How to Write A Personal Essay That Will Dazzle an Editor

How to Write A Personal Essay That Will Dazzle an Editor

Ten years ago I thought I’d be the last person someone who ask about how to write a personal essay.

Ironically, as a reader, I never used to be a fan of anthologies or collections of personal essays. As a teacher, I did love showing students how to write personal essays or short memoir pieces. As an English teacher and a writing instructor, it often felt miraculous to me how a mediocre piece could be transformed in just a few short weeks through revision, how a piece could evolve from bland and cliched to raw, powerful, and beautiful. But I never liked reading short pieces in my leisure time.
how to write a personal essay

It wasn’t until I started writing as a blogger and freelance writer that I started to appreciate collections of personal essays as a genre. I love seeing writers that I “know” online take different perspectives and approach topics with unique styles. (The anthology published by Brain, Child Magazine called This Is Childhood, featuring ten of my favorite writers, is a wonderful example of this.) As a parent, reading about other mothers’ experiences from so many different angles has helped me gain insight into myself as a mother.

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal essays from three different perspectives: as a reader, as a writer, and now as an editor. I’ve been trying my hand at publishing my own pieces, and I know that it’s hard, really hard, to write a great personal essay. After our call for submissions for My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, I also spent months reading essays with an editor’s eye, trying to decide which pieces to accept and which to pass on. And that was just as hard.

And it occurred to me as a beginning editor that we editors are not often transparent about what we are looking for. I’m lucky in the sense that I taught writing and developed writing curricula for well over a decade, and all of the best practices (and unwritten rules) of memoir and essay writing are (somewhat) fresh in my mind. But most of us writers haven’t taken an English class in quite a while. And we aren’t recent MFA graduates either.

So here’s what I think — as a teacher, writer, editor, and reader — about the ingredients of a great personal essay, one that is carefully crafted to draw in a reader, make her care about a topic, and keep reading.

1. Use what you know about good fiction and storytelling. You should develop characters, settings, and plot (a sequence of events) into a story. Use sensory details and vivid description to create separate, carefully chosen scenes.

2. Combine the personal and the universal. This is your story, your life, your emotions but your writing should also express and reveal a larger meaning, a theme, a deeper truth, beyond the surface details of plot and character.

3. Find your voice. More importantly, find your unique voice that is best for each piece, or different moments of the same piece. As Kate Hopper, in the invaluable Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, explains, voice is:

“the feel, language, tone, and syntax that makes a writer’s writing unique. In nonfiction, voice is you, but not necessarily the you sitting in front of the computer typing away. Voice can be molded by a writer to serve the subject about which she is writing.”

It might take a while to find the best voice for a piece. Is the right voice ironic, funny, anxious, playful, breathless, or solemn? We all have multiple identities and show different parts of ourselves at different times. Use that versatility in your writing.

4. Alternate focusing in and focusing out. Choose specific and compelling moments, memories, and feelings, and hone in on them, using those particular moments to help to convey theme and purpose. Pretend you are using a video camera to focus in and out, slowing down the action, like a cinematographer, very purposefully to guide the reader toward what’s important in the piece.

5. Be specific, not general. This is what I called “The Rule of the Pebble” to my students (thanks to Nancie Atwell, my writing teacher guru). It basically means don’t write about a general topic or idea; write about one particular person, place, time, object, or experience. In other words, don’t try to write about all pebbles everywhere (or “love” or “friendship” or “football” or “sunsets”). Write about this one particular pebble (or the friend that broke your heart freshman year, or the sunset that you saw last night, or memory, or place), its meaning to you, the concrete details that shape how you think about it.

William Carlos Williams’ advice for writers:

Say it, no ideas but in things.

6. Experiment and play. Try out different literary devices and techniques, such as similes, personification, and metaphors. Or experiment with using different sentence lengths strategically. Use repetition, of words, of lines, of phrases. Play with imagery. Many of these devices should only be used sparingly, but, used effectively, they can add surprises and richness to your writing.

7. Learn the difference between revision and editing. You must do both. It’s easy as a writer to focus on spelling errors and sentence structure, rather than making big (painful) changes to our writing. Revision means “to look again.” You do things like: make sure that your theme and purpose for writing are clear; try out different leads (ways to begin the piece); rethink your conclusion; change the organization.

In editing, a separate stage, we do things like catch run-on sentences, fix errors in punctuation or spelling, or replace overused words and expressions.

8. Read, read, read, and read some more. What all writers have in common, as far as I know, is that they’re constantly reading. They pay attention to their favorite writer’s craft and style and try them out in their own writing. They internalize the beauty and the utility of the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the perfect metaphor.

Here are some anthologies and collections that I’ve loved:

Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers: So many of my favorite writers! Read Lindsey Mead’s beautiful review.

Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood: Lindsey’s in this one 🙂

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives

Check out Full Grown People. It publishes “well-told true stories of how different people have figured it out as they’re going along” every Tuesday and Thursday.

And here are just a few personal essays from writers that I love:

The Blessings of a Botched Piano Recital” by Nina Badzin

My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me” by Lauren Apfel

A New Dance” by Amanda Magee

Sorry to Inconvenience You With My Stairwell Navigation” by Deb of Urban Moo Cow

The Day I Changed” by Aidan Donnelly Rowley

What are your favorite anthologies or collections of essays? Is there a personal essay that you can’t forget? Which books do you return to again and again as a writer? What are your suggestions about how to write a personal essay?

48 comments

  1. alexandra says:

    THIS IS SO GOOOOOOD. My favorite essayist is Megan Stielstra. She writes without shame or concern for whether or not she is judged. She is vulnerable and takes risks and you feel so blessed after you have read her words. Her fabulous book is Once I Was Cool.

  2. Estellle says:

    Jessica,
    I love this post so much. As a former magazine editor I have seen hundreds of essays myself. You capture what is essential for making a personal essay “sing”. I particularly love the writing of Judith Newman, who writes for Allure, Vanity Fair, the NY Times Style section.

  3. Lindsey says:

    This is so full of great advice and wisdom! Thank you. I’m honored to see my name here too. My most recent essay experience was with LABOR DAY and I really loved many of the contributions. Powerful and thought-provoking. xox

  4. Kate Hopper says:

    Jessica, what a wonderful post. I’m so honored to be quoted. Thanks for your kind words about Use Your Words! And I look forward to your next anthology!

  5. Alison says:

    Jessica, this is a GREAT post, especially for writers aspiring to have something published, but isn’t quite ready for an entire book yet (ahem, like me).
    Alison recently posted…The TruthMy Profile

      • Clea says:

        1. I am a college eduetacd, professional wokring mom who works 40-45 hours a week and would like to work about 25 hours a week. I am mommy to an amazing 2.5 year old girl, and step-mommy to a sweet hearted 9.5 year old boy. I am the bread-winner and also work for a city gov’t where the benefits are AMAZING and the retirement plan is even better!2. I am torn between wanting to be home every minute of the day and wanting to have a secure future. I believe I could achieve my goal of 25-30 hours per week after working hard for the next year to pay off some debt, and allow my husband’s next review and pay increase to kick in. However, there would still be a downside to accumulating less retirement and having to pay out of pocket for health benefits, if my hours go below 32. I am just ranting now, but Mondays are soooooooo hard. I drive to work and am filled with lots of horrible thoughts like what if i die and never get to see my kids grow up? who will teach my daughter all the things girls need to know in life? etc. why do i do this to myself? i don’t know. And do you know what is even weirder? when my daughter was younger, under a year, i used to look forward (in a sick, guilt-ridden way) to mondays, so that i could enjoy my coffee and get back to ROUTINE. But now she is amazing and fun, and super super cool way more fulfilling than planning cities and cool places to live for people who could care less.ok. i am done. this is more than you wanted andrea. but i feel sorta better.

  6. Shannan says:

    Thank you so much for this. My journey toward appreciation and, eventually, love of the personal essay follows a similar trajectory. I also think that becoming a parent and having my reading time broken into chunks into which essays fit quite nicely contributed, too. 🙂 I’m grateful both for your wise tips and fabulous suggestions here!
    Shannan recently posted…Fascinating facts about Brazil for the start of the World CupMy Profile

  7. Yvonne says:

    This is such a useful post. Even though I’ve written well over 100 articles and blog posts, I consider myself mainly a fiction writer (probably because I have an MA in Creative Writing.) Therefore whenever I write personal essays I’m never sure if I am getting it “right.” I am going to bookmark this so I can refer back and check through the next piece I write to see how it measures up!
    Thank you for sharing these tips.
    Yvonne recently posted…All that makes this possibleMy Profile

  8. Ann says:

    Jessica, I’m so glad I bumped into your link on Facebook, especially, since I sporadically jump on the site. I’m a children’s writer, but lately, the thought of writing a personal essay keeps crossing my mind. Thank you for taking the time to share such valuable information, in addition to your generosity. I will bookmark your blog.

    Have a great week-end-

    Ann

  9. Tricia says:

    This is great. I love the part about developing characters. It’s the part I always forget when I am doing a personal essay, it feels strange to think of myself or my family as characters. But when I write about us all, we are.
    Tricia recently posted…Lovely little things, 20My Profile

  10. This is great insight into a genre that admittedly gave me fits when I first started writing seriously. I couldn’t agree more that adopting fiction techniques adds so much to the essay, but also important is writing as close to the truth as possible. The best essays draw the reader in to experience the same events and feelings as the writer — as you said, it makes the experience universal and that’s what makes the essay impactful. Thank you!

    • Joe says:

      This is EXACTLY why I avoid self checkout at all costs. Just yareesdty, I watch the “long” line at the regular line right next to me. By the time I was through with my items, I would have been home — if I had gotten in the regular line with all the other people. Ugh.

  11. brazil says:

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  12. Terri says:

    Thank you for this post! I am still working at finding my voice and I found this so helpful, it has given me a lot to think about.

  13. This was an extremely encouraging post for me Jessica. I recently began blogging after talking about “writing” for the past twenty years of my life. The majority of my stories are short, humorous personal essays mostly involving life with my Irish born mother who is my biggest inspiration. Her capers are the fodder for numerous tales. I have tried very hard to follow most of your tips in composing my stories and believe I generally succeed. My biggest obstacle is how to get my stories seen by more readers other than my friends on Facebook! I contribute to a wonderful, quality parenting website every other week that has a small following but would love to receive more feedback on my stories. I am not sure how to accomplish this goal.

  14. Jassie says:

    Hi there,
    this is just what i needed to hear from an editor and i am truly looking forward to submitting my entry for the motherhood project.Hopefully,it can get selected though.Either ways,i am excited to venture into personal essay,as it could help me in my blog as well.Thanks for the lovely tips.

    I have only dabbled in some short works and have some novellas to work on so far.Perhaps,writing essays will sharpen and hone my writing skills even further to make me an accomplished writer!!!
    Jassie recently posted…Writing Project for the Month of April and MayMy Profile

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