6 Steps to Writing an Engaging Personal Essay
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
Writing a personal essay can be an incredibly cathartic experience for both the writer and the reader alike. However, we often find ourselves embroiled in self-doubt.
Will anyone actually care that this happened to me?
Am I coming across as a narcissist?
Isn’t Jim’s life story so much more interesting than my own?
If you’ve ever been plagued by these thoughts before sitting down to start a personal essay, then congratulations! You have passed the first litmus test of a great essayist; you possess the awareness necessary to craft an irresistible piece of work.
Now, erase that doubt from your mind! The best stories are borne out of a personal and intimate experience, and with a few simple steps, you will be well on your way to honing a thought-provoking essay that touches and inspires your readers.
Here’s where to start:
Clarify What You’re Trying to Say
First things first, what’s the point you’re trying to make with your personal essay? Since our life experiences are so intimate, it’s easy to veer off track, allowing one experience to segue into another.
Define the purpose of the essay – the personal experience and the underlying theme that upholds it. Then, use this singular point as a guiding light to structure each supporting sentence.
Follow the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Rule
A strong personal essay holds immense emotional weight that resonates at the core for the reader. But too often, we tell the reader how to feel about what has happened to us, rather than demonstrating it through visuals, dialogue, and metaphors. This style of writing is the perfect tool to put “show, don’t tell” into action. An image of a relatable scene in your life will stretch the imagination much further than a simple declaration of emotion.
Hone in on the Conflict
Our lives are stories filled with a rollercoaster of conflict and resolution, in which we are the protagonist that charts the path forward. In this way, writing a personal essay is not all that dissimilar to writing a fiction novel. What’s the central point of conflict in your personal story that requires you to change or evolve?
Once you narrow in on this target, you’ll do more than simply develop a riveting short story about a moment in your life. You will dig up the most human element in your personal character, unearthing the empathic angle that’s necessary to breathe life into your essay.
Try Stream of Consciousness…But Don’t Forsake the Outline
Some of the best personal essays are created from a stream of consciousness approach to writing. After all, this is your life, and when inspiration hits, words can flow onto the page with ease. Never be afraid to just get rolling.
Still, don’t completely abandon the idea of putting together an outline. A strong personal essay will hook the readers from the very first sentence and lead them through a series of dynamic shifts, until they are left with a strong empathic resonance or a host of new information to integrate into their own life perspective. Provoking such a response is no easy feat, and can be much more digestible if you craft an outline that supports the point you’re trying to make.
Start Your Essay With a Hook
When crafting the introduction, ask yourself, “Would I care to know more about this person or what happens next?” Begin the first few sentences in the middle of an action, allowing the reader to dive into your personal story instead of wasting time ramping up their interest. By grabbing their attention from the beginning, you’re priming them to glean more meaning from the words that follow.
End it With a Thought-Provoking Conclusion
Have you ever started a conversation with, “I just read a great collection of essays…” only to find yourself immersed in a spirited conversation with your family and friends? A thought-provoking conclusion will turn your essay into a riveting conversation at the dinner table. And isn’t that every writer’s dream? Whether you choose a single-syllable word approach that adds depth to your conclusion, or end with an open-ended scenario that leaves the reader guessing, those final sentences need to pack the biggest emotional punch.
Are you working on a personal essay? Hone your craft in our three-month essay/memoir mentorship this fall.