How To Write A Personal Essay: Eight Steps To Success
A SUBJECT NEAR AND DEAR TO MY HEART
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
This is where I have “made my bones.” I love personal essays. To me writing is a personal adventure, complete with pain and joy, laughter and depression, humor and candor. To me, writing should be a series of “holy cow” moments where the writer engages the reader to such an extent that the reader actually feels emotions while reading. I find my high in writing when I receive a comment from a follower telling me they cried when they read my words, or they laughed out loud at something I have written. That, my friends, is better than any drug ever manufactured and it is why I am a writer.
I can write articles like this one and feel good about the end result, but when I write a personal essay I feel ecstatic about the end result because I know I am connecting with my readers on a very human level. I am taking a surgical knife and filleting myself so that my readers can relate….that is my job as a writer of personal essays…to relate to my readers.
If you would like to give it a go then I welcome you to the fold. What follows are a few suggestions you might like to follow. They have worked well for me and I’m confident they will do the same for you.
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Travels With Charlie...one example
- Travels with Charley: In Search of America - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The classic by John Steinbeck
READ THE BEST
If you have never written a personal essay then how do you know how to do it? My suggestion is to learn from those who do it on a regular basis. Find authors and columnists who do this for a living and learn from their style. What do they do that is so effective? What don’t they do? How do they go about engaging you?
The best are the best for a reason. Follow them and find out what that reason is.
WRITE ABOUT YOUR PASSIONS
If your goal in a personal essay is to engage your reader, then for God’s sake be engaging, and the easiest way to do this is to write about things that move you. If your subject matter fascinates you then that will shine through in the way you write it….as long as you allow your fascination to shine.
What are your passions? What are you an expert in? These are the topics you need to explore. How can you write with passion about fighting in Vietnam if you were never there? How can you write about the thrill of driving a Formula One racing car if you have never done it?
FOCUS ON DRAMA AND CONFLICT
Don’t tell your reader that childhood was painful. Instead, pick a particular event and really delve into the nature of that pain.
I’ve got a surprise for you: most people have shared similar experiences. It is true. If I tell you about the pain of losing my dad when I was nineteen, and I tell it well, then chances are every single person who reads it will be engaged by it, simply because we have all lost someone we loved. However, it is my job to tell that story in a gut-wrenching and powerful way. Otherwise it will read like “see Dick run” and nobody will care.
What was the happiest moment in your life? What was the saddest? Tackle unresolved emotional issues and spell them out with blood, sweat and tears. I promise you your readers will understand.
GRAB YOUR READER BY THE THROAT
What is the average length of an article? Most magazine and newspaper articles are in the 700-1500 word range. Quite frankly that is not a lot of space, so it is crucial that you grab your readers by the throat early on. Consider, also, that there is a great deal of competition out there, and your readers will go elsewhere if you do not sell them on your piece very early on.
One way you might do this is to draw upon something that is popular today, some cultural phenomenon like a hot book or television series. Make reference in the first couple sentences about some upcoming event and then tie your essay into that introduction.
Worth a look
TOSS ASIDE EASY, POPULAR OPINIONS
We all know that homelessness is wrong and sad. We all know that child trafficking is horrible. Now, find an angle that is new and interesting.
If I were writing about homelessness, and I have, I would talk to you about a homeless man I met while on my paper route a couple years ago. Arnie taught me a lesson about life that I will never forget, and since that day I have never looked at homelessness the same way.
Don’t take the easy route because it rarely spells success. Instead, find the path to success by taking a road less traveled.
SHOW AND TELL TIME
Think of a personal essay as a quick trip through your journal, or a personal mini-memoir. You don’t have the time or space to ramble on about your entire life or the complete range of emotions you experienced during the past twenty years.
Get out your microscope and show, and tell, specific emotions related to a specific event. Instead of summarizing your entire journal, give us “up close and personal” about one page of that journal.
GIVE EMOTIONAL INSIGHT
This article is about personal essays. By definition, personal essays must get personal. Readers want to know your insights regarding the topic you chose.
I follow these three keywords when doing a personal essay: question, challenge and reveal. I must do two of the three in any personal essay that I write. I can choose between questioning and challenging, but I can never choose to delete the revelations. Remember that people will relate to my emotional insights simply because they have experienced similar insights during their lifetime. Give them that opportunity to relate or you have failed in your quest.
A FEW THINGS TO AVOID
In no particular order, there are certain things you should not do in a personal essay.
Do not write in third person. Personal essays should always be focused on you, so use the word “I”during your essay.
Avoid generalities and focus on specifics.
Do not start out with mundane and boring. You only have ten seconds to interest your readers so dazzle them quickly.
Do not share commonplace events without finding a new angle.
Do not settle for the first draft. Personal essays demand your best, so re-write and find the perfect combination of nouns and verbs that will really hit your readers in the gut.
Where these tips helpful?
NOW YOU ARE READY
Personal essays are not easy to write for all writers. I have heard from many who say they could not do what I do. They are not yet at a place in their development where they are comfortable opening up their heart and soul and sharing them with readers. In a very real sense, writing a personal essay should feel like being skinned alive, and you are the skinner. It can be a painful experience and it can be frightening but I promise you, it can also be incredibly rewarding.
I hope at some point you feel the urge to try a personal essay and then you act on that urge. You just might discover a “voice” you never knew you had.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)