From Writing That Gets Noticed by Estelle Erasmus
I almost always urge people to write in the first person. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. —William Zinsser
Unusual experiences can end up as great fodder for stories. When writing a personal essay there are certain rules that are helpful to follow.
People write about popular topics over and over, such as dating, love, death, illness, grief, and social media. So why would an editor be interested in your story? The same reason a reader would: because it's fresh and feels new either in its approach, the experience it describes, or the way it is written.
A personal essay will resonate most with the reader (and editor) when you write about a topic that you are passionate (or obsessed) about and have personal experience with. You can write about the love of your life who ditched you to become a missionary, a dream to become a vet that imploded when you developed an allergy to animals, or a mistake you made that cost you something big and important.
How can you anchor your essay while elevating your personal narrative so it stands out? By starting with a strong opening, building in a narrative arc (remember, that means a beginning, middle, and end), and ending with a transformation, all the while infusing your piece with a deeper meaning.
Great first-person pieces command your attention, make you want to read on, and often pose a question that needs to be answered. Your opening scene should be one of the most exciting moments in the story. I start by evaluating the first five sentences of an essay. Does it get you right into the action, through provocative dialogue, a timely connection to an event or holiday, a newsworthy item, setting the scene, or a controversial statement?
A powerful opening brings your reader right into the action, rather than including background information in a conversational style, also known as throat-clearing. Many of us have probably written in this style in a diary, "I woke up this morning, had coffee (black), drove to the supermarket, looked up and down the aisles searching for the perfect avocado, and then, can you believe it, a crazy man started screaming at me."
A personal essay must have a carefully crafted opening. It would likely start right in the middle of the action, with perhaps a brief preface. "Standing in the supermarket, picking over the summer-fattened avocados, I heard a staccato of background noise. To my horror, the sound was housed in the body of a small, wizened man, and he was screaming at me."
Great opening sentences of essays can also raise questions or tensions. From a story by Angela Lundberg that I edited for Narratively:
"I hope my dog f*cking bites you on your way out!"
The suburban housewife I've just served with a court summons yells that to my back as I hurry down the steps of her house.
The provocative opening makes the reader want to know more.
So you've started your first-person piece in a provocative or compelling way that uses dialogue, scene setting, or action to get the reader into the story. What next? Cut out the backstory and get to the inciting incident — the point where something happens. For example, if you are writing about first love, start with an inciting incident that happened to you. Throughout the essay, share what you learned.
Make the reader feel something. Use active verbs such as churned, sauntered, splintered, spiraled, peppered, and waltzed to paint a picture for the reader. My essay for the New York Times about connecting with my dad, who has Alzheimer's, was titled "Singing My Dad Back to Me."
The title "My Husband Doesn't Post about Me on Facebook (and It Makes Me Sad)" (from a story on Your Tango) is more effective than "My Husband Isn't on Social Media Anymore."
One essay I wrote was titled "Love Laboratory: What I Learned from a Totally Not-My-Type Guy." I wrote a piece titled "Marry the Man, Not His Religion. Trust Me" that ran on Your Tango. The pandemic Passover piece I wrote for the Independent is called "Elijah the Prophet Will Toast You on Zoom: Ways to Get through a Socially Distanced Passover."
A piece by Suzie Glassman for Parents.com is titled "My 9-Year-Old's Unexpected Seizure Taught Me the Power of Letting Go." An essay by Tess Clarkson for Insider (which often uses longer titles) is called "The Man I Was Dating Publicly Shamed My Sex Preferences after We Broke Up. I Learned to Stand Up for What I Want." And an essay I wrote for Yahoo was called "The Benefits of Meeting My Mother-in-Law at My Lowest Point."
Numbers in headlines promise specific information and insights. I wrote an essay for Brain, Child titled "15 Kinds of Kisses for my 5-Year-Old" and one for the Washington Post headed "6 Reasons We Don't Let Our Daughter Sleep in Our Bed." I wrote "8 Ways to Defend Yourself from Writing Coaching Scams" for riter's Digest.
I wrote a five-minute memoir for Writer's Digest titled "I Had My Daughter in Midlife and She Became My Writing Muse" and a piece for Parenting.com called "Becoming a Mom Has Totally Transformed Me. And That's OK."
I wrote "What to Do When Your Tween Is Trash-Talking You," for the New York Times. A piece I wrote for Salon was titled "I Was Determined to Be a Great Mother and a Loving Daughter: This Was Easier Said Than Done." An essay I wrote for Ravishly was titled "I Was Determined to Breastfeed, but Nothing Went As Planned." A piece I wrote for Scary Mommy was called "Having a Child in Midlife Cured Me of My Klutziness" (which is so true that it really is scary).
An essay I wrote for Your Tango was titled "Being Hypnotized into a Past Life as a Man Brought Me True Love." For HuffPost Personal, I wrote "My Blind Date Took Me to a Sex Club. Here's What Happened." My former student Juli Fraga wrote a piece for Vice titled "How John Mayer Helped Me Become a Better Therapist."
©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. All rights reserved.
Estelle Erasmus is a professor of writing at New York University, the host of the Freelance Writing Direct podcast, and former "All About the Pitch" columnist for Writer's Digest. …
Excerpted from the book Writing That Gets Noticed ©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. Printed with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.