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How to Write a Personal Essay: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid

by | Aug 27, 2019

Personal 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.

Common mistakes while writing an essay about yourself

Don’t feel bad if you’re making one of the mistakes outlined below. I came up with this list after years of not only writing my own essays, but critiquing essays by other writers.

In fact, these mistakes are so common that I teach a essay writing course to help writers avoid them — and get published in their dream outlet.

So let’s help you get an editor’s attention and land a coveted spot in your favorite publication! Avoiding these mistakes each time you write an essay about yourself is a solid starting point.

Here are eight common mistakes you should avoid when writing a personal essay:

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… way too 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. Overlooking 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 son’s rare congenital heart condition, 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. You have to be vulnerable.

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. Here are some personal narrative examples to guide you.

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.

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.

If you get a rejection, find another publication to pitch! The Write Life offers ideas of where to submit personal essays. And if that list isn’t enough, my online course comes with a list of 130+ editors who publish (and pay for!) this genre.

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

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

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