13 Pro Tips For Writing The Best Personal Essay

by Meredith Turits

If you’re a writer telling your own story, you want your piece to do two important things: pop on the page, and reach the right audience. So, how to write a personal essay that’ll not only tell your story the way you want it to, but also stand out above the rest when it finds a home? It’s an alchemy of writing, revising, and placing it correctly. Which, sure, sounds hard, but is a lot easier with the right advice.

At AWP 2015 Minneapolis, two panels focused on writing the personal essay: “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Revising the Personal Essay.” With their power-packed lineup of writers speaking to full rooms, panelists doled out info about the personal essay process from conception to writing to revision to pitching. Spoiler alert: It’s long, drawn-out, and emotionally involved. As it should be when you’re putting your heart on the page.

Even if you’re a personal essay pro, you can always get better — that was one theme from the panels — and that sounds damn good to me. Here are 13 tips on how to write a personal essay that’s even stronger than ones you’ve authored before, straight from the pros. Happy writing… and, oh yes, revising. Lots of revising.

Think Outside the Box With Form

Writer Jamie Iredell suggests to rethink what you consider a "personal essay," especially in the age of the Internet. Sure, you're used to writing in straight essay form — but what if you switched it up and tried writing your story in the form of a list, maybe? Or a letter? A different form can still "accommodate the literary tricks that you want to include," Iredell said, but experimenting will not only open up different pathways for how you're going to tell your story, it may also open doors to places to which you can pitch when you're done, too.

Ask Yourself, “What Can I Omit?”

Cutting the narrative is a tricky beast in a personal essay, because you want to be thorough and tell your whole story. But Wendy C. Ortiz said to ask yourself, "What can I omit from this to make it a sharper piece?" Consider how you're going to streamline details to get to the real heart of the story you want to tell, and to make the narrative clearer for people who weren't there to see the action happen.

Examine Your Level of Sincerity Within Your Piece

If you've published before, think about how honest you've been in your past pieces — and make sure you get to the same place of sincerity again. Push yourself harder if you haven't. People are attracted to the way people tell stories, not necessarily what they're writing about, Ben Tanzer said. "If people feel like they can trust you for all the same reasons they did before, they’ll fall in love with you."

Embrace the Unsexiness of Revision

The act of writing is super-glamorous. Revision? Well, it "has a kind of unsexy, custodial aspect,” Sven Birkerts said. But it's where you're actually going to start seeing your work for what it is. "It is in rewriting that we're writing," Birkerts added. Yes, you're going to have the desire to want to send off your draft right away, but you have to dig in. Resist the impulse to fire off your first draft to an editor to make your essay the best it can be.

Stop Listening To Yourself, and Listen to What’s On the Page Instead

Once you've written your first draft, revision isn't about what you want — it's about what the piece wants. Birkerts said that once his first drafts are down, “I’m no longer listening to myself — I’m listening to what’s on the page.” Sure, that might sound a little hippy-dippy, but there's truth in it: if your words are fighting you, don't fight back and force them into a kind of structure into which they don't fit. If they seem like they need to be expanded, explore the impulse. Pay attention to what you've written.

Revise Until You Get Your Emotional “A-Ha!” Moment

How do you know when you've struck gold in your revision and are about to take your writing to the next level? Write until you encounter something in the text that “terrifies or surprises or interests you," Alexis Paige said. That’s how you know you’ve moved from drafting to “something with agency… something that might exist outside of [you].” But wait, there's more! Once you find that ineffable emotional current, travel it — it's your duty to yourself and the piece. Paige says to stay on the course, and rise to meet the new possibilities the draft has created. "If we’re doing our job as writers … hopefully we come to that point where [we say], 'I didn’t know I’ve come here to say this, but now I’m here.'"

Find Your Tics, and Slaughter Them

As writers, we all have written tics. Figure out what they are, and scan your piece specifically for them, Penny Guisinger said. For example, do you often start sentences with “in”? Start with the image instead. Are you verbose? Think about the sentences in which you’re using many words versus aiming for economy. If you love sentence fragments, are they really serving the piece? Your draft will be instantly stronger.

Keep Your Ego In Check, aka KILL YOUR DARLINGS

Make sure every word in your work is necessary, Paige said, which means you're going to have to cause a bloodbath on your draft. Jettison the clever, funny lines that don’t serve the piece. Figure out what’s serving the work — not your own ego. Or cleverness. Or adorableness. (You'll still be cute, no matter what.)

Rethink Your Opening Line

Your opening line probably sucks. It's nothing personal, but really think about the first time you came to your draft: you just wanted to get words on the page to get to the exciting idea. "It's like clearing your throat," Sarah Einstein said. Now that you've drafted and you have a big picture of the piece, go back and figure out the image that should lead.

Defamiliarize Yourself With the Text

The closer you are to the text, the harder it's going to be to revise. Einstein provided two great strategies for making the text unfamiliar to you: 1) Put the copy in a different font and print it out — it'll be similar to seeing it in print, which will make you more critical on the words. 2) Make your screen-reader on the computer read it aloud to you — your piece likely won’t sound as fluid as you think, or inflected the way you intended. Einstein said that that way, "everything that’s bad is really painful,” and will help you figure out why you hate it.

Find a Reader… and Then Many Readers

Guisinger gave great advice about beta readers: for your first few drafts, find a reader you really trust who gets your writing sensibilities and style. She'll be honest with you and help you nurture your baby work. Then, when you think you're getting closer to send the story out into the wild, query a wider pool that'll be a closer representation to the diverse kind of audience that'll actually be reading your piece. Ask them about their overall impressions, not the little details.

Don’t Be Impulsive About Publishing and Give Yourself a “Cooling Off Period”

I know you want to see your words alive NOW. But Einstein insists on giving yourself a "cooling off period" of letting your work rest to "fall out of love with it." She takes a folder, marks it three months from the date the draft was "finished," and doesn't open the folder before then. Tanzer agrees that you shouldn't put anything out that you haven't yet had the chance to think about. “As writers, we have a chance to write something larger that speaks to people," he said, so make sure your piece has the right message.

Don’t Discount Publishing On the Internet

Yes, print is really sexy. But Megan Stielstra and Anna March emphasize that you shouldn't discount publishing on the Internet. (We at Bustle agree, ahem.) Not only does it provide more platforms, but all of the things that you want to happen — like getting noticed, or snagging an agent, or being anthologized — can happen when you publish online, too. Stielstra is an example of it!