Personal Essay Writing: Tips for You

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Recently, I judged a personal essay contest for a regional writing group. I love judging contests as it exposes me to some great writing and some not-so-great writing. With most of the entries, I found myself being able to tell in a few paragraphs whether or not to put the essay in the possible winners pile or the sorry pile. Everything I’d heard from editors and agents at conferences was true—in most cases, you can tell whether a piece of writing works or doesn’t from the first page.

While judging the personal essays, I came up with some criteria for the winners that I thought I’d share. Writing personal essays has become popular—so what makes them successful?

The Topic
An interesting and unique topic was one of the first criteria I used to separate the winners from the rest of the batch. Personal essays can be about anything—your childhood playmate, a vacation gone wrong, a favorite teacher. When judging the entries, I found the best essays to be about topics that other writers left alone—a trip into the past that featured an ice truck, a daughter and father that grew grapes for wine, and a summer job in a factory with an opera-singing Sicilian. Sure, all of these were also well written, but the topic caught my attention and kept me reading until the end of the essay.

When you are writing, think of unusual events, activities, and even people in your life—could you write a personal essay about them? If you are writing for a themed anthology—such as Chicken Soup for the Dog Lovers’ Soul—then you’re a bit limited on your topic choices; but you can still brainstorm unusual topics or angles within that theme.

The Voice
Like all forms of writing, the voice of a personal essay is extremely important. It is your voice since you’re telling a personal story. It shouldn’t sound stilted or like the reader opened an encyclopedia. It should sound like the writer is sitting on the front porch, telling this story to someone else.

The Structure
When judging the essays, the structure I found that works best is the circle structure. The author starts the essay with a general statement or a scene that leads into the rest of the essay. At the conclusion, the writer wraps up the essay with a mention of or some tie-in to the beginning scene.

Besides the circle structure, another type of ending that works well for personal essays is the twist or surprise. If the writer chooses to use a twist at the end, it’s usually something clever or funny that happened that readers will not expect. These types of endings usually work better with short stories or even children’s picture books, but they can also work for personal essays.

The Universal Theme
Like memoirs, personal essays will often have a universal theme. There’s some point to sharing this story with the world other than just wanting to enter a contest or get published in an anthology. Why should readers care about your topic or story? How can they apply what you learned through this experience to their own lives?

When writing your personal essay, think to yourself—what is my universal theme? What can people learn from my story? You don’t have to hit readers over the head with it or even mention it in your essay—it will come out in your well-written essay.

You can read some examples of personal essays at So, start brainstorming those personal essay topics, use your unique voice, and write, write, write!

Post by Margo L. Dill; To see what classes Margo is teaching for WOW!, click on this link to go to the WOW! classroom.


Mari said...

Margo, thank you for the information and inspiration on personal essay writing. The circle structure caught my eye and I'll use that as my guide.

Unknown said...

Great fundamentals, Margo!
Personal essays are favourites for me as they provides those special perspectives.

LuAnn Schindler said...

After attending a writing workshop earlier this week, this definition of "voice" is not correct. What you're talking about is style, which is often confused with voice. Voice means there's a clear sense of empathy between reader and the experience portrayed in the story. Style is the manner in which a person conveys a story - like you're sitting on the porch telling someone the story. I think many writers interchange the two terms, but according to the presenter, they are two separate elements.

Margo Dill said...

I see what you are saying. I am not sure I 100% agree with the defition of voice the presenter gave to you. I've always taught and thought of voice as being the personality of the writer coming through. It does have to do with style, and I see how these can be two separate things. I guess the really important thing is that the voice/style works for the piece and that it doesn't distract the reader! :)


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