Everyone has a story to tell and a message to share. The challenge lies in getting that story and message out of your head and into print in a way that resonates with your audience.
Starting somewhere in the late 2000s, a certain type of personal essay experienced a popularity boom. These essays were ultra-personal and confessional in nature, often in a TMI sort of way. Their headlines were clickable, not to mention shareable, for their shock value alone.
Although the confessional shock essay’s star seems to be fading, the personal essay itself is still standing strong. Essay collections by late greats like James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster) still top Amazon’s Best Sellers in essays. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) launched a career with her darkly funny and self-effacing essays about her health and mental illness challenges (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). Celebrities like Mindy Kaling (Why Not Me?) and Tina Fey (Bossypants) blended personal essays into memoir-esque collections that became best sellers. We head for the nearest bookseller when essay titans like David Sedaris or Anne Lamott have a new release.
We’re thirsty for real stories and musings from people who are able to share their foibles, lessons, and truths in a way we can relate to. Here are seven tips to help you craft a personal essay that will connect with readers.
1 Understand what a personal essay is.
Ask three different experts what a personal essay is and you’ll likely get three different answers. Are they structured? Must they address a certain type of subject? Here’s a definition we like:
—Richard Nordquist for ThoughtCo.
A personal essay is a short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner. Also called a personal statement.
A type of creative nonfiction, the personal essay is ‘all over the map,’ according to Annie Dillard. ‘There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is prescribed. You get to make up your own form every time.’
Personal essays relate the author’s intimate thoughts and experiences to universal truths. They aren’t simply a retelling of events, though—that falls more in the realm of memoir or autobiography. They conclude with the author having learned, changed, or grown in some way and often present some truth or insight that challenges the reader to draw their own conclusions.
2 Find a compelling topic.
The best essay topics are often deeply relatable. Although the story itself is unique to the author’s experience, there’s some universal truth that speaks to us from just below the surface. Topics like facing a fear, falling in love, overcoming an obstacle, discovering something new, or making a difficult choice tackle feelings and events that happen in everyone’s life.
3 Start with a strong hook.
As with any type of writing, it’s essential to draw the reader in from the very first paragraph, or even the first sentence. Here are a few examples.
—David Sedaris, “Untamed”
Aside from Peter, who supposedly guards the gates of heaven and is a pivotal figure in any number of jokes, the only saint who’s ever remotely interested me is Francis of Assisi, who was friends with the animals.
—Jenny Lawson, “Amelia and Me”
When I was young, my family didn’t go on outings to the circus or trips to Disneyland. We couldn’t afford them. Instead, we stayed in our small rural West Texas town, and my parents took us to cemeteries.
—James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind”
I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis.
—Anne Lamott, “Blessings: After Catastrophe, A Community Unites”
Alone, we are doomed. By the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most—especially the ones we love most.
Your hook and opening paragraph should establish the topic of your essay (or at least allude to it) and set the scene and tone.
4 Create an outline.
All it takes to understand the importance of an outline is listening to someone who struggled to tell a personal story. Often, the story will seem to have no real point. The switchbacks where the teller says “But wait, I have to tell you about this part, first!” are maddening and disruptive. An outline will help you organize your thoughts before committing them to text.
Consider your opening hook and the statement it makes, then map out the sequence of events or main points that support it. Just like a good fictional story, your essay should have rising action. Raise the stakes with each paragraph until you reach a climax or turning point. Plan to add a conclusion that will evoke an emotional response in your reader.
5 Narrow your focus.
Don’t try to write to a general topic. Your essay may well be about sexism, but you need to illustrate it through the lens of a defining incident that’s deeply personal to you. What did your experiences teach you about sexism? What does it mean to you as an individual?
6 Show, don’t tell.
Close your eyes. Think of the scene you’re about to write down. What were you experiencing with your five senses? How did you feel?
Your challenge is to evoke those senses and feelings without flatly stating them. Don’t say “I felt cold.” Say “I exhaled and my breath turned to vapor that hung in the air. I shivered and pulled the blanket tight around my shoulders in a vain attempt to trap my body heat.” Your description should help the reader experience the cold with you. Stephen King describes it as making the reader “prickle with recognition.”
7 Craft a thought-provoking conclusion.
Your essay should end with your own reflection and analysis. What did you learn? How have the events and thoughts you described changed your life or your understanding of life? It’s not enough to say “And that’s what happened.” You have to describe how whatever happened shaped you.
—Tom Bentley for Writer’s Digest
Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, agreement, passion or some other sense of completion. Circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give readers that full-circle sense. Try to restate your thesis in a way that reflects the journey the essay has taken.
—Leslie Jamison for Publishers Weekly
There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.