33. Forbidden Words
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.
32. The Haunting
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.
31. Nailing the Short Essay
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.