporting.
  • The example she gave was a 2012  New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert. The story,  “Searching For the Undecided Voter,” encapsulates everything that should go into the modern narrative essay. Kolbert fires quotes at her readers, as Mattson pointed out, to establish her credibility and make her nearly impossible to argue against. You can find the article here.
  • End with the unexpected; end with something new.

In the case of all three of these possible essays, you must choose something that has larger implications — a slice of a larger subject or story.

Structure suggestions for pulling a reader or editor in:

  • Say something the reader can relate to.
  • A good title.
  • Posing a question at the start.
  • Choosing a phrase or word to repeat throughout the piece.

Getting to the point of actually sitting down to write can be difficult. Here is Mattson’s suggestion: answer the following questions and then start writing.

The Art of the Idea:

  • What are you dying to write about?
  • What form does it take? What form does this story best fit into?
  • What tense or POV?
  • Why are you the best  person to write this piece?
  • Can you narrow down this idea? Try and pick a topic  from a larger story or idea.

Mattson’s words of advice:

  • Never turn in an unfinished story to a publication.
  • Put a good title on your story. Usually this will go in the headline of the email that you would send.
    • A good title is what gets an editor’s attention.
  • Follow the rules.
    • If they want two-inch margins, give them two-inch margins. If they say not to double space, don’t double space.
  • Never turn in something too long. Word count defines your story, if you have an 800 word count, then the story you are going to tell will be very different from if you had a 2000 word count — that is okay, just be aware and plan accordingly. Figure out the best story you can write given the parameters you have.
  • People will love your writing, and people will hate it. Don’t be attached. This means you have to be inwardly focused and stay true to what you feel is right.

To learn more about Mattson and her work, visit her website at