Writing & Selling Personal Essays

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

You’ve heard this before, right? When you’re writing a personal essay, use fiction techniques to make it lively and interesting. But what the heck does that really mean?

Well, remember that dinner you had last week with your best friend Jennifer? The one at that amazing new Italian restaurant on the corner with red leather booths and silky, white lanterns? You know-the one where you had that mouth-watering pumpkin gnocchi and Jennifer had, had, well, whatever it was, she adored it because she slapped her hand on the table and yelped over and over again in a voice that was way too loud for the hushed atmosphere, “God, I’m going to eat here every night from now on. Every single night. They’re going to have to kick me out to get rid of me”?

Ah, it’s coming back to you now, isn’t it?

Well, would you even consider writing a personal essay about that dinner without including the red leather booths, the silky, white lanterns, the mouth-watering pumpkin gnocchi, the slapping of the hand, or the fact that every single time you and Jennifer eat at a new restaurant-any new restaurant-she always says the same thing in the same too-loud voice?

Nope, you wouldn’t.

Why not?

Because the story would be flat, boring, and completely uninteresting-to your listener, your reader or your potential editor. It would go something like this:

There is a new Italian restaurant on the corner. There are booths and lanterns. I ate there with my friend last week. I liked my food. So did my friend.

“Aahhhh! Aahhhh!” cries your potential editor (followed by sounds of said editor thunking her head against a wall).

Listen up, writers! You’ve got to entertain your readers. You’ve got to keep them interested. A good hook is great, but if you don’t follow it up with something equally compelling, you’ll lose your readers as fast as you can say, “I remember now! Jennifer had the cod!”

So, yes, fiction techniques will help you do this. When you sit down to write your personal essay, utilize the same techniques you would if writing a novel or a short story:

  • develop your characters
  • let those characters speak to one another — dialogue, dialogue, dialogue
  • create a sense of place
  • include gestures
  • use objects to move your story forward (Oh, yeah, the salt shaker fell on the floor when Jennifer slapped the table and everyone in the place turned to stare.)

Try it! It’s much more fun-for your reader, your editor and you.

Personal Essay Marketplace: Like to write with your funny bone? Try your hand at Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Last Page.” Check out the submission guidelines for this 550-700 word essay market at Smithsonian Magazine.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.

3 Responses to “Writing & Selling Personal Essays”

  1. 1 Liza R May 20, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I’m always on the lookout for stuff like this. And of course, what I wouldn’t give right now for some mouth-watering pumpkin gnocchi…

  2. 2 Ajith Edassery May 26, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Hope they won’t spin this articles to numerous other sites?


  3. 3 glendalee June 11, 2009 at 2:37 am

    I need same idea about how to write and essay with good hooks..

    this my topic.

    write about a time you accomplished a goal was important to me?

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