Mapping a Personal Essay
It's really a 500-word personal essay that draws on my experiences and offers commentary, insight into my world. I like to add humor to the mix, but sometimes, I end up with a serious piece.
No matter what style, I drive home the point I'm trying to make. I mean, that's what the reading audience wants: an authentic voice.
And, that means I use a road map, of sorts. My process looks something like this:
- Pick a topic. What this means: Aggghhhh! It's Sunday night and I have a Monday deadline. What shall I write about? Actually, I have a running list of ideas that I keep on my desk. After selecting one, I determine if the topic is timely, first. You can't write about ice fishing in July. Well, you can, but it doesn't make as strong an impact. A good starting point for finding a topic is to think about events that you see as a turning point in your life. These cause-effect moments make powerful essay fodder!
- Narrow the focus. If a thousand ideas are running through my mind (or if only one comes to mind), I like to draw a mind map. This breaks down the topic and let's me get a visual idea of the direction the essay could take. Here's an example I used a few weeks ago. I'd read an article in the Wall Street Journal about parents using smartphone apps to get kids to do chores. The apps use points or stars as incentive and once the child completes "x" number of chores and marks it on the app, they get to pick a reward. Seriously? I knew I wanted to write about this, and after I'd mapped out ideas, I decided to take a multi-generational approach to the topic: how I learned responsibility, how my kids learned responsibility, and how my grandkids are learning responsibility. Then I broke each of those areas down and added examples to prove the point I was hopefully trying to get across.
- Freewrite. Personally, I skip this step a lot of times because I think I don't need it. When I teach the art of the personal essay, I include it because it does help flesh out details. With that said, I like to use it when I'm recalling an event or moment that I want to add to the essay. It helps put that time in chronological order. Freewriting is easy. Just write without stopping for a set amount of time. Usually five or ten minutes will do the trick.
LuAnn Schindler is a freelance writer and editor from Nebraska. Read more of her work, including her weekly column, "Nebraska-isms," at her website.