How to Write an Essay Everyone Wants to Read
Five steps to creating a meaningful personal narrative
My colleague Harris Sockel and I recently facilitated a workshop about essay writing as part of Medium’s Creator Workshop Series, and we wanted to share some of the takeaways here. (The workshop was recorded, too — you can watch it here, and we’re embedding it below.) As editors at Human Parts and other publications, we’ve read (and edited) (and written!) a lot of personal essays. Here are some things we think are useful to keep in mind when crafting a work of creative nonfiction.
Of course, you probably aren’t actually going to go through these step-by-step — and almost certainly not all in the first draft. But if you eventually address each of these elements, you’ll be on your way to creating something great.
1. Be a noticer
Also known as keep a notebook. But the notebook doesn’t have to be a notebook notebook. It can be the notes app in your phone, a scratch pad, a wad of scribbled-on envelopes in your pocket, or a stack of notecards. The important thing is to keep writing down observations and ideas and scraps of dialogue and sensory detail and stray thoughts so that eventually you will be able to see the patterns and connections. Read a ton, too; that’s part of it. Look at art, listen to music, watch movies, do freewriting — most of all, pay attention to the world.
Be a notebook, really.
By the way, this is a step to go back to every time you feel stuck or blocked. Get out there and experience and observe. (And then don’t forget to get back to the page eventually — the actual writing part is pretty key too.)
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Writing exercise #1: Take five to 10 minutes to free-write a list of things you’ve noticed today or notice around you right now. Don’t edit or censor yourself or try to write sentences or make it pretty. Just list as many observations and details as you can.
2. Start with a question
This doesn’t have to be an actual question, although it can be. But really we mean that it’s a good idea to start with an inclination or a feeling or something you’re personally trying to figure out. That’s what will keep you interested and motivated to finish. “Why can’t I stop thinking about X? I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Y. How can I make sense of Z?”
How this manifests is most often in a messy first draft of something. That’s totally fine. If you knew from the start what you wanted to say, you would likely be writing an article or an instruction manual. While those things certainly have their places, a personal essay is a bit different. You’re probably not writing to share some knowledge. More likely, you’re writing toward the knowledge.
Maybe the larger lesson here is this: Don’t freak out if your first draft is really messy. It’s supposed to be. That’s why it’s just the first draft. Besides, if your first drafts were perfect, all the other writers would hate you.
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Writing exercise #2: What’s something you can’t stop thinking about? Free-write about it for 10 minutes. Again, don’t censor or judge — just write.
3. Tell a story
You’re going to have to forget everything you learned about five-paragraph essays in high school (Sorry, Mr. Wentz, but we’ve moved on.) You’re also going to have to shake off, a little bit, the classic craft advice to “show, don’t tell.” A great personal essay contains both showing and telling.
A great personal essay also, instead of proving a point, tells a story. If a traditional plot sounds like too much for what you’re trying to write, think instead in terms of movement or change. What will the reader know by the end of the essay that they didn’t at the beginning?
It’s important to maintain balance. (We mean in a piece of writing but probably also in life, come to think of it.) Scenes combined with summary. Showing combined with telling. Reserve the scene for the part that’s really important, the things you really want to show the reader because that’s where their attention should be.
This means you can open your essay the same way you would open a short story or a screenplay — with a scene or a scrap of dialogue. Just because it’s an essay doesn’t mean you don’t need it to be vivid, to paint a picture in the reader’s head.
While a bit of scene can be a great way into a piece, if you’re still in the drafting stage, just remember that you don’t have to start writing at the beginning. Don’t labor over your first line in a first draft. It probably won’t stay your first line anyway.
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Writing exercise #3: Take whatever you wrote about in exercise #2 and create a scene related to it. What scene comes to mind when you remember this incident or think about this idea? Where and when are we in time and space? Try to write something vivid enough that your reader can put themselves there. Extra credit if you include at least two lines of dialogue.
4. Write about you but for the reader
In a personal essay, it’s probable that you, the writer, are also the main character. But the reader (most likely) has never met you. They aren’t going to necessarily start out on your side or even know what you’re talking about or where you’re coming from. You need to develop a persona for the page, and you can do this by taking a step back and looking at the piece as if this person were a character.
Don’t worry about voice or style. Just be honest. Everyone’s honesty is different, and that’s where the voice and style will come from. You’re the expert in being you. And if the reader senses you’re being honest, they will go anywhere you want to take them.
A lot of people don’t write this way because they don’t think they’re interesting. But everyone has a totally unique experience of the world and thus will have a totally unique and valuable story to share. On the flip side, some writers will plow into an essay assuming the reader knows what they, the writer, have been thinking about or experiencing. Nope. The reader is a stranger — a stranger, mind you, who has lots of other options for entertainment. Make it worth their while. Give them something they can take home with them, like a goody bag for the brain.
In other words, meet the reader where they are.
Here are two essays where the writers paint themselves as compelling characters and trustworthy narrators:
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Writing exercise #4: Complete the sentence “The thing I’ve never told anyone is…” and take it from there. It’s okay if this is something you really never want to tell anyone. You don’t have to include it in an essay or show it to anyone if you’re not ready. This is more of an exercise in building up your honesty muscle memory.
5. Remember there are two stories in every essay
When we think of all the personal essays that have really made us feel, think, and get goosebumps, they almost always have a couple of different layers to them. Yes, there’s a personal story, but it connects to something larger, or else there’s some attention in the essay to what the personal story meant. Sometimes these are woven together in alternating sections. Sometimes the bigger picture only becomes clear in the last paragraph.
The “bigger picture” may be that part you didn’t quite know or fully understand when you were starting with your question. This is true of short stories and novels too, by the way — there’s often an internal (smaller, maybe invisible) conflict and an external (bigger, more obvious) conflict, and each reveals something about the other.
The big story is important because it often is the element of the piece that gives the reader something to really chew on.
Like with a lot of these steps we’re suggesting, this probably doesn’t all happen in the first draft. This is something to keep in mind as you go and then hone during revision. Sometimes you can’t figure out the connections right away, and you need to give it some time — maybe look at it the next day — or read it aloud or have someone else read it. You might have to write one more paragraph than you thought you needed.
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Writing exercise #5: Take the scene you started writing in exercise #3. Now add to it — what was really happening below the surface or just offstage? (You’re adding the bigger story to the personal anecdote.)
If you do any of these writing exercises, post it on Medium and use the tag “SCW Essay.” Search that tag to read the work of fellow writers, too! We can’t wait to see what you come up with. And if you start to lose your nerve, just remember: Someone out there really wants to read your story. You’ve lived it. Now go write it.
PS: You can also join The Medium Writers Challenge if you’re so inclined! Details below: