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.
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.
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.
It seems almost obligatory these days for books to have an epigraph—a resonant quotation at the start of the first chapter (often before every chapter, come to think of it), but more and more I see it on essays and articles, too. Epigraphs can be powerful and enticing. (Hmm, how is this intriguing quote relevant? Guess I have to keep reading to find out!) Yet might you be in effect borrowing someone else’s gravitas, poetic facility, or name recognition? If the other person’s words do actually help deepen your narrative—and judiciously used, they can—could there be a way to integrate them with it rather than setting them atop it like a burnished urn?
Ask yourself if an epigraph really adds a note that your writing can’t strike on its own—and with originality at that. Remember: Your work has the potential to say everything you want it to, all by itself.
Ever thought, “I could never publish this while my mother’s alive” or “in a magazine where someone who knows me could see it” or “because my kids would think I was a monster”? Or maybe “I’m not telling the full story because it would hurt X, so I’m only going to tell this small part [which is not really a story but a tantalizing yet unsatisfying crumb]”?
Write it anyway.
I said write, not publish. Too often we leap ahead to the nightmare scenarios—“Everyone will see it and never speak to me again!”—that scare us off from the story that wants to be written. Funny how we seem to assume our most sensitive, potentially hurtful stories WILL be published—yet are plagued with doubt that anyone will be interested in the equally well-written but non-life-ruining ones.
Write it, then decide if you even want to seek publication. Maybe you’ll feel more confident once you put the words down and get feedback from readers you trust. Or perhaps you’ll decide you were right all along and aren’t ready to go public. But here’s the thing: You can learn something from writing it—about both the story and writing itself.
So write it. It won’t be wasted time.
When you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, have an idea of what you want to say. Or, perhaps less intimidating—especially with a personal essay—what you want to explore. Keep in mind the direction you want to go in. Jot down points, examples, details, anecdotes you’d like to include.
But don’t work toward a particular conclusion or, even worse, a specific last line.
Smart readers (they’re the ones you want, right?) can always tell when the ending is one the writer was planning all along. No discovery for the author = no discovery for the reader.
Go where your story or essay wants to take you. Listen to what it’s telling you.
This isn’t stream of consciousness. It’s consciousness.
When you come to what feels like an end, take a deep breath. Then go back and edit, delete, change, reorder, add, flesh out—and maybe end up in yet another place entirely.
Your own careful thought is your best outline.
In personal writing—or, for that matter, fiction—a few tears go a very long way. They are not a legitimate shortcut to emotion. If misused, overused, or used too soon, they’re a bobsled to sentimentality. You have to earn your tears.
You often don’t need to mention them at all. (I’m constantly editing them out.) If you’ve successfully conveyed the emotion of a scene—through, say, halting dialogue, body language (hand movements can be key), or the way the light or the knickknacks on a shelf have changed—it can be redundant or over the top to say you were crying. Yes, even if the tears flowed in real life. “But that’s how it happened!” is, ironically, a specious argument in personal writing.
When it is important to introduce tears—and such times do exist—think of indirect ways: You suddenly realized the Kleenex in your hand was damp or matted. Your vision blurred. You felt a cold stream on your cheek. Okay, that one might need work. Just, please, no lump in the throat.
No one is contractually obligated to read past your first sentence.
Feature writers—journalists who write profiles, trend pieces, nonfiction narratives, and the like—are trained to grab readers right from the start, but essayists (particularly personal essayists) often seem to have the idea that the same imperative doesn’t apply to them, so they take their time, they dip their foot in tentatively.
But why shouldn’t it apply to them? Why assume readers picking up your essay in a doctor’s office, or the New Yorker that arrives in their mailbox, will read to the end simply because it’s an essay (or is in the New Yorker)?
This is not a crass, commercial concern. It’s a literary concern. You want people to keep reading, and they can put your work down at any time. Especially after the first sentence.
Names. Give people names. For personal essays, make them up if you need to, for privacy or protection. But repeated and unwavering references to a key character as, say, “my brother” or “my neighbor” become tedious.
Don’t refer to your mother solely as “my mother” or “my mom.” What do you call her, in memory or life? Such a difference in intimacy, that simple act of deleting the possessive pronoun and capping the word: Mom, Ma, Mother—whatever you know or knew her as. That’s how she lives in your head. Let her live on the page.
(“She” and “he” serve useful functions, too.)
Today in class when we were talking about sending work out—something I always do in the last workshop—a student asked where I stood on following up on a submission to a magazine or journal.
I was a little stunned, because while my regular spiel includes a reminder to keep track of where and when you send essays (Submittable makes this super-easy now) and to follow up, I’d never been asked—before I’d even gotten it—about the advisability of doing so. The way she worded the question implied there might be times when it wasn’t a good idea to check on the status of writing you’ve shed blood for and taken the leap of faith to see into a world of strangers.
So yes, if you haven’t gotten a reply after the publication’s stated response time (assuming such exists), you should without question or apology follow up. Things get lost in transit all the time. They get buried in in-boxes, physical and electronic. Editorial processes are slow and complicated in ways outsiders can’t imagine.
But here’s what surprised me: I then heard coming out of my mouth words I’d never heard myself speak before. I said, “Just like your kids or your partner, you should have your writing’s back.
It deserves it.