Humans are nosy. We love to be all up in other people’s business. And while this is annoying at family gatherings when your aunt wants to know why you’re still not married, the nosy nature of humans is actually good news for you as a writer. People want to read your story! People want to read your personal essays.
Ideas for Your Personal Essay
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your life is too boring to write about. I believe every woman has a story worth sharing.
Sit down with a notebook and pen and take a moment to brainstorm some ideas for your essay.
If you can peg your essay to something going on in pop culture or the news, an editor is more likely to run your piece and run it soon.
But remember that personal essays must be personal! You have to be willing to be vulnerable. Expose your doubts and fears. Spill your secrets.
Don’t write a piece that celebrates how wonderful you are. These attributes make you a great person in real life but may make you a boring character on the page. Reveal your flaws and things that embarrass you. Writer and teacher Susan Shapiro has her students write what she calls a “humiliation essay” for which they have to reveal their most embarrassing secret.
My first personal essay for Birmingham magazine wasn’t about how I’m a confident, body-positive feminist. It was about how I claim to be these things yet daydream about getting a chin lift and how I am obsessed with trying to figure out how to lose weight. The essay focused on my realization that I am a hypocrite.
That said, keep in mind that some stories you need to keep between you and your journal, you and your girls, or you and your God. But if there’s a message in your mess, if there’s a lesson to be learned that could help other people, then this could be a great personal essay.
Outline Your Essay
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class your teacher probably said the words, “Show, don’t tell” one or two thousand times. And this rule applies to personal essays, too. Sort of. You do need to add details and descriptions to your piece, but you’ll need to quickly give the reader necessary information, too, because a personal essay is much shorter than a memoir.
When writing a personal essay, it can be easy to rant or ramble. To prevent this, draft an outline.
First, figure out your focus. Be sure your essay focuses on one turning point or scene and seeks to make one major point. If you can’t condense your essay idea into one or two fun or fascinating lines, you’re doing too much.
To give your narrative structure, try using the hero’s journey archetype.
When working on your outline, you should also consider what facts and figures you need to include.
A good personal essay is persuasive without being preachy.
Persuasive pieces must do three things: establish credibility (ethos), appeal to logic (logos), and appeal to emotion (pathos). To establish credibility, you need to make clear why you’re the person who should be writing about this subject and (depending on your topic) let your reader know you have their best interests at heart. Use facts and statistics from reliable sources to appeal to logic. Your story will help you appeal to emotion by putting a face on the facts and figures you have presented.
Let’s look at some examples. See Jane Write Collective member Tawanna Jones wrote a personal story about her recovery from depression, but in her piece, she also included facts that revealed how common depression is among women. Collective member Melissa Scott wrote about why she’s going to seminary but included information about the decline of church attendance and the political landscape of the Methodist church.
If you’re hoping to pitch your essay as an op-ed for your local paper or favorite website, I suggest the following structure:
- Introduction: Open your piece with a compelling anecdote and make clear the overall point of your essay.
- Appeal to Emotion: Continue your personal story to appeal to emotion. Include details that convey why you’re the right person to write about this topic and that you have your reader’s best interest at heart.
- Appeal to Logic: Include facts and statistics to support your point.
- Application: Explain to your reader why they should care about your topic.
- Conclusion: Offer a resolution to the story you included and a call to action.
Where to Send Your Essay
After you write your essay, run it through Grammarly and the Hemingway App and get a friend with a discerning eye to read it, too.
Once you’re happy with your piece, it’s time to find a home for your work.
If you’re a woman with ties to the South, consider submitting your essay for the Reckon Women Your Voice column. You can learn more about the See Jane Write partnership with Reckon Women here.
If you’re not from or don’t live in the South, don’t fret. The Write Life has compiled a list of 22 websites and magazines that publish personal essays.