As an official judge for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, I read a lot of essays, the quality of which fluctuated from powerful to pointless.
Despite this range, what struck me most were the handful-and-a-half common, correctable mistakes that kept many essays, even potentially wonderful ones, from truly hitting their mark.
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With input from writers, teachers and magazine editors, here are seven of those mistakes and ways to avoid or correct them so that you can increase your chances of getting published, winning contests or simply bringing your writing to the next level.
1. Starting Too Slowly
The seemingly most practical way to start a personal essay is to set the scene through exposition:
“Supermarkets are the last place you’d expect the surprise of your life. But last Thursday, my kids and I were in the express lane when…”
But that’s also the least interesting way to begin (no matter what happens in the express lane). Consider starting your essay in the middle of your story, with action or with compelling dialogue.
Axing the first paragraph entirely often works for me, but you should do whatever it takes to make sure you and your readers hit the ground running, not stuck in neutral.
2. Not “Showing” Up
“Many writers forget the all-important basic writing advice ‘show, don’t tell,'” says Louise Sloan, deputy editor for Brown Alumni Magazine. “Make your point through personal anecdotes.”
Midge Raymond, longtime writing instructor and co-founder of Ashland Creek Press, agrees that personal stories are a perfect vehicle for your point. “Personal essay writers need to keep in mind that readers want to be told a story,” she says.
Raymond says she receives many submissions from foreign travelers who “write up, essentially, a description of that country without any personal element, without a narrative and without a character arc or any sort of personal revelation,” making it about as fun as your neighbor’s vacation slideshow.
3. Going Nowhere
A good essay, like a road trip, takes you somewhere different from the place you started. Ideally, you’ll arrive at a new and relevant self-realization. But take your time with that journey and its details, says Parade Magazine senior editor Peter Smith.
“The conclusions you eventually reach may seem like a given to you now, but if you jump straight to them, you’ll short pedal the amount of work you had to do to get there and rob the reader of what’s interesting about your story,” he explains.
4. Thinking It Must Be Dramatic
Unlike television movies, personal essays don’t have to be filled with tragedy to engage an audience. “A lot of writers fail to remember that great essays can be written about stuff that’s happy or funny,” says Sloan. “It doesn’t always have to be wrenching, and in fact, we’d often rather it weren’t!”
Strong humor can really sell an essay, but don’t let it overshadow your point. “Some writers fall into the trap of using all their funny bits in one essay so that the piece becomes a rambling mess,” says Debe Tashjian Dockins, who coordinates the Erma Bombeck competition. “Stick to a couple of good ideas and incorporate them into one theme.”
5. Going Broad, Not Niche
You may have a lot to say, but don’t bite off more than you can write. Think large, but write lean, say the experts.
“You don’t need to tell the whole story as an essayist. You don’t even need to follow it through to its real ending,” says essayist and writing consultant Jenna Glatzer, author of Outwitting Writer’s Block and Other Problems of the Pen. “Figure out where the most interesting parts end and tie it off there.”
Paula Derrow, writing instructor and editorial consultant agrees. “The biggest mistake is that people try to squish 20 years of their life into five pages instead of focusing in on specific events and vivid details,” she says. “The best personal essays use focused events to make a larger point.”
Many of the submissions read by Daniel Jones, editor of The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column, “take on too much, trying to tell too big of a story in too small a space,” he says. “The whole thing becomes a rushed summary of events — told and not shown — which can keep the reader at a distance.”
6. Not Keeping it Real
Sloan says some writers fail because “their voice doesn’t sound authentic: Either it’s cutesy or highfalutin, or their insight lacks subtlety or depth.” Like confessions, personal essays work best when they’re revealing raw truth.
But don’t confuse looking for truth with trying to make yourself feel better, warns Jones. One of the most common mistakes he finds is “when people write to justify their own behavior or opinion, rather than to explore something they don’t understand.”
And don’t settle for easy answers. “People tend to write personal essays in which they’re either the hero or the villain, but most of us are squarely in the middle, which creates an opportunity for a narrative as unexpected as real life,” says Salon.com personal essays editor Sarah Hepola.
“I love it when a writer says, ‘I thought you were the one to blame. But, actually, now that I think about it, maybe I am.'”
So approach all issues, especially your own, with an open mind.
7. Eschewing Feedback
“The biggest mistake essay writers make is finishing a piece at three in the morning, deciding it’s brilliant and, without getting any feedback, sending it to The New Yorker,” she says. “After you write your piece, get a serious critique in a class, a writing workshop or by a tough ghost editor. Listen carefully to the criticism; then rewrite.”
There’s more to good essay writing than just avoiding these traps, but if you keep them in mind, the next piece you write could be the one that takes you places. And even if it doesn’t, remember this quote from Bombeck herself: “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.”