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How to Write an Essay Everyone Wants to Read

Five steps to creating a meaningful personal narrative

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.

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?”

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.

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.

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.

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Amy Shearn

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person