Tips for Writing a Personal Essay

Journalists fear the “I” word, maybe even more than a libel suit. Writing about yourself is often difficult for reporters and editors whose work lives focus on others. But writing about yourself, honestly, even painfully, will make you a better reporter and editor: more empathetic, more skilled, better able to spot the universal truth in the individual story. Personal writing also generates enormous reader response. (And who knows, you might even be able to make some money!)

I. Finding Your Subject – How do I decide what to write about?

Writers in search of a subject might ask themselves these questions suggested by Boston Globe columnist and writing coach Don Murray:

  • What are you thinking about when you’re not thinking?
  • What makes you mad?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What past events were turning points in your life that you’d like to understand?
  • What do you know you should write about but have been afraid to?

II. Discovering Your Story: How do I get started?

As you think about topics and begin to write, consider these comments from two deft personal essayists:

“You can’t write a personal column without going to some very deep place inside yourself, even if it’s only for four hours. It’s almost like psychotherapy, except you’re doing it on your own. You have to pull something out of yourself and give away some important part of yourself…It’s a gift you have to give to the reader, even if it’s the most light-hearted piece in the world.”

Jennifer Allen, The New York Times

“Feeling is at the basis of everything. When I was asked to consider becoming a full-time columnist, part of my hesitation was that I knew I could not pretend to be this dispassionate, all-knowing, authoritarian voice on high. I couldn’t do that. That would be a lie….For me, it’s like The Godfather. Everything is personal.”

Donna Britt, The Washington Post

Write every day.

Writing is a process of discovery. You will discover what you want to say and how to say it in just one way: by writing. “You don’t know the story until you’ve written it,” Murray says.

Begin, as Cynthia Gorney described the beginnings of her powerful pieces for The Washington Post, with babble. Surprise yourself, as she does, by discovering the story you want to write halfway down the page.

Lower your standards.
Ignore the voice that says “This stinks” – The first step to producing copy
on deadline in time for revision that storytelling demands.
The first draft contains the promise of the final one.

III. Learning to self-edit: How do I get published?

“You write to discover what you want to say,” Murray says. “You rewrite to discover what you have said and then rewrite to make it clear to other people.”


Don’t give up

The Last Word

The personal essay assignment demands the critical thinking, communication, and collaborative skills required of today’s journalist. This is not about therapy; it’s about craft. Memoir, the writer Patricia Hampl says, is about exploration, not revelation. Like all good journalism, that requires solid reporting, critical thinking, careful editing, the skills we all hope to improve.


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