The New York Times Modern Love Column Will Pay You $300 for Your Essay

Amy Sutherland pictured with her two dogs
Amy Sutherland, a columnist for Modern Love pictured with her two dogs.
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We all relish true stories about love and redemption. And if you write one, The New York Times might buy it.

Here’s the scoop: The wildly popular Modern Love column, in the Fashion & Style section, is seeking deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, and parenthood. And, believe it or not, you don’t need a Masters in Journalism to be published.

If your story is selected, The Times will pay you $300.

Run by editor Daniel Jones, the column features essays from dozens of first-time writers, such as Dominick Zarrillo, as well as essays from previously published authors.

Jones doesn’t care about an impressive list of writing credits but he does care about good writing.

“I judge a submission solely on the writing before me. So don’t feel like you are being pre-judged if you submit without writing credits,” Jones notes in the Modern Love submission guidelines, a 36-page document on how to submit to Modern Love. (An abridged version is available here.)

What’s important is that essays “spring from a some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life,” emphasizes Jones.

Insider Tips from Two Modern Love Columnists

To give you an inside perspective, we tracked down two Modern Love columnists, Ada Calhoun and Amy Sutherland. Both women shared their experiences about writing for Modern Love and offered great advice for pitching an essay.

Amy Sutherland has written two essays for Modern Love: “What Shamu Taught Me About Marriage,” and “Opening the Heart’s Floodgates With a Paw.” She currently has a standing column, “Bibliophiles” for the Boston Globe and recently published “Rescuing Penny Jane” in February.

Ada Calhoun has published three essays for Modern Love: “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give,” “To Stay Married, Embrace Change,” and “You May Call It Cheating, But We Don’t.” Ada is currently completing a book tour for “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give,” which is based on her Modern Love essay and magazine freelance writing.

Both columnists’ essays led to book deals, and the writers have been featured on the popular “Modern Love” Podcast, a radio show produced by WBUR NPR that’s based on selected Modern Love essays.

What is it like writing for Modern Love?

Amy Sutherland: Dan Jones, the editor, is a really great guy and the best editor I’ve ever worked with. We went back and forth with my essay. It was one of the better editing experiences I ever had. He gave me really good pointers and pushed me a little bit in a good way. He helped tease out a stronger point on what this had to say about Modern Love.

Ada Calhoun: I think the Modern Love column is an amazing platform. So many people read it around the country. It’s about our most personal stories, so I think it’s one of the best ways to connect with people on an emotional level as a writer.

How did you choose your Modern Love essay?

Ada Calhoun: I had this argument with my husband, and I thought what better thing to do with my feelings than to write an essay about it and send it to The New York Times, not to get revenge, but to make something good out of an annoying situation. I’ve written on and off as a freelancer for The New York Times, and I had been a reader of the Modern Love column. It seemed to be the best fit for this essay.

Amy Sutherland: My essay was about how I used a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer so my husband wouldn’t be on my nerves all the time. I read Modern Love and put two and two together. I thought no one else would write that exact column. It was a pretty safe bet. I studied Modern Love and hashed out my piece and submitted it via The New York Times website.

What do you think makes a good Modern Love story?

Ada Calhoun: I think honesty is the most important thing. I think that people want others to be real with them about the beautiful things and the horrible things about love. One thing the Modern Love column really works to do, and that I admire about the editor, is he looks for essays that tell the truth about people’s experiences.

Amy Sutherland: You can’t just have a good story. You have to have a broader point or message about the meaning of love. It has to be really fresh, something they never thought about. In my sense, my central point was we can love our spouses and they can drive us crazy. That’s nothing new, but the way I went about writing it was completely fresh. If you want to write for Modern Love, you should sit down and probably read six to 12 of them and you’ll get a sense of what the editor, Dan Jones, is looking for.

Word has it, your Modern Love essay led to a book deal. Can you talk about that for our readers?

Ada Calhoun: The second Modern Love I wrote, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give went really viral. I heard from so many people, couples who have been married a long time telling me they liked it. A lot of people said they thought there should be more talk about what it’s like being married for your whole life. So my editor on my last book said I should turn it into a book of essays, so that’s what I did and it just came out in May. My husband is quite proud of himself for making that financial error [that was the basis of the essay]. He jokes, “If I hadn’t screwed up, we wouldn’t have this book deal. I need to screw up more often. We’ll be rich.”

Amy Sutherland: I did get a book deal out of the Modern Love column and then wrote a book based on the column, and I also had a movie that was based on the book that was based on the column, if that makes sense. Honestly, I didn’t expect that. I had publishers and film people and also got interviewed by reporters all around the world. It became quite a firestorm. I had quite a strong and quick response to that column. It took over my life for a few weeks.

You’ve heard their stories, now it’s your turn.

15 Tips from the Pros on How to Submit to Modern Love

1. Your essay should stem from a “central dilemma” you have faced in your life.

2. Tell an honest story. Readers and editors can tell the difference.  

3. Write about something meaningful. “For better odds, avoid exploring topics of death, grief, and loss,” the guidelines say.

4. Modern Love has a contemporary slant, so it’s recommended to write about new angles of love or how things are different today ( eg: Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, social media, online dating).

5. Set the story close to present times, although you can reflect back in the past for backstory and context on occasion.

6. Don’t begin at the beginning. Consider starting your story with dialogue or in the middle of the action.

7. Decide what scenes you’ll use to move your story forward or push it through the dramatic arc, similar to how a short story or novel is written.

8. Have a story no one else can tell or tell it from a fresh perspective.

9. Don’t give everything away at the start such as “I met my husband in college.”  Your story should unfold in a dramatic arc. How you met can be told in the third paragraph.

10. Your story should stem from a conflict. Conflict makes good writing.

11. Use mystery and surprise to arouse the reader’s curiosity. Make the reader wonder what will happen with each line you write.

12. Your story doesn’t need to have a happy ending. What’s important is that the person learns something by the end of the story they didn’t know before.

13. Use killer verbs. Don’t worry about adjectives.

14. Keep an open mind as to where the piece can go — it could go in a different direction than what you thought originally.

15. Spend a lot of time revising your essay.

Is writing a story about love and redemption on your bucket list? Why not submit it to Modern Love? You could be $300 richer, and who knows, it might land you a book deal.

You can visit Modern Love on Facebook or find the book, “Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion,” where books are sold.

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Stacy Sare Cohen is a freelance writer who writes stories about personal finance, travel and tourism. She’s addicted to Modern Love and reads the column religiously every Friday.