Archive for October 16th, 2009

Understanding Personal Essays: Short and Sweet

By Abigail GreenAbigail Green
The consensus among most writers I know is that it’s much easier to write long than it is to write short. Longer word counts leave the writer space for description, exposition, and often, extra fluff you don’t really need.
In his landmark book, On Writing Well, author William Zinsser puts it like this:
“It’s amazing how often an editor can just throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article … and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself. Not only are those first few paragraphs hopelessly impersonal and ornate; they don’t say anything. They are a self-conscious attempt at a fancy introduction, and none is necessary.”
Short essays, by definition, only have room for the “meat.” You have to be relentless with the red pen and whittle your words down to the bare essentials.
Lots of my writing students moan and fret when they have to cut their essays to meet a shorter word count. They worry that they’ll lose the good stuff or that the piece will no longer have their voice. On the contrary, tightening an essay is often what really makes it sing.
For example, consider the “What I Really Know” column in AARP Bulletin. In 300 words or less, writers tackle such topics as terminal illness, love, and freedom. Ami E. Rodland’s “What I Really Know About Freedom: A Second Wind” proves without a shadow of a doubt that sometimes less is more when it comes to word count. Reading her essay, I felt the weight of her grief and the buoyancy of her newfound independence. Pretty impressive for a mere seven paragraphs, no?
For another example of a short but powerful personal essay, check out the most recent winner of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. In just 385 words, writer Toni Giarnese evokes all five senses in her poignant essay about making ravioli with her grandmother.
To write a short essay, you don’t have to sit down at your pad or keyboard and eke out a few hundred perfectly chosen words. Rather, write the first draft as you normally would. Then revise, tighten, and revise some more until, as Zinsser said, you get to the part where you start to really say something and sound like yourself. The result will be both short and sweet.


Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at

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