Writing a Personal Essay: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Writing a Personal Essay: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid
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Essay is a popular genre. Trouble is, the number of essayists lobbying for space on the page far exceeds the available slots. For example, The New York Times’ Modern Love column sees thousands of submissions each year — of which only 52 run.

Despite this sobering stat, not all publications that run personal essays are this competitive. Out of every 15 essays I draft, I usually sell about 10. Not a bad ratio.

While I’d like to believe each of those 10 is a masterpiece, the truth is, I’ve learned to avoid the common essay pitfalls. Plus, when I know an essay is good, I never give up until I snag a sale.

Want to attract an editor’s attention with your personal essay and land a coveted spot in your favorite publication? Make sure you’re not making one of these common essay mistakes.

1. Using essay to vent

Writers often use an essay as an opportunity to express a moralistic stand, rant about a controversial issue or vent about a family member. Don’t. If you take a stand on an issue — and run it into the ground — chances are, you’ll lose your reader the moment she (or he) gets your point.

Instead, challenge the reader to adopt his own stand without stating it outright. Give your reader a new way to look at the issue by sharing part of yourself and showing him your experience, and you may, indirectly, change a viewpoint.

Need an example? Christine Gross Loh’s piece on toy guns is one of my favorites.

2. Clearing your throat on the page

Most first drafts I critique come with at least three lines of superfluous throat-clearing that can easily go without impacting the piece. See how your essay sounds if you start out with the fourth or fifth sentence instead.

Essayist Jody Mace tells a story about an essay she wrote about her kindergarten-aged son who kept feeling women’s breasts. “I started with a discussion about raising sons to be gentlemen, and eventually said, ‘My son is a breast man.’ A friend said, ‘Cut everything before ‘my son is a breast man.’ I did, and it was a great opener.”

3. Writing long

Don’t be afraid of the butcher knife. When you’re revising and polishing an essay, make sure what you’ve written is tight — there are no unnecessary words, no superfluous anecdotes and no nonsense!

If you need to trim your piece so it will fit into a particular column, try cutting extra words or even extra graphs, and see if your piece still works. And don’t be so pleased with how you’ve turned a phrase that you keep it in your piece even though it doesn’t add to or support your takeaway.

4. Not using day-to-day life as essay fodder

An essayist’s job is to extract universal meaning from the mundane facts and experiences of life. I’ve written about my husband’s toy collection, my grandmother’s cooking, even my attempts at selecting the perfect wine to pair with a dish.

No matter what your story is about, it should involve some sort of personal transformation that allows you to see the world differently. Will your story make readers feel something, or think about an issue differently? Will it motivate them to act (by calling their mom, for example)?

If your piece makes readers recall an event or life experience of their own, chances are you’ve crafted a great essay.

5. Using lazy language

Many writers tend to use words and phrases repeatedly.

Try this self-editing experiment: Circle or highlight all of the adverbs and adjectives in your piece. Are they the best words for the job? Can you come up with better, richer or more meaningful words? Or do you find that you’ve used the same adjectives and adverbs over and over again? Each description should only appear in your piece once.

Next, look at your verbs. Are they action verbs? Picturesque, hard-hitting and precise? Or do you have a lot of “to be” verbs that don’t impart any meaning?

6. Being afraid of dialogue

Using direct dialogue is often more effective than telling the reader what someone said. Instead of saying, “The pediatrician told us to get rid of our son’s thumb-sucking habit,” write “’If you don’t put a stop to his thumb-sucking before he’s three, his teeth will be set and the damage will be done,’ warned our pediatrician.”

Using dialogue is another way of showing the reader your story rather than telling them. Worried about the fallibility of your memory? Quotes don’t have to be exact; they just have to be exactly how you remember them. Unlike a reported piece, essay is about your personal experience — your perception of events.

7. Holding back

If you’re determined to stay safely on the surface of your story, essay might not be the right form for you. To write essays, you have to put your whole self into them — your biggest hopes, greatest fears and deepest regrets.

If you feel yourself censoring aspects of your experience, stop. Maybe this isn’t the right time for you to write this piece. Maybe you need more distance from the situation so you can uncover deeper truths.

You have to be ready to let yourself go and know that the more of yourself you bring to your writing, the better essayist you’ll be.

To become a better essayist, bring more of yourself to your writing via @amypaturel Click To Tweet

8. Taking rejection personally

Personal essays are deeply intimate, so it’s painful when editors reject them.

But good writers know there are countless reasons why an editor might reject a piece. Maybe they ran something similar recently (or have something similar in the works). Or maybe that particular editor didn’t connect with your piece. That doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with someone else.

Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun. Writing is a deeply personal and challenging pursuit, but it should be an enjoyable one, too.

What do you watch out for or struggle with when writing and submitting essays?

If you’re interested in learning more tools of the essay-writing trade, sign up for Amy Paturel’s six-week online essay-writing workshop. Her next class begins April 13, and she’s offering a 10% discount to TWL readers — simply email her to sign up!

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Amy Paturel is an award-winning journalist who has contributed essays to Newsweek, Parents, Health, Women’s Health, O (the Oprah Magazine), Wine Enthusiast, Spirituality & Health and The Los Angeles Times. To learn more about Paturel’s online essay course, please visit

Amy Paturel | @amypaturel

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Comments

  1. Thank you. I’m going to use this really great list as I write each of my weekly blog posts. Cheers!

  2. Just received this post in my email this morning. Great list, Amy! Thanks for the great tips.

  3. Great advice. I would also add that these apply well to memoir. Most of my work is personal essay or memoir, and if If you are writing your story, whatever that may be, it has to resonate with the rest of us. Navel-gazing alone does not work. Find what we share in the human experience—big or small.

  4. Personal essays weren’t something I had considered before, but after reading this post; my eyes have been opened to them……thank you!

  5. Great tips, especially the first one. It’s okay to take a stand occasionally, but too much “venting” or complaining will turn off the reader pretty quickly.

  6. Amy,

    Thanks so much for sharing! I am a new blogger and will definitely keep these tips in mind when I am creating my own essays.

  7. This is a great article, very helpful and useful. In addition to this, can anyone suggest where I could find nonfiction writing prompts? Thanks a bunch!

  8. Thank you so much for these tips, they have given me food for thought. I’ve tried incorporating some of them into this blog post

    https://victoriawhyte.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/grief-creeps-up-when-youre-least-expecting-it/

  9. Point #6 sounds like me. I’m really afraid of dialogues. The ones I’ve written seemed really unnatural and factitious to me.

  10. Great article (even coming late to the party) all of these points make a lot of sense, i especially struggle with number 2 and can’t seem to find a good hook for articles or even a catchy tittle, as i have found out in feature article writing class… something to work on.
    Thanks for the advise
    Paula

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