5 things a personal essay needs to succeed (and sell)

Here are the five components that should be in any truthteller's toolkit.

Once upon a time, a writer might contact an agent and confess their desire to publish an essay collection. And once upon a time, an agent might have resisted an urge to laugh in the writer’s face. As a form, essays had fallen out of favor, hard, and finding a home for one both at a publisher and on readers’ bookshelves was an immensely difficult task, especially for a new author.

Thankfully, the tides have reversed, and essay collections like Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror now flourish in bookstores and on bestseller lists. Online publications seeking personal essays abound, providing space and readers for true stories told well. The personal essay, frankly, has never been hotter.

But the rise in popularity has also led to a rise in submissions, making it harder for a writer to stand out in the crowd. If you’re looking to jump into the fray, here are the key components a writer needs to build a strong personal essay – plus bonus tips for writing one that’s irresistible to editors.

 

1. Start with a story.

Essays are a nonfiction form, true, but they have more in common with the short story than with academic writing. A personal essay is a true short story, plain and simple. An essayist must color within the lines of fact, but they also must utilize many of the same components as a short story writer: Show, don’t tell. Paint dynamic real-life “characters.” Use scenes, not exposition. Sprinkle in realistic dialogue. Build a compelling narrative arc. Etcetera.

A personal essay is a true short story, plain and simple.

We receive many essays each year that are merely a long string of real-life events. Events do not make a story – and, put more bluntly, just because they happened to you doesn’t make them worth writing about. It’s the writer’s job to spin events into a compelling narrative, to shine them for public consumption.

For example, if I were talking about my experience with beekeeping, I might say:

We started beekeeping in Boston at my fiance’s request. At first, I was against the idea, fearing stings and a loss of backyard peace, but slowly I came around. When we moved to Virginia, we brought them with us. One hive died, but the others are doing well.

If I were writing an essay on beekeeping, I might open with:

The first thing we did when we arrived in Virginia was check on the beehives strapped to the back of the pickup truck. I pressed my hand against the white boxes, feeling the hum of activity inside, and breathed a sigh of relief. We’d done it: Our bees had survived 507 miles in the back of a rental truck. Thousands of honeybees, the ones I’d resisted having for so long, the ones I now felt such fondness toward, had made it across six state lines. They buzzed, outraged, demanding to be let out. We’d need to wait until morning, we decided; the bees would swarm if we released the hive now, off in search of a new home that wouldn’t up and move on them in the middle of the night.

In the morning, we learned the truth: Layers of comb had burst in transit, and a third of the hive had drowned in their own honey. I watched my fiancé wordlessly sweep their sticky bodies out of the hive and wept for the lives of a thousand insects I’d once hated.

The first version narrates dots on the timeline; the second attempts to connect them into a cohesive narrative greater than the sum of its parts. Look closely at the dots on your own timeline. How can you knit them together to form something greater than the sum of their parts? What stories lurk behind the facts and dates? When you find them, you’ll find your essays.

 

2. Remember who’s telling it.

Reader, I am officially giving you permission to forget every bland persuasive or informative essay you ever wrote in high school. Banish that creaky, cranky English teacher from your mind. You are not here to inform, and you are not here to persuade: You are here to tell a story. Your story. So if you recall being told to keep the personal “I” out of your essay, I would like to hand you a bucket and a squeegee so you can scrub that notion right out of your mind.

Fiction is nothing without a strong protagonist. Guess who the protagonist is in nonfiction?

That’s right, my friend. It’s you. And your voice needs to be as sure and strong and compelling and believable and dynamic as any character’s.

If that sounds intimidating, remember this: This essay you’re trying to write is your story. It happened to you. You are the only one who can write it. That alone makes you compelling, right off the bat. It makes you brave, for being willing to share your truth with us.

A confident voice says to the reader from the very first line: Hop in, friend, we’re going for a ride – and I promise it’ll be worth your while.

But it also means a fair amount rides on the voice in any personal essay. And the No. 1 thing I don’t see enough on the page is confidence.

A confident voice knows why they are telling this story, and they know exactly where it is going. They know they have something to say, and they also know why they are the only one who can say it. A confident voice says to the reader from the very first line: Hop in, friend, we’re going for a ride – and I promise it’ll be worth your while.

A little pre-planning can do a world of good in boosting your own confidence as a narrator. Even if you’re not an outliner, consider mulling over the following questions before you sit down to write:

  • Why am I telling this story?
  • Why am I the only one who can tell it?
  • Why does it matter to me, and why will it matter to others?
  • How do I want the reader to feel when they read this story?
  • If I were telling my story out loud to someone, how would my voice sound?
  • Where would I tell this story, and who would I tell it to?