Mapping a Personal Essay

Saturday, July 27, 2013
Four years ago, I began writing a weekly newspaper column. It runs on the editorial page of local weeklies and shares my version of events that affect those of us who live in the area.

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Creating a mind map fine-tunes the direction of the personal essay. The best part: it may take you down a road you want to rediscover.

LuAnn Schindler is a freelance writer and editor from Nebraska. Read more of her work, including her weekly column, "Nebraska-isms," at her website.


Margo Dill said...

This is a great road map and I think we could actually use it for bloggers, too. I have just started keeping a list of blog topics. Can you believe that? I've had my own blog for almost 5 years and blogged for WOW! for over 3 years, and it took me starting a blog with my critique group to finally make a list of topics and not just the OH MY GOD, WHAT AM I GOING TO WRITE ABOUT? feeling all the time. ;) I like the free writing step, too. Thanks!

Unknown said...

This is a great article and very practical. I agree, Margo, using it for blog posts would really help the process. I too panic each time with "what the heck do I have to say?" Mind-mapping is a good tool.

Sometimes I HAVE to free write or I just stare at the screen making noises like "errgh" and "hmmphhh" trying to articulate something. It's not pretty.

Sioux Roslawski said...

LuAnn--Sometimes creating a mind map, which involves drawing/sketching, is helpful. The very act of drawing can loosen up the ideas and get things flowing.

Anonymous said...

Great article and topic! I also write a newspaper column that could double for a personal essay. It’s self-syndicated and published throughout the U.S. I also keep a running list of topics. It’s a great way to keep from losing great ideas. A couple things I might add to LuAnn’s very helpful advice.
• Be humble. No one wants to read a personal essay written by someone who knows all the answers.
• Humor is awesome, even when you are trying to make a serious point.
• I often try (attempt) to link to unrelated topics together, just for fun. For instance, I’m working on a column about consistency in parenting (and how I lack it) and I’m tying this into consistency in my gravy (also lacking). I intertwine the two topics within a column. I think readers appreciate this repetition.
• Literary devices further boost your column’s readability and value.
• Because my columns are published across the U.S. I try to write for everyone. I can’t reference the specifics of my experiences in northern Minnesota too often, or the good folks in Florida won’t be able to relate.
• Keep a paper and pen (or smartphone) with you at all times. When you get a great idea, jot it down. If you don’t, you will forget it. At least I always do.
• Edit, edit, edit. Even though you are writing about your personal experiences, good writing is essential.
• Research. Again, even though you are writing about something personal, make sure you have your facts correct.
• Having said that, don’t be afraid to change the truth. When it could be hurtful to someone you are writing about. Make others look good and smart; make yourself look like you still have much to learn.

Unknown said...

This is a great article and very practical. I agree, Margo, using it for blog posts would really help the process. I too panic each time with "what the heck do I have to say?" Mind-mapping is a good tool.

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