Friday Speak Out!: What I Learned About Personal Essays From Judging A Contest

Friday, August 21, 2020

by Kelly Eden 

When I launched a writing contest at my small publication I was worried I wouldn’t get any entries, but every day another collection of “lives told in under 2000 words” made their way to my inbox. I’ve never read so many personal essays in one week, but what I learned was worth the effort. 

The contest was open to experienced and emerging writers and I was amazed by the variety and skill level in both categories. There were essay topics I was expecting: falling in love, childhood trauma, sickness, and loss. But there were also essays that surprised me, like the one about a bike race, or the story that started in the kitchen eating raw steak. 

Reading hundreds of entries, I started to notice patterns. Fantastic personal essays have aspects in common, as do terrible ones. 

Here are 4 patterns I noticed:

1. Great stories pack a punch from the start

Generally, the first line told me whether a story was going to be good. Great essays began with a bold statement that set up the whole story.

Here are the three winners’ opening lines:

J. Edgar was colored by blue.

The neurologist’s secretary handed me an envelope.

Writers are lunatics whose nonsense has shaped my dreams.

The rest of their stories unpacked that first line. It was the central idea of their whole piece.

2. Clarity is a priority for good writers

The finalists all told their stories in a way that was easy to understand. Even when their sentences were creatively and beautifully written, they stayed readable. The “no” pile, on the other hand, often left me baffled. My note on one story was simply, “Huh?”

It’s fun to write flowery prose, I get it! It’s important in our creativity, though, to remember our readers and edit our work for clarity.

3. There needs to be a worthy story

There were a large number of essays that were “nice” to read but didn’t reach the finalists’ pile. They wrote about how wonderful or awful their parent/teacher/nana was, but with no defining event to show why. They wrote about their career, but as a list of events rather than a story.

There was no story arc: no tension or action, no conflict, no moment when the writer learnt or grew or had insight. Nice personal essays are fine to share with friends and family, but great ones need a story.

4. Reveal the Goldilocks amount

There is a difficult balance in personal essays between being vulnerable and oversharing. The best stories were open about thoughts and feelings, honest, and sometimes painfully raw and confronting. Then there were stories that slipped straight into the “unpublishable” pile.

If you’re writing a story to be published, a blow by blow account of your traumatic experience is often too much. Personal essays lend themselves to heavy subjects, such as rape, abuse, death, suicidal thoughts. Words are powerful--using them sparingly and thoughtfully is more impactful than oversharing every detail. As the saying goes, less is more.

* * *
Kelly Eden lives next to a beautiful rainforest in New Zealand and has been a professional writer for over 12 years. She coaches new creative nonfiction writers. Grab your free pitching template.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Kelly--Great post. Yes, I'm sure you saw the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to writing.

Your 4th point made me think of the memoirs I've read. Some of them chronicle incredibly painful lives, and the ones I love are written by authors who don't wallow in their misery. Some even write down their lives with a twinge of humor.

Good luck with your future writing. And living in New Zealand, next to a rain forest, sounds idyllic. With what our country has been going through in the last four years, just living in New Zealand--even if you lived next to a landfill--would be delightful... ;)

Margo Dill said...

I agree that being a judge is really helpful because you can really see what diferent writers do and how some writing jumps out at you more and why. This is a great post!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Kelly! #3 is what I see a lot of in editing--essays that are interesting, but fall into the "Who cares?" factor. In most cases, it's a really simple fix! Well, simple in theory. The writer needs to get vulnerable and add more emotional tension, and make sure to include the moment when everything changed. It's not easy to do because you have to know what that is, and sometimes it takes several drafts to excavate it.

I recently attended a Dinty Moore workshop where he talked about the Invisible Magnetic River in essays and memoir, where emotion is the underlying current to all the things that happen outwardly. He suggested you don't say it out loud because it'll often become less potent (touching on your Goldilocks moment), but you carry those main emotional currents while you write about a moment or scene. I realized all my favorite essays and memoirs had that invisible magnetic river--like how Cheryl Strayed hiked the PCT while grieving for her mom. She chronicles her time on the trail in detail, but everything is infused with that emotional tension.

However, I do enjoy lyric essays and poetic language, and I think there is a place for all types of work. I've published CNF pieces that were practically prose poems in journals that focus more on language than story/content. I think there is great value to that type of work but the writer needs to consider the publication she's submitting to.

Thanks for the post! Judging contests is a great gift and an honor, and an opportunity to learn so much.

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