ASJA 2018 Keynoter Daniel Jones of The New York Times “Modern Love”: The Holy Grail of Essays

He doesn’t really need an introduction: Daniel Jones, longtime editor of The New York Times “Modern Love” columns is one of the most sought-after individuals in the writing biz. But despite his distinguished track record and credits, which also include Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers), two essay anthologies—Modern Love and The Bastard on the Couch—and the novel After Lucy, he’s down-to-earth and approachable, preferring to be called “Dan” rather than the formal version of his name. He’s a tough taskmaster when it comes to column selection and is on trend in terms of its branding, in 2013 introducing the hugely successful Modern Love Podcast and most recently sending out a call for college student essays on “Navigating Sex in the Gray Zone,” exploring sex and relationships in the #MeToo era. He shares tips and advice with ASJA Confidential, with more to come during the May conference.

How did the Modern Love column start? Please tell us a little bit about its history and evolution.

Trip Gabriel, then the editor of the Times “Style” section, came up with the idea in 2004. My wife, Cathi Hanauer, had edited an anthology of women’s essays on marriage and feminism called The Bitch in the House, and the male response was my book The Bastard on the Couch.  So the initial concept was that it would be a team effort and would represent both the male and female perspectives. But before the first essay hit the newsstand on October 31 of that year, my wife had to drop out due to work commitments. So it became a one-person job.

While many of the essays were on romantic relationships, since the beginning, the column has also covered friendships and family. And when it expanded into podcast form it got even wider exposure, because many of the essays are read by movie, television and Broadway actors and are downloaded hundreds of thousands of times for a total of more than 20 million downloads a year. The author also gets a chance to talk about the story and the craft behind it.

How do you cull columns from the tsunami of submissions you receive every week?

We get an estimated 8,000 submissions a year although frankly, I’ve lost count. In the last couple of years, I’ve used an intern who reads everything but only rejects about 20 percent that aren’t obviously a good fit. So I still do the bulk of reading and carve out stretches of time to do so.

I decided early on to respond to everyone, maybe not personally, but they will hear from me although it may take a while. A writer myself, I know that if you don’t hear back, you’re less likely to query that editor or publication again. And along with being responsible on my end and building a sense of community, I wanted to make sure to continue to get quality material. Hopefully this has led to a lot of good essays that I might not otherwise have had a chance to look at.

And there’s something to be said for persistence on the part of the writer. Having an essay published can elevate their career. Along with the wide exposure that comes from publication in various media, the column has resulted in some 50 book contracts and gotten agents and built audiences for writers as well. Recent examples include Mandy Len Catron’s How to Fall in Love With Anyone, based on her hit 2015 Modern Love essay, and Ada Calhoun’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, an expansion of her essay of the same name.

What are you looking for?  Is there anything that can make an essay stand out from the herd?

Obviously good, fresh material that tells unexpected stories, which is why “Modern Love” is such a great market for freelancers. I am looking to be surprised and also for a writer who is able to be vulnerable and is smart about their vulnerability. This sounds deceptively easy but is actually very difficult.

While people can string sentences together in a capable way, and may even carry the story through to the end, the essay should take readers one step further. So along with one-two sucker punch ending, the reader should still be thinking about the story after it’s finished.

The best and most obvious way to learn is to read the column but perhaps most importantly listen to the Podcast. Not only can a good actor elevate the story but you’ll also be able to hear about why and how the author wrote the essay which can fuel your own ideas.

How has the column changed over the years? What can someone do to increase their chances of being selected?

While initially the column may have been perceived about being about romance, today people realize it’s about whatever is happening in love and relationships. And I find that people are writing about what concerns them—things I might not have heard about before, whether it be transitioning or the #MeToo movement, which results in a lot of essays about similar subjects. And you never know which essay is going to resonate the most with readers. For instance, last year’s most popular essay was by a children’s book author who was dying from cancer and she penned an essay-as-dating-profile for the husband she would leave behind. It was viewed millions of times around the world and Universal Studios quickly snapped up movie rights in a bidding war. So I would suggest that you read a lot of what you want to write about, such as published memoirs on whatever topic you are targeting. And make sure to follow our basic stylistic requirements, such as length and tone and see how original and experimental you can be within that approach.

If you want to learn more from Dan and other presenters, you’ll just have to attend Navigate. Motivate. Captivate., ASJA’s annual New York conference on May 18-19. Time is running out to get discounts, which are only available until Saturday, April 7! For more information on the schedule, keynotes, and hotel, please click here.