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The Art of the Personal Essay

The word essay conjures up feelings of dread or boredom for many of us (think college applications, biology reports)—remember the plodding five-paragraph essay formula you learned to write in grade school? But the personal essay (also called a creative nonfiction essay or a narrative nonfiction essay) is a highly marketable piece of writing. Personal essays are published regularly in literary magazines and even commercial magazines.

Personal essays are a refreshing change from their stuffy cousin, the formal essay, because the personal essay is just that—personal. It’s more chatty and friendly. You are speaking directly to your reader about anything from the death of a parent to a moment of beauty in your garden.

What is a good subject for a personal essay?
From life-changing events to life’s mundane moments, anything can be fodder for a gem of an essay. But here’s the catch. In a personal essay, you must offer a theme that a broader audience can relate to. Whether it’s the current state of the nation or an epiphany gained while washing dirty socks, if your readers are nodding their heads and muttering, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” you’ve reached them.

Who publishes personal essays?

Magazines and literary journals have always welcomed submissions of essays from established or new writers. Today we can also add “blogging” to this literary form, since blog posts often take on the form of essay-like prose. If the entries are interesting, concise, and well-written, with a somewhat universal theme, a collection of personal essays is born.

Tips for writing a personal essay:

One of the differences between writing creative short fiction and personal essays is that in fiction, you must show, not tell. In the personal essay, you must both show AND tell. As the author of a personal essay, you are speaking directly to your reader.

So, in a short story, you create a setting and characters and circumstances that show or reveal that, for instance, a woman named Mary is suffering from profound isolation and loneliness in her role as a farmer’s wife. In a personal essay, you tell the reader that your friend Mary is isolated and lonely in her role as a farmer’s wife. You are allowed to comment and offer your opinion, and thus, you are present in the essay.

A few more tips:

Ideas. Brainstorm issues in your own life that are humorous, stressful, upsetting, or life-changing in a negative or positive way. These issues can be momentous (the impact of divorce or winning the lottery) or trivial (an insight into the plight of the elderly brought on by a half hour at the post office). There are no rules. If you find that any one subject generates a rush of writing, it’s probably a good place to start. Keeping a journal handy to record pivotal moments or epiphanies can help capture your ideas as you go about your day.

The hook. Once you’ve started, just as in short stories, you should start off with a bang and get the reader’s interest immediately, within the first sentence or paragraph. Some writers use humor, anecdotes, or quotes to get the reader’s attention.

POV. Use the first-person active voice. You are the narrator and so you must do the “talking.”  Also watch for using language that is too informal. The personal essay is more conversational than other literary forms, but you don’t want it to read like a high school diary entry. “I saw this totally cool sculpture, and it was way awesome!!!”

Be concise. Word counts differ between publications, but one thing is consistent: tight and concise writing is the hallmark of a good personal essay. When editing, cut the fluff, be specific, and make each word count.

Connect. The personal essay is personal, but the message should be widely recognizable if you want to make a connection with your readers. The wider your target audience, the greater your chance of publication.

Read More: How To Publish A Collection Of Essays.

Personal essays are published in literary magazines, national magazines, trade journals, local and national newspapers, and anthologies, and they offer a great opportunity for writers. At Writer’s Relief, we can develop a specific and organized submission process to help place your work once you’ve mastered the form. Have fun with it!

REMEMBER TO CHECK OUT OUR LIST OF WRITING CONTESTS and ANTHOLOGIES! You won’t find a better list anywhere (AND IT’S FREE!) of upcoming anthologies, special-themed journals, calls for submissions, and writing contests.

One Response to The Art of the Personal Essay

  1. I think the personal essay is one of the ultimate forms of writing. Isn’t a blog, really a modern format for the personal essay? That has been my thinking.

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