Advice From the Pros

Your Life in 1,000 Words: The Craft of Personal Essays

Tell your story in a way that resonates with your audience

There is intrigue in our daily lives, our reactions to events and the harmony or dissonance between our goals and realities. All of these can become inspiring and salable personal essays. But crafting your experiences into written pieces requires focus, a cold eye for editing and professionalism when facing negative feedback.

A good essay is artful, honest and written with a strong angle. Most of all, it is written with an audience in mind. And especially for fiction writers, I recommend the personal essay as a way to cross over into nonfiction. Like fiction, essay writing requires tweaking your observations into something meaningful and palatable to others.

Your built-in sensor for pacing and plot will serve you well when writing essays—I know because I made the transition from fiction hobbyist to paid nonfiction writer two years ago by way of the personal essay.

Let’s take a look at best practices for developing content that truly resonates with your audience, as you craft your personal essay.

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Getting Ideas

Strong ideas for essays can come from unusual experiences and milestones in life. But they can also come in a subtler form, like a counter-cultural choice you made, an unusual hobby or a strong reaction to something in the news.

In my experience, when you’re dreaming up ideas for essays, it’s like that moment when you cut into an avocado: You know almost immediately if it’s a good one. It often comes in the form of a statement, not a topic. For instance, “I’m not ashamed I’m still breastfeeding my 2-year-old,” or “It’s difficult being an atheist parent living in the Bible Belt.” Both of these ideas became essays I published on Mommyish.com.

Louise Hung writes first-person pieces for various print and digital publications.

“I’ve had the most success with essays that hit on that ‘I thought I was the only one!’ nerve,” she says. “I think you have to write about something that might be perceived as embarrassing, but do it in a fair and honest way. Self-reflection is key. Eloquence in relating an experience that may be difficult for people to talk about—I find those essays do well for me too.”

Carinn Jade, blogger at Welcome To The Motherhood, also likes to keep her audience in mind when crafting essays. “I get ideas when something happens and I’ve realized it made a big impact on me, or I wonder how other people handle the same thing.”

She also reads her favorite publications and notes the kind of work they’re publishing. “I see what people are talking about and if I have my own take on that. Some issues are evergreen. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m just seeing if I can find some inspiration in what somebody else is doing.”

Putting Pen to Page

The advice to “write hot, revise cool” really comes into play when you’re working on an essay. Don’t edit yourself as you get the first draft down. Allow yourself to rant and curse, if applicable, and include as many details as you can. Later, you can give your family members pseudonyms, weed out the extra words and revise those trite metaphors—but your first draft should be honest and real.

Your essay, like any good piece of writing, should have structure. Hung focuses her pieces by presenting an issue, highlighting major emotions or incidents involving it and wrapping it up with some sort of resolution.

“There isn’t always a resolution, but the piece has to go somewhere. I try not to get bogged down in too many feelings, even though it’s easy to do that.” Concrete details often serve your writing better than vague emotions. Anecdotes and imagery resonate with readers, while language describing happiness or anger, no matter how flowery or poetic, doesn’t hold the same power.

Jade emphasizes that essay writers need to “be ready to lay it all out on the line. I think what makes the best essays are ones that are really true for you. Whether that’s true for anybody else isn’t important. If it’s really coming from you, I think that’s what matters to people.”

Of course, there is a danger in being too honest. Jade takes precautions like changing names and details when writing stories about her children, but she also states that she’ll only divulge personal information if she is really passionate about a topic. “I’m not just going to give you details about my body or my life just for the fun of it, and certainly not for 50 bucks.”

Above all, it is your voice that will set you apart from other essayists. Hung recommends thinking about what people find interesting about you in your daily life and how that can translate into your writing. She also suggests you write every day. “Keep a journal, always have a notebook nearby. If you’re writing about your life you have to take notes!”

It’s a fine line to walk, especially on the Internet. Although publishing your stories anonymously may seem a viable alternative, I have done this and faced two major problems. First, an anonymous byline does nothing to further my career and presence as a writer, even if it does help pay the bills.

But the other problem is that I have received character attacks in comments sections that bring down my morale as a writer and a person. As Jade mentions, you may reach a certain point where divulging your life’s details does more harm than good, and isn’t worth any amount of money.

Publishing Your Essay

Unless you already have a relationship with an editor or publication, you need to write your essay before sending it out—rather than selling it as an idea in a pitch letter. Jade prefers to have a particular market in mind when she’s crafting her essays.

“It’s really about knowing the periodical or site, knowing their voice and point of view and tailoring [your piece] to fit with their content.” She recommends reading profusely, finding publications that speak to you and trying to join that community instead of doing a broad search for markets.

Another helpful resource is Mediabistro’s series on personal essay markets: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

Hung starts by hunting down “submissions” pages on sites she reads regularly. When she’s looking for paying gigs, she follows @WhoPaysWriters on Twitter and Tumblr. “I’m also not above Googling ‘does this place pay writers?’ Whenever I find a website I like, I look into what they want as far as submissions. Everything is a potential job.”

She recommends looking to local print publications, especially if your essay is related to your immediate community.

Dealing With Feedback

If you publish your essay online, especially in a vociferous blogging community, be prepared for anything. I have been called irresponsible, a bully, mean-spirited, lazy and more. I have also been praised for my candor, my writing style and my sense of humor.

Any time you publish your work, you open yourself up to criticism, but with the personal essay, criticism can cut deeper because it’s in response to your personal life.

Learning how to cope with negative feedback is a constant practice, Jade says. “I think 97 percent of my comments have been negative. If I’ve written a piece that’s a real trigger for me, I’ll really try not to read the comments.”

She has to constantly remind herself it’s not personal. “These people don’t know me, they’re reading a couple hundred words I wrote. Maybe they disagree with me, but it’s not about me as a person.”

However, when she’s writing regularly for a particular community, Jade will engage with regular readers whose usernames she recognizes. “If I feel like I wasn’t really clear, like I want to defend what I said, I will engage. But it’s not for the faint of heart.”

Hung says there’s only one situation where she’ll defend herself: “If they say something really horrible that involves someone other than myself or makes a cruel assumption. But I never throw back insults.”

She recounts a crisis in which she was questioning her skill as a writer and not trusting her ideas. “My friend Caitlin basically said to me, ‘Louise, the Internet is not real. MeanCommenter37 is not real. You and the people in your life would never say such cruel things to another person. So these [commenters] are not people you’d want in your life anyway. Don’t let them tear you down.'”

Looking Within

For me, writing personal essays allows me to make sense of my life and find camaraderie in others who struggle with similar issues. However, publishing personal essays requires resilience and introspection—a task that, as Jade rightly put it, isn’t for the faint of heart.

But for the writer who wants to let his unique voice shine, there is no better format than the essay.

“Don’t be afraid to have a strong, unusual opinion,” Hung says. “You can’t please everybody, so you have to be pleased with what you put out into the world. I still struggle with this. I just want to make everybody like me!”

Although you’ll never make everyone like you, if your stories resonate with even one reader, you’ve done your job.

 

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