Great Personal Essays

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Raymond says she receives many submissions from foreign travelers who “write up, essentially, a description of that country without any personal element, without a narrative and without a character arc or any sort of personal revelation,” making it about as fun as your neighbor’s vacation slideshow.

A good essay, like a road trip, takes you somewhere different from the place you started.

“People tend to write personal essays in which they’re either the hero or the villain, but most of us are squarely in the middle, which creates an opportunity for a narrative as unexpected as real life,” says personal essays editor Sarah Hepola.

“I love it when a writer says, ‘I thought you were the one to blame.

“The biggest mistake essay writers make is finishing a piece at three in the morning, deciding it’s brilliant and, without getting any feedback, sending it to The New Yorker,” she says.

“After you write your piece, get a serious critique in a class, a writing workshop or by a tough ghost editor.

” Strong humor can really sell an essay, but don’t let it overshadow your point.

“Some writers fall into the trap of using all their funny bits in one essay so that the piece becomes a rambling mess,” says Debe Tashjian Dockins, who coordinates the Erma Bombeck competition.

“The best personal essays use focused events to make a larger point.” Many of the submissions read by Daniel Jones, editor of The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column, “take on too much, trying to tell too big of a story in too small a space,” he says.

“The whole thing becomes a rushed summary of events — told and not shown — which can keep the reader at a distance.” Sloan says some writers fail because “their voice doesn’t sound authentic: Either it’s cutesy or highfalutin, or their insight lacks subtlety or depth.” Like confessions, personal essays work best when they’re revealing raw truth.


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