A few fertile topics for writing:
A ritual—wedding, funeral, graduation, christening, bris. People come together, emotions arise, relationships change or are cemented or something in between.
A transition—starting high school or college, a move, retirement, a new job, divorce. Leaving one world for another.
A surprise—news of an affair, a financial mistake or setback, a long-held secret revealed, contact from a birth parent or unknown sibling. How did you handle it?
Illness and death. These are, of course, transitions, too—and usually surprises. But they deserve their own category.
An animal enters your life. This has been done a lot. An animal departs your life. Ditto—and wrenching. So make it new.
Reflect on an abstract topic—a genre with a long history going back to antiquity. The subject could be loyalty, indecision, generosity, hatred, memory itself . . . . Carve out a take based on your experience and point of view. Be a philosopher who earns that role by telling really good stories.
Two things you should never say in a personal essay:
1. I swear I'm not making this up.
I assume you’re not making it up—that’s the implicit pact you’ve made with your readers. If an incident or something someone said seems incredible to you now, let it speak for itself in all its incredibleness. Trust that we’ll buy it. If we don’t, the writing has a problem you need to work on. Promising that it’s true won’t help.
2. I don’t remember exactly, but . . .
If you don’t remember—and no one can recall everything that happened last week perfectly, let alone 20 or 37 years ago—then pretend you do. This is not the same as making it up. It’s reimagining—what your father’s words likely were, or your own, or how things went down that April Thursday. You know yourself and the others in your life well enough that, with hard work, you can do this reimagining, this recreation. (And yes, it’s allowed.)
Readers look for authority in a personal essay. Don’t make excuses for your story. Claim it.
Endings are hard.
When in doubt about how to conclude a piece of journalism such as a profile, a quote is often a surefire way to wrap things up. Not that it’s *always* the best, but it’s a handy device and usually does the job. (Again: when in doubt or when all else fails.)
With an essay, it’s not so simple.
You don’t want to repeat or summarize what you’ve already said. You don’t want to preach or get “lessony.” Most important, you don’t want to spell everything out.
I tell my students that you want an ending that will “haunt” your readers. Not literally spook them—though, hey, maybe sometimes!—but rather leave them with something to figure out, something that will linger.
It can be helpful to consider ending on either an image or an action. An image can be something you saw—a scene out the window, say, or an object on the table that suddenly looked different than it did before. An action can be the first thing you did when your antagonist shut the door: Did you pick something up, wash the dishes, make a phone call, start dancing by yourself? If so, how exactly?
Let those carefully observed details do the last bit of work for you.
One thing I do regularly in my day job is edit personal essays of about 600 words. That’s not very long. Having written a few myself, I can say it isn’t easy. Here are some tips for writing a short essay—which I’ll define here as 750 words or less.
Have something to say, not just something that happened to you.
Get in fast. You don’t have the space to ease in or otherwise dilly-dally. This is not the time for long preambles.
Fill it with as many details and mini-anecdotes as possible. Avoid summary. An essay of this length succeeds on its specifics. Name songs, give examples, use (brief) dialogue, show how that sensation—you know the one I mean!—felt.
When you’re done, go through the essay again and tighten, tighten, tighten. What doesn’t need to be there? What slows things down? How can you say the same thing more succinctly?
Then you’ll have room to add more details in the second draft and make it even better.
In workshops, I’ll sometimes hear, “I had no idea what this word meant.” I’ll say that having to look something up isn’t bad. You learn a word! But if you’re doing so every other sentence, it’s a problem. There’s also the issue of what an obscure word gains the writer.
Someone I edited used the noun “remit,” as in “That was outside her remit.” Not to brag but I’m a word person—I don’t even bother with the New York Times crossword between Monday and Thursday. After I got my first dictionary at 11, I’d pore over it as if it were an adventure story. But I didn’t know “remit.” The dictionary said: “Chiefly British. An area of responsibility; scope.” The writer, whom I respect, is American. In his defense, he was unaware it was British. My point was it could sound pretentious. His substitute? Ambit (“sphere or scope, as of influence”). I didn’t know that, either—for a moment I thought it might be a typo for “gambit.” We settled on “purview.”
So ask yourself as you write if you’re delighting, within reason, in English’s variety to liven up your prose or if you might be seen as showing off. How to tell? It’s a judgment call. And it is your call—just know the consequences.
The three most important elements of a personal essay are reflection, honesty, and discovery.
Reflection can be almost invisible—for example, in a narrative from an adolescent perspective, the teenage you asks a question of yourself that then lingers in the background (ideally for the reader to answer). Or it might be a section in which you actually step back for several paragraphs or more to take stock. (See tip 10, “Wanna Make Something of It?”) But on some level, an essay needs a reckoning.
Honesty is the sense that you’re being truthful as you remember events and aren’t holding back to protect someone or make yourself look better. Readers can pick up on such subterfuge.
Discovery means you’ve discovered something in writing the essay. That may end up on the page as an aha moment or might be between the lines, the transformation that got you where you are as the person telling the story. But if you don’t discover anything, the reader won’t. (See tip 8, “Throw Away the Map”), and discovery is one of the joys of reading.
Of writing, too.
In my day job, I tell writers, “Too much is better than not enough. I can always work with too much. But not enough is just not enough.”
That’s when a writer has turned in a draft that’s lacking in some way and I’ve given her feedback and she says, “If I answer all your questions, that’s going to push it over the word limit.” I issue my advice so she won’t get too hung up on length when it’s more important to add missing details, feeling, color, or whatever. At that point, I know what I want, I know what she’s turned in, and I know how to make it stronger. Then I can trim.
But if you get an assignment of 1,000 words and turn in 2,400, saying, “It’s too long, but you’re a whiz at cutting!,” you haven’t done your job. Going a couple hundred words over is usually not a big deal for a 2,400-word piece, but 1,000 words over is. (Then again, a couple hundred over for a 300-word piece can be a big deal—it’s relative.)
If your first draft is wildly off the mark in length, cut it down close to the assigned word count before turning it in. (See tip number 9, “Editing Yourself,” for an exercise that may help.) If the editor wants more, he’ll tell you.
One of my pet peeves is articles that say twice that someone said something.
For example, “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going. ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed,’ he says. ‘Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
Notice the repetition of “says”?
Much better would be “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going: ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed. Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
Or “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going. ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed,’ he explains. ‘Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
The first option adds a colon before the quote, eliminating the duplicate attribution. The second keeps the original structure but replaces the redundant “says” with “explains,” avoiding the echo.
There, I said it.
Even though I posted tip number 25 only yesterday, I was determined to do number 26 on June 1. The reason: I started these random writing tips last December 1, continuing weekly from there, give or take a couple of days. Then around number 17 or so, I fell behind, which is why May became a jam-packed race to catch up.
When I sat down that first Saturday in December, I didn’t have this Apropos of Nothing project in mind. I was simply responding to a 30-day creativity challenge on social media by the brilliant teacher, performer, and writer Susan Blackwell, and this was the first thing that came out of me. (And yes, I did try to do something creative every day; this part of it just happened to feel like a weekly thing.)
So I’ll pass on to you what she passed on to me and her other Twitter and Instagram followers: Try to do one thing creative every day (or hey, every week; I don’t judge).
See where it takes you.
The paradoxical truism of writing is that the more specific you are to your own, or your characters’, experience, the more universal your writing will be. Trying to be “universal” is usually ruinous. It mires you in generalities, ponderousness, pedantry—in short, effort.
This isn’t to say you should never step back and reflect, draw conclusions, make sense of things. Of course you should. But given a choice between the way your best friend put her hand on the back of your neck sophomore year of college—the physical feeling and the sudden wattage change in that hideous ceiling lamp full of dead flies—and a statement about how everything you think you know can change in a moment (because anyone can relate to that, right?), go with the hand, the neck, and the lamp.*
Whether recognizing something they’ve experienced or being taken somewhere they’ve never been, readers will feel welcomed into your story and find a point of connection the more detailed you are about your very particular, one-of-a-kind world.
*Some will pick up that this sounds a lot like “show, don’t tell.” I’m not going to argue—and will have more to say on that at another time.