Understanding Personal Essays: What’s An Essay Anyway?

Abigail GreenBy Abigail Green

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And what subject can you possibly know better than yourself and your own life? That may be why many of us choose to write personal essays. Essays give us the opportunity to examine our own thoughts and feelings, to reflect on our experiences, and to tell stories about the people and places in our lives.

Of course, a good personal essay must be of interest to a larger audience. Ideally, it should also impart some sort of insight or wisdom to readers. Otherwise, it will read like a navel-gazing journal entry. More on that later.

Personal essays vary widely. They can be short or long, serious or humorous, and may be on virtually any subject imaginable, including health, parenting, politics, travel, or current events. I’ve read personal essays about a father’s beloved toolbox, learning to hang glide, losing a breast to cancer, adopting a child, getting a tattoo removed, rafting down a river in Asia, and even losing a car’s gas cap.

Essays may include personal anecdotes, dialogue, factual reporting, or a combination of these. They can be found in magazines, in the op-ed section of a newspaper, and on any number of Web sites. The one thing all personal essays have in common is that they are nonfiction and written in the first person, from the author’s perspective.

As I mentioned before, all good essays manage to make the personal universal. For example, you might recount a story about your family dog, but there’s got to be something in your essay that other people can relate to. Not everyone knows Sparky, but nearly everyone can relate to the unconditional love that only a pet can offer.

This elusive “universal truth” stymies a lot of essay writers. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for finding it. Rather, the universal truth usually reveals itself only through the process of writing, revising and rewriting an essay. (Tip:  Studying the work of skilled essayists like those in the Best American Essays anthologies is a great way to learn by example.)

In the coming months, this column will take a look at different types of essays found in all sorts of consumer magazines and newspapers, such as Newsweek’s “My Turn” department, Parenting’s “Mom’s Eye View,”  and the New York Times’ “Lives” and “Modern Love” sections.

While this column is not intended to serve as a market guide, we will examine some specific markets known for publishing essays. That’s because as a freelance writer who’s been publishing essays for years, I have found that it’s much easier to craft an essay for a particular market than it is to write a piece and then try to find a home for it.

The bad news about personal essays is that they are not easy to write-or to sell. The good news is that essay markets are abundant, and so is an essay writer’s material.


Abigail Green is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Over the past 12 years, she has written for national, regional and online publications including AOL, Bride’s, Baltimore Magazine, Cooking Light and Health. She blogs about the lighter side of pregnancy, parenthood and potty training at Diary of a New Mom. She teaches Personal Essays that Get Published, a six-week e-mail class.

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1 Response to “Understanding Personal Essays: What’s An Essay Anyway?”


  1. 1 Kimberly Davis June 11, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    This is a great post. I teach creative nonfiction, and this is a wonderfully clear explanation of one of harder things to master with the essay–the universal truth. An essay is usually just an anecdote without that.


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