I’ve been writing personal essays, newspaper columns and blog posts for years now. I’ve learned some writing tricks the hard way — by trial and error. Others I’ve just plain stolen from my various writing coaches, people like the San Francisco husband-wife team, Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks. Also Charlotte Cook of Oakland, CA. And Jane Anne Staw of Berkeley.
Here are some of my favorite tips:
- Start the story in media res – in the middle of the action where the tension is. If you start with all that back story your reader will be bored because nothing is at stake – yet. Fill in the back story gracefully later in the essay.
If you realize that your first draft starts out with back story, don’t worry, just cut and paste later on. But your writing will be fresher, and your writing process easier, if you set the tone for yourself by starting right at the crunch point of your story.
If your writing for the New Yorker, on the other hand, nobody will expect you to get to the point for at least ten paragraphs. But since the reader knows he’s reading the New Yorker and that the piece has had to jump through many, many hoops to arrive on those hallowed pages, the reader will put up with a long, no-tension intro. If you’re publishing anywhere else, the reader will want to know now where your piece is going.
- An essay, like a story, needs tension, a conflict that needs resolving. In a personal essay, the conflict is generally a personal, internal conflict. A place where the author needs to grow.
- It’s OK (in my opinion) to reconstruct dialogue. Readers don’t expect you to be able to remember people’s exact words. However, it’s often fruitful to write down dialogue when you hear it for use later. (I used to jump up from the dinner table and scribble notes whenever my little kids said something memorable.) Too, people’s actual words are usually more vivid and character-revealing than your rewording.
Personally, I don’t use made-up events and composite characters. For me as a reader, knowing that the events actually happened adds a wonderful frisson to the story. (There’s a whole ethical question here – a topic for another day.)
Also, those stray, unmanageable facts that don’t feel like a “real” story are often the gold. Ask yourself, what makes you want to leave this detail out or change it around? Maybe the truth is trying to tell you something. Listen to it! (On the other hand, if the detail is just distracting or confusing to the reader, write around it.)
- Humor is good. It helps to make the essay writer seem less self-absorbed. I find that I can laugh at myself, my earlier naivetée or wrongheadedness, once I have had my aha moment and am ready to change my ways.
- You’ve heard this before. That’s because it’s true. Use strong, interesting verbs; avoid adjectives.
- You’ve also probably heard the expression, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s true, stories and concrete, real-life details are more powerful than abstractions and generalizations — in the nonfiction personal essay as well as in the short story or novel.
But I agree with novelist and writing coach Carol Edgarian when she says, “Show and tell.” There’s a place in your essay for your reflections, your conclusions and, yes, your opinions. Hint: It’s usually after you’ve pulled the reader into your world with story and detail.
- One of my favorite bits of advice, learned early on from Charlotte Cook, who was teaching at a local park and rec department at the time, is this: Ask yourself: What’s the story? Who’s story is it? If you clear up those questions early on, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and sweat.
If this post has been helpful, don’t miss last week’s — “Writing the Personal Essay — Forget the Good, Go for the Bad and the Ugly.
You might also enjoy the other posts in my Writing Room category, including “Lauren Winner: Seven Pithy Writing Tips from a Bestselling Memoirist.”