After a 20-plus-year career in publishing, I know how to expertly package material to get an editor's (and reader's) attention and I can help you do it, too. Here are my tips on how to successfully write a personal essay that will get read, shared, and appreciated.
#1: Mine Your Life for Stories
Writing is one area where age and experience works in your favor. Think about it: The more you have lived, the more stories you can tell. Couple that with a timely or trendy topic or angle, and you have publishing gold.
Writing a personal essay works best when you can write about a topic that you are passionate (or obsessed) about. I wrote a piece that won a Voices of the Year honor at #BlogHer15, "Giving Up the Ghost Baby," after undergoing a devastating ectopic pregnancy. A piece I wrote for Marie Claire was about a creepy roommate I had years ago, who had never left my mind because her behavior was so bizarre.
#2 Open Strong
A powerful opening brings your reader right into the action, rather than including background information in a conversational style. Many of us have probably written in this conversational style on our blogs; for instance, "I woke up this morning, had coffee (black), drove to the supermarket, looked up and down the aisles searching for the perfect avocado, and then can you believe it, a crazy man started screaming at me …"
A personal essay, though, must be crafted with carefully chosen words. It would likely start right in the middle of the action, with perhaps a small preface. "Standing in the supermarket, perusing the summer-fattened avocados, I heard a staccato of background noise. To my horror, the sound was housed in the body of a small, wizened man, and he was at screaming at me …"
Great opening sentences of essays get your attention, make you want to read on and often pose a question that you feel needs to be answered.Good starting sentences:
#3 It's All in the Sensory Details
Purple Clover, Susan Shapiro:
"Try my shrimp tempura," he said and offered a chopstick-full.
"I don't need another Jewish mother," I told my tall, 40-year-old blind date, who'd ordered the most fattening dish on the Japanese menu.
New York Times Motherlode, Jordan Rosenfeld:
I used to make terrible judgments about what it meant to be a "PTA mom," which stood for "Perfect Type A." I envisioned a carefully coifed, cupcake-baking beast of a woman whose pastel capris never bore so much as a smudge of child-effluence, all with a polished smile.
A good personal essay includes lots of details to paint a vivid picture for the reader. Don't just say you ate a muffin. An essay would describe the muffin—what it tasted or smelled like, and what it evoked in you.
Case in point: "As I ate the blueberry muffin; its tart aroma made me gasp, as I recalled seeing my lover hand-feeding its morsels into the grasping mouth of another woman." Using lots of sensory images depicting examples of sight, sounds, touch, or taste (and its effect on you) invites the reader into the story.#4 Use Words that Work
We've all seen the word "amazing" a thousand times. While it may work in a quick, casual post, in an essay you need every word to work for you. The more common the word, the more readers will tend to overlook it—and your writing as well. So if you want to write the word "happy," try substituting a different word like "elated," or "delighted." When I was writing a personal essay, I would always write a first draft and then go through the essay, substituting more interesting or unusual words.#5: Create a Flow
A good personal essay has a narrative arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. While you are at it, avoid clichés and get rid of most adverbs (words ending, for the most part in ly)—they represent lazy writing.#6: Leave the Reader with a Gift
Your reader should get a universal takeaway message from your essay. This means that some transformation or learning or understanding has taken place and that's what you convey in those last sentences.Good Last Sentences:
#7 Sound It Out/Print It Out
Modern Love, Meghan Austin:
Love often doesn't arrive at the right time or in the right person. It makes us do ridiculous and stupid things. But without it, life is just a series of unremarkable events, one after the other.
New York Times Motherlode, Lisa Heffernan:
For most children, childhood isn't about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.
I like to read my essay out loud, so I can catch clunky words or too many repetitions (I try to avoid using the same word more than twice). I also print it out, because sometimes you just need to see it on paper (and not the screen) to catch other errors.
I can't wait to see what you write.
Estelle Erasmus is a SheKnows Expert and a widely published journalist, author, three-time BlogHer Voice of the Year, and former magazine editor-in-chief (of five publications). She blogs at Musings on Motherhood & Midlife and offers editing and writing services. She is on Twitter at @EstelleSErasmus.