Personal Essay: Telling the Story

From Writing That Gets Noticed by Estelle Erasmus

Posted 8/26/23

Putting your essay together takes more than just a good opening and a compelling title. Once you have chosen your topic, you need to craft a strong essay that will resonate for the editor and the reader. You do that by writing evocative scenes that supply sensory details and vivid description to paint a picture.

Supply Sensory Details

Research shows that readers' brains are stimulated by reading sensory language, particularly metaphors evoking texture. Don't say the singer had a nice voice. Say she had a velvet voice.

Be specific. Don't say you had lunch: say you had a slice of veggie pizza with mushrooms (your favorite topping) and a sprinkle of Parmesan. Don't say you were angry: say you were fuming because your friend always ignores you when someone she thinks is more important enters the room. If you ate a piece of pie, describe the pie — was it apple or lemon? What did it taste or smell like, and what memories or feelings did it evoke?

Examples of sights, sounds, texture, or taste (and their effect on you) invite the reader to experience the events. Instead of writing, "I went in the car with her," you might write, "I slipped into the low-to-the-ground leather seats in her white Porsche." See how much more of a story you can tell when you add the details?

Be as descriptive as possible in each sentence and try to use metaphors, similes, and analogy. Then see if you can weave the sentences together to construct an essay.

Minimize the Minutiae

Sensory details are evocative; logistical details can make a story drag. You don't need to tell the reader, "I called my mother and asked for the information for the doctor. Next, I contacted the doctor and made an appointment over the phone. I filled out the form and answered the medical questions. My appointment was set for 10:45 a.m. the next day, but I was planning to be there at 10:30 a.m." Every doctor's visit requires an appointment time and forms, so you aren't telling readers anything they don't already know. Pare it down: "I called the doctor — recommended by my mother — and made an appointment for the next day."

Picking a Personal Point of View (POV) and Adding Dimension

Displaying your voice in an essay is an important way to connect with the reader. Here's how to get out of your own way when telling your story.

Put the "I" into a Personal Essay

Some of my students try to create distance in a personal essay by using the pronoun we or they. In a personal essay, that doesn't serve the reader or the writer. You need to keep yourself visible. Use I. You're sharing your point of view and the way you think, so you don't ever need to use the anonymous third-person voice.

Forget about Foreshadowing

Letting the reader know what is going to happen is a surefire way to lose their interest. So leave out those sentences like "Little did he know it would be the worst day of his life," or "She saw the dark clouds, and soon her life would turn even darker." Revelations like "I'm so glad I met my husband out of this experience" are best left until the end, otherwise they interrupt the flow of the piece and give your ending away. Just let the story unfold (yes, I said it again); tell the story in a compelling way, and the reader will follow you to the end.

Consider Chronology

While writing your essay, think about the timing of your story and scenes. Making the right choices can help move your story forward and keep the reader engaged.

You don't need to start right at the beginning: you can start in the middle (a narrative technique called in medias res, which translates as "in the middle of the thing"). Drop the reader into the action with the inciting incident or a moving piece of dialogue that also moves the story forward. Or start at a point during the action or confusion — for example, after a miscommunication or a dramatic event. That will hook your reader's attention. After that, every sentence of the story should keep moving the story or narrative along. Save the backstory for later in the piece.

Also, try to avoid a simple chronological flow and a flat recital of events: "This happened, and that happened, and that happened." Nobody wants to read a diary entry. They want to read about personal experience that becomes universal. You achieve this by showing what happened and then providing insight into it and describing your feelings about it.

For more of a narrative arc, try to create a through line, such as aging and reaching a milestone, or a fear of childbirth that you touch on throughout the essay. You could also share the emotional implications of the progression using dramatic scenes and dialogue.

Make a Scene

Each scene of your essay is a story in itself: it can depict action, narrate an incident from the past, or share a reflection. Imagine you're writing a movie scene. When the camera rolls, what does it focus on first? Write that down. What are the emotions? Emotions can't be directly described in a movie scene: you need to convey them through the setting and dialogue.

Go Micro, Not Macro

Don't go big and broad. Home in on one person, relationship, toy, act, friend, or object of beauty. Describe smaller moments — the day your son found a shell on the beach that reminded you of the time you decided on that same beach to get over your fear of motherhood, or the day you realized the damage you were doing by repeating your mom's lament, "I'm raising an enemy in my own home," to your daughter. You can slow down the action or focus on one particular event, memory, moment, or object to show the reader its meaning.

Keep the Details Flowing and the Dramatic Tension Rising

An essay is like a shark: it must keep moving forward, or it dies. Imagine you are telling a story to people around a campfire, or at a cocktail party. How would you keep them on the edge of their seats? You would use description and details to paint a picture of escalating tension. If a sentence doesn't propel the essay forward, it needs to be scrapped, shortened, or moved somewhere else. That includes dialogue.

Dialogue Dilemmas

Dialogue should reveal details about the characters and their relation- ships as well as the issue at hand. It needs to provide momentum and contribute to the narrative arc. Their conversation shouldn't just transmit information, as in "Here is your phone." "Okay, thank you."

I can't tell you how many times I've used my red pen to scratch out "Hi. How are you?" from sentences in my students' essays. As for the issue, it can be an external conflict — feeling scared about asking for a raise, breaking up with someone you love — or an internal conflict — wanting praise from a stoic parent, or wishing someone who treats you as invisible would finally see and appreciate you.

Estelle's Edge: In a dialogue between only two people, there is no need to keep adding speech tags like "he said" or "she said." The reader can remember who is who in the conversation.

©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. All rights reserved.

ErasmusEstelle 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.

Erasmus Excerpted from the book Writing That Gets Noticed ©2023 by Estelle Erasmus. Printed with permission from