In the last post, I discussed how to structure a personal essay. In this post, I identify the important techniques for writing a personal essay.
The techniques that you will use to write a personal essay are the same as other types of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, travel article, or literary journalistic essay. Two of the most important techniques are storytelling and scene-building. Before you write your personal essay, you will need to choose a topic. There are several techniques that can help you.
If you are writing a personal essay based on a personal experience, you will need to write the story. Your story requires an inciting incident, complications, conflict or obstacles, a climax, and resolution. For more information, see my section on “Fiction” in this blog.
You must also use the techniques of fiction (literary devices), in particular the scene-building technique. Scene building involves showing, not telling. It is not a narrative summary, which collapses events and time. It is not an exposition, which is based on explanation and analysis. A scene includes the following elements:
- Specific time and place
- Sensory images
- Specific details
You will want to make your readers aware of the time and place. This is your setting.
If you are writing a personal essay based on a personal experience or milestone, you will want to include important dialogue between you and other people.
You will also want to describe the important action that takes place in the scene or scenes that you include. Remember, you are writing a short personal essay, which is between 500 and 1500 words long, so you are only going to include scenes that are essential to your personal essay.
You also want to use sensory images to make your story come alive. Thus, you will include language that appeals to the reader’s sense of smell, taste, sight, touch.
A good scene also includes vivid descriptions, which helps the reader visualize the story. Vivid descriptions also help to make your essay believable and truthful.
In the conclusion, you can write about the insight, understanding, or lesson that you learned from the experience or milestone. Often your personal experience results in a universal truth about human nature or the human condition.
Techniques for Finding a Topic
Your personal essay can be based on a personal experience or milestone, or a topic or subject that you are passionate about. If you are writing about a true story, your memory will play an important role in uncovering the facts and the truth. Here are a few ways to “mine your memory.”
- Keep a personal journal, and look through it. Use it to remember events and experiences that happened in the past.
- Take photos of events and experiences that are important to you. Use the photos to mine your memory. Or look through old photo albums to find your story.
- Visit the place where the event took place.
- Interview friends or family who also experienced the event or experience.
- Use a time line. Take one year of your life and then list all the events or experiences that took place in that year.
- Use the technique of mindmapping. For more information, check out www.mindtools.com .
- Write about a milestone, anniversary, loss, death, or new experience. Ask yourself: What did you learn? What insight have you gained? Is there a universal truth?
Another way to write a personal essay is to write about topics, social issues, or events making news. Margaret Wente, a writer for the Globe and Mail, often uses this approach. Here are a few ways to find topics to write about:
- Keep a journal. Write in it whenever something of interest or important happens to you. Refer to your journal when you want to write a personal essay.
- Stay informed. Read magazines, newspapers, books, and watch and listen to the news. Browse the Web. When you unearth something interesting, write a personal essay.
- Write about social issues, such as crime, capital punishment, -marriage, racism, gay rights, rape, child abuse, alcoholism, sexual equality, immigration, divorce, and so forth.
- Write about something in the news or public consciousness.
- Write about holidays, tradition, vacations, Christmas, Halloween, anniversaries, and so forth.
Finally, write truthfully and honestly. If something never happened, you cannot write about it as though it were true. This is lying. As well, disclose your views and personal opinions on the event or topic or personal experience. A personal essay is all about your perspective, your thoughts, your views. It doesn’t need to be objective. You don’t have to prove a thesis.
Resources for Writing a Personal Essay
The following books will provide you with the techniques for writing a personal essay:
- Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
- Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
- The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
- The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote
In the next few posts, I will write about travel writing, a popular form of creative nonfiction.
Creative Writing Techniques And Craft Tips For Poems, Short Stories, Essays, Novels, and Creative Nonfiction
Looking for tips on creative writing craft and techniques? You’ve come to the right place! We’ve collected our most informative articles on both the craft of writing and the best creative writing techniques—all here, in one convenient place. You’ll find great advice on: characterization, writing description, showing vs. telling, beginnings, endings, sagging middles, and much more. We also cover many creative writing techniques for authors of novels (and all books), poetry, short stories, personal essays, memoir, and other nonfiction.
If you like our Writing Craft And Technique Tool Kit, be sure to check out our additional free Publishing Tool Kits, available via the Leads & Tips drop-down menu on our navigation bar!
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Craft And Technique Tips For All Writing Genres
Sentence Length: The Power Of Placing Periods—With good technique, your period placement can have a big impact on readers. Here’s how!
Repurposing Words: Surprise Your Readers With Unusual Word Choices—Craft exciting sentences by using unexpected, creative words.
Putting Verve In Your Verbs—Let’s zero in on your verbiage, or verb usage, and harness the tremendous power of active verbs!
How To Find Your Voice As A Writer—If you’re trying to find your voice as a writer, you’re not alone.
How To Write A Great First Line (With 12 Unforgettable Examples)—Here are some examples of first lines from literature that offer great insight into opening line techniques.
How To Craft A Great Title For Your Book (Or Story Or Poem)—A weak title can deter editors and agents before they read a single sentence of your work. Here’s how to craft a great title.
The Forgotten Fifth Sense: Are You Making Use Of This Little Used Writing Technique?—Most writers routinely use four of the five senses. Are you missing the fifth?
9 Rhetorical Devices You’ve Never Heard Of But Might Already Be Using—In addition to familiar rhetorical devices like metaphor and alliteration, many literary techniques with obscure-sounding names also add impact to your writing. In fact, you’re probably already using them—at least occasionally!
Creating Mood And Atmosphere In Your Writing—To become a better writer, you need a conscious, practical sense of the tools you can use to manipulate mood, atmosphere, and tone in your writing.
Be Honest: 5 Self-Editing Tips For Increased Objectivity—It can be hard to “see” your own writing as it truly is. These editing tips will help.
Mail Call: Is It Okay To Reuse Phrases From Your Own Work?—Have you written a line so perfect, you want to use again (and again)? You’re not alone. Here’s what to do.
The Moral Of The Story: 7 Tips For Socially Or Politically Conscious Creative Writing—If you want to influence the world with your writing, you need to be well-informed, bold, and aware of your own predispositions and intentions.
Literary Locales: What Great Books Teach Us About Setting—Setting will be important in almost every piece you write. Here’s how to craft great, evocative settings.
Four Ways To Organize Your Writing (Or Not) Before You Sit Down To Write—Put your best foot forward each time you start writing by using these smart techniques.
The One Thing All Great Love Stories Have In Common—And What It Means To Your Writing—If you’re crafting anything with a romantic element, you must know this important writing technique.
Words And Phrases You Don’t Hear Anymore—We’ve dusted off some of the more unique words and phrases you don’t hear anymore! Perhaps some of these will add a sense of nostalgia or historic accuracy to a story or poem you’re writing.
How To Write A Happy Ending That Doesn’t Fall Flat (A Checklist)—You’ve undoubtedly experienced the unhappiness of a quickly resolved, artificial happy ending. When writing a book or story, don’t let your eagerness to please your audience backfire!
Will Your Characters’ Love Story Stand The Test Of Time? Take Our Self-Test!—Writing a love story? Take this quiz to see if your couple’s romance will resonate.
7 Tips For Writing Realistic War Stories—Writing about war can be tricky: Some readers might be sensitive about graphic depictions of war and violence; others may have a hard time understanding what’s happening if you don’t go into detail.
The Author’s Unofficial Guide To Critique Translation. Having your writing critiqued during a workshop or writers group meeting can be an emotional minefield. But being able to accept critique and make effective use of good feedback is what most writers should strive for.
What Is Women’s Fiction?—While romances, mysteries, and sci-fi novels often have pretty clear characteristics, women’s fiction is so wide, the parameters are difficult to define.
4 Creative Essentials For Better Sports Writing—You might think that writing about sports is limited to news articles and sound bites. But with the right training (and eating your Wheaties), you can develop the skills to write about sports creatively and effectively.
Sex And Literary Journals: Are Your Sex Scenes Killing Your Shot At Publication?—You’ve heard the old maxim “sex sells.” But when it comes to submitting to literary journals, your sex scenes might just be too much of a good thing!
9 Tips For Writing Believable Horror And Suspense.Smart writers of horror and suspense know all the tricks for preying on the fears of their readers. Suspense is in the details!
How Important Is “Writing For The Market?”—You’ve mastered craft and technique. But what about market considerations?
You Want Me To Do What? Dealing With Agent Or Editor Revision Requests. Here’s what to do if a literary agent or editor demands a change to your writing.
15 Exercises To Strengthen Your Writing—Looking for ways to build your writing muscles? Check out these 15 exercises!
HINT: Learn more about staying motivated and inspired while you improve your writing craft and technique!
Techniques For Crafting Better Prose
Fiction Or Nonfiction? Memoir Or Novel? Know What To Call Your Story Or Book—First things first: What is it that you’re writing, exactly?
Is It Prose Poetry, Short Prose, Or Flash Fiction?—Not sure that your writing is really, um, “prosey” enough to be called prose? Here’s what to call your short creative piece.
How To Write A Good First Line (For Books, Novels, Short Stories, Essays, and Articles)—Start off write—we mean, right!—with these first line techniques.
Point of View Techniques—Few decisions are as important as deciding who should tell your story. Here’s how you choose the right POV for the right tale.
“Show, Don’t Tell”: This Essential Craft Axiom Finally Explained—All writers have heard, “show, don’t tell.” Here’s how to make this timeless writing technique work for you.
The Goldilocks Approach To Writing Description: Not Too Little, Not Too Much—Some descriptions go on too long. Some are lacking. Here’s how to get it just right.
I Have A Dream: 8 Heart-Stopping Rhetorical Techniques Of King’s Speech—MLK might be the king of rhetorical techniques; all these years later, he still has lots to teach writers!
5 Strategies You Can Use To Get The Most Out Of A Writing Prompt—Use these writing techniques to turn a simple writing prompt response into a masterpiece!
9 Key Elements Of Great Endings For Books And Stories—Here are the writing techniques that will show you how to take your ending from good to great.
Writing Sex Scenes: How Much Is Too Much?—Read up on ways to write sex scenes in mainstream fiction. Why? Because bad sex scenes are REALLY bad.
Setting: Using Scene To Enrich Your Writing Craft—Set the scene for a great story or poem by focusing on your setting.
The Craft Of Fear Mongering: How (And Why) To Scare Your Readers—Many people love reading something scary! Here’s how to amp up the fear factor, whether you’re writing about zombies or family picnics.
How To Write Fiction Based On Real Life—Is your true story the stuff of fairy tales or nightmares? Here’s how to turn real life into fiction.
Stop Sagging Middle Syndrome: 5 Plot Devices That Will Amp Up Your Story—Whether you’re writing a short story, memoir, or novel, you’ll need to keep readers turning the pages, especially through the middle of your story. Use these creative writing techniques.
Writing Advice From A Snowstorm—Grab a blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, and your laptop or your favorite pen. Here are our best snowstorm-inspired tips for writers.
Characterization: Techniques For Crafting Memorable Characters
Character Development In Stories And Novels—New to the concept of character development? Start here!
5 Ways To Make Your Characters More Three-Dimensional—Flat characters are forgettable. Dazzle readers with well-rounded characters using these writer techniques.
5 Ways To Craft Characters That People Care About—Sympathetic characters are compelling characters. Here’s how to make us love your MCs!
Characters We Love To Hate: How To Pull Off Unlikable Characters—We love to read about cringe-worthy characters. Are they unlikable? Unsettling? Yes. Can we possibly sympathize and like them anyway? You bet!
How To Pick The Right Names For Your Characters—It can be hard to come up with the right name for your characters; here’s how to choose!
Main Characters: How To Kill Your Protagonist Without Killing Your Fanbase—If you’re going to kill your MC, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.
Write Strong Female Characters Without Being Cliché.From superheroes to career women to stay-at-home moms, strong women come in many forms. Here are some tips to help you create a believable, well-rounded, strong female protagonist.
Fictional Politicians: 8 Things They Teach Us About Effective Characterization Techniques—Politicians are perennial favorites with readers—and with good reason! Cast your vote for the most useful writing craft tips here!
Writing Craft And Technique: Just For Book Writers
Mail Call: Should A Writer Finish His/Her Book Before Submitting?—Okay, this isn’t exactly a craft question. But the answer is important to your success!
Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication—Once you’ve mastered your craft and technique, be sure to master your book genre (including word count)!
How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction?—How long is a general fiction book? Craft plays a key role in deciding whether a book is literary or mainstream (commercial). Let us be your guide.
How To Revise Your Novel—Are you in the beginning stages of revision? Start here to get the best results.
Think Like A Doctor: Diagnose And Cure What Ails Your Book—Grab your stethoscope and listen to these time-honored techniques of self-editing.
Why Your Opening Pages Are Key To Landing A Literary Agent—Not convinced that your first five pages need to display your very best writing techniques? Let’s try to change your mind!
Five Tips For Your First Five Pages—Make the opening pages of your book shine with these important craft tips.
5 Things Novelists Can Learn From Screenwriters—Here’s your ticket to the blockbuster plotting and characterization techniques of screenwriters.
5 Tips For Creating A Strong Excerpt From Your Novel Or Memoir—Excerpts can help you get your book published! Here’s how to create a buzz-worthy stand-alone excerpt.
7 Best-Seller Elements To Make Literary Agents Want Your Book—Have you crafted a book with strong popular appeal? Read this to find out!
The Book That Everyone Will Love: Writing For Young Adult And Adult Audiences—Some authors can write books that appeal to young and old readers alike; here are the key techniques for reaching such a wide audience.
New Adult Fiction: The Next Big Thing In Publishing?—New adult fiction readers are between the ages of 18 to 30. Here’s how to reach them!
How To Craft A Synopsis For A Novel—Write a killer synopsis with these important tips.
5 Common Synopsis Mistakes That Fiction Writers Make—Avoid these synopsis writing pitfalls!
The Craft Of Poetry: Creative Writing Techniques For Poets
Is It Prose Poetry, Short Prose, Or Flash Fiction?—If your poetry reads like prose, it may be more difficult to define your genre. But we can help.
Free vs. Formal Verse Poetry: A List Of Types Of Poems—Know your free verse from your formal, traditional styles.
Seven Techniques You Must Know To Make Editors Notice Your Poetry Submissions—Editors receive sooo many poetry submissions. Make sure your poetry stands out by using these techniques!
Poetry Submission Turnoffs: Styles And Formatting That Make Editors Cringe—There are no written-in-stone rules for crafting poems. But today’s editors eschew these poetic notions!
Length Matters: The Best Length For Submissions—Did you write a poem that is prohibitively long or short? Find out here!
Un-Think Your Poetry: How To Craft Better Poems—Want better results when you make submissions to literary journals? Don’t think about it—read this!
Rhyming Poetry: DOs, DON’Ts, And DEFINITIONS—Rhyme is tricky. If you are going to make rhyming submissions, know how to craft a good rhyming poem.
Rhyming Poetry Techniques That Don’t Annoy Readers—Good rhyming poetry is difficult to write well—but not impossible. Consider this a master class in rhyme.
Ten Writing Techniques To Make Your Poetry Submissions Stand Out In A Crowd—Competition for literary magazine space can be tough! Here’s how to make sure your poems are exceptional!
How To Craft Confessional Poetry—Your poems may be deeply confessional. But are they publishable? What your confessional poetry must do to get an editor’s attention.
Fostering Originality In Poetry Submissions—Yes, it’s all been done before. But maybe you can do it better.
The 8 Signs You’ve Written A Good Poem—It can be difficult to know whether you’ve written a good poem. Here are some signs that a poem is solid, successful, and has a good chance of getting published.
Make It Easy For Editors To Say YES To Your Poems—Use these poetry writing techniques to improve your chances of getting an acceptance letter.
The Nature Of Nature Poetry: 5 Techniques For Writing Your Best Nature Poems—How to craft inspiring nature poems.
Short Story Craft: Techniques For Short Story Writers
Short Story Or Novella? Where To Publish Shorter Fiction—Will your short prose be more publishable as a story or as a novella? We’ll help you decide.
Short Prose Genres: Defining Essay, Short Story, Commentary, Memoir, and Mixed Genre—If your short story incorporates any elements of nonfiction, read this!
Starved For Inspiration? 12 Ideas to Get Your New Story Started—What should you do when you’re trying to write a short story, but you can’t find inspiration to get started? Don’t quit—try one of these suggestions!
8 Techniques To Up The Drama Factor In Your Short Stories—Craft a more dramatic and emotional short story using these tips.
5 Techniques To Develop Your Short Story Into A Novel—You wrote a great short story—here’s how to expand your idea into a novel!
5 Ways To Shorten Your Short Stories—Check out these can’t-miss techniques for concise story writing.
Short Story Shortcuts: 4 Techniques For Making A Big Impact In Few Words—Every word in your short story must multitask if you want it to make a big impression.
Short Story Checklist: Techniques For Getting Short Stories Published—Use our checklist to see if your short story is ready for possible publication!
Is Your Short Story Publisher-Friendly?8 Ways To Make It Easier For Editors To Say YES!—These short story techniques will make it easier for editors to send you an acceptance letter.
Want To Publish Your Short Stories? Be Fresh!—Here are the best writing techniques for inbuing your short story with originality.
Nonfiction Writing Craft And Technique Tips: Memoir, Personal Essays, And Other Nonfiction
Fiction Or Nonfiction? Memoir Or Novel?—Know what to call your story or book: Is your story based partly on real life? Or maybe you’ve disguised names and places? Here’s how to determine your genre.
Can You Make Up Dialogue In Memoirs Or Nonfiction Books?—As a memoirist, you can’t be expected to remember every word spoken to you. So how should you craft dialogue?
Not-So-Great Advice: 7 Needless Errors Self-Help Writers Make When Trying To Get Published—Avoid these self-help writing pitfalls when crafting your book!
How, Why, And When To Write An Introduction For A Nonfiction Book—Readers (and editors, and agents) love to see introductions for nonfiction books. Master the technique by starting here.
Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble—How “creative” can you really be when writing creative nonfiction or your memoir? Use these smart nonfiction writing techniques to avoid problems and legal pitfalls.
The Art of the Nonfiction Book Proposal—Here’s the best way to organize and write a proposal for a nonfiction book.
Is It Worth Your Time To Write A Memoir?—Some people say you have to be a celebrity to publish a memoir. We weigh in.
In With The Old; Publishing Memoir In The New Year—Writer’s Relief president Ronnie Smith talks about the importance of writing memoir.
How And Where To Submit Creative Nonfiction For Publication—Creative nonfiction is fast becoming one of the most popular literary genres. But it’s important to find the right publisher(s) for your creative nonfiction (aka narrative nonfiction).
Closing Notes: Improve Your Craft And Your Technique As A Writer
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