I’ve taught a few class sessions on personal essay writing lately, which means I’ve read some personal essay assignments of late. It’s much easier to see the chinks in others’ writing than it is to see it in our own, so I feel as if I’m constantly learning by teaching. (Don’t worry, I still tend to be more of an “expert” than my students, simply by dint of experience.) Here are a few of the principles I’ve learned (or been reminded of):
Be clear about what you’re trying to say. Your first draft of a personal essay can often be a rambling, beautiful mess. You’re typing deep thoughts, stringing together a bunch of incidents and insights that you didn’t even realize were related until you started writing. Personal essays allow for some of the most self-discovery through writing. However, once that first draft is done, you need to figure out what its actual point is, then revise to make it come through.
Have a dramatic, easy-to-understand opening. You need to get my attention with a story. Make it a good one, and make it very clear. One thing that often happens in personal essays is that you assume readers understand your life and your leaps from one thought to another. You often have to slow down and explain the significance of certain people, places, and stories.
Have an audience in mind. Even if you’re writing the essay without knowing where it will ultimately be published, have a publication in mind while writing it. You have to write to a specific audience — true in any kind of writing, but particularly true in essays.