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Writing The Personal Essay - Great Tips

Aug 17, 2007
We all love to hear about the trials and tribulations that others have experienced. We want to learn how someone overcame an obstacle, and found a way to move on. Personal essays allow those of us who have experienced life's woes (and sometimes abundant joys), to share what we've learned, and to help lead others more effectively through their own life journey.

The personal essay is just that - a personal account of something you have experienced. It can be serious, dramatic, or even hilarious. But it must have a reason - or purpose - for sharing it with the reader. It is structured around a theme, and is rooted in experience and emotion. Finding topics for your essays is as easy as taking a good hard look at your own daily life. Ideas are in everything - from your rocky relationship with your mother, and your husband's failure to put the cap on the toothpaste tube, to your teenager's new driving skills (or lack of), and your preschoolers' penchant for sharing your personal secrets with the strangers in the checkout line at the grocery store. We've all had moments that moved us to tears - not to mention tantrums - and we're more than interested to hear how others have both survived (and blown), similar experiences.

What Makes A Good Personal Essay:
A good personal essay comes alive for the reader in the way the experience is shared. It's not just a stream of consciousness account of your daily trials and joys, but a well-calculated and well-written story Use strong language and vivid images to transport your reader to the time, place and emotional state that you are describing. Make them feel and be part of the story. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them feel. Give them lots of action. Whether you're writing a more dramatic piece, or a humorous take on an old problem, that's what the personal essay is all about.

Written in the first person, it is true that the personal essay may start with an event that you experienced, but it isn't necessary to share every single moment-by-moment play of it. Pick and choose what gives the story the impact that you are striving for. Leave out ultra-personal things (especially if they have no real impact on the story), and by all means, change the names of those in the story to protect your friends and family's privacy. Remember to use all the qualities of good fiction in your essay: drama, good characterization, conflict, and more.

What To Watch Out For When Writing The Personal Essay:
Writing the personal essay can be therapeutic, for both the reader and the writer. Just be sure that you aren't turning your story more into a "session with your therapist," than a good, well-written, informative, and yes, interesting story. Readers want to come away with a sense that you've overcome some obstacle -- and that they've learned something - by reading your piece. Manage to give them all that, and more, and you will have accomplished your goal.

Where To Sell Your Personal Essays:
Every publication -- from newspapers, to magazines, to trade journals - are always on the lookout for well written personal essays. They are usually found on the last page of a publication and feature some topic found regularly in the pages of the specific magazine. Read at least a year's worth of back issues of a particular to determine if your topic and style meet their format. Be wary of sending in anything that is "too different." While editors do look for fresh and new ideas, they do have rather strict guidelines and rules for topics covered within their pages. Be diligent in your research and you're bound to find dozens of publication's that fit your writing style.
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