“Figure out where the most interesting parts end and tie it off there.” Paula Derrow, writing instructor and editorial consultant agrees.“The biggest mistake is that people try to squish 20 years of their life into five pages instead of focusing in on specific events and vivid details,” she says.Axing the first paragraph entirely often works for me, but you should do whatever it takes to make sure you and your readers hit the ground running, not stuck in neutral.
“A lot of writers fail to remember that great essays can be written about stuff that’s happy or funny,” says Sloan.
“It doesn’t always have to be wrenching, and in fact, we’d often rather it weren’t!
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.
“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.
As an official judge for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, I read a lot of essays, the quality of which fluctuated from powerful to pointless.
Despite this range, what struck me most were the handful-and-a-half common, correctable mistakes that kept many essays, even potentially wonderful ones, from truly hitting their mark.
But don’t confuse looking for truth with trying to make yourself feel better, warns Jones.
One of the most common mistakes he finds is “when people write to justify their own behavior or opinion, rather than to explore something they don’t understand.” And don’t settle for easy answers.