The “Lives” essay has been running in the magazine section of The New York Times since 1996. Though The Times solicits professional writers for this content, it is open to anyone with a good story to tell. Hugo Lindgren asked the magazine’s editors for a single, succinct piece of advice in order to get a better chance of having your story published. The advice is below:
• More action, more details, less rumination. Don’t be afraid of implicitness. And the old Thom Yorke line: “Don’t get sentimental. It always ends up drivel.”
• If it reads like it would make for a Hallmark TV episode, don’t submit it.
• Meaning (or humor, or interestingness) is in specific details, not in broad statements.
• Write a piece in which something actually happens, even if it’s something small.
• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”
• Don’t try to tell the whole story.
• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”
• Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.
• Better to start from something very simple that you think is interesting (an incident, a person) and expand upon it, rather than starting from a large idea that you then have to fit into an short essay. For example, start with “the day the Santa Claus in the mall asked me on a date” rather than “the state of affairs that is dating in an older age bracket.”
The rest of the advice is here. If you can’t write it, try telling it.