Many of us are anxious to tell our own story in writing. Many of us are required to write a personal essay as part of a college application process. Some of us are simply interested in how to write a compelling story in a coherent and engaging way. Writing a personal essay is an act of deep self-expression.
There are three distinct steps to writing a great personal essay: Write the first draft from the heart. Write the second draft with the brain. Write the third draft for your readers. Each step may involve a little of the other steps, since it’s the whole of you who is writing the essay.
The first step involves remembering—re-imagining and reconstructing—the past. Most aspiring writers have a story they’ve always wanted to tell. Or there are memories that won’t leave them alone. Or there’s a character in their lives, or in the past, who beckons to be heard—or heard about. Listen to the busy mind and you’ll always find your story—many stories, in fact. The story that you have to write is your real story.
But where should you start the story? Most fiction readers and film viewers these days have little time for lengthy exposition or background, so it’s best to start as close to the climax as possible. You can flashback from there. Keep your reader hanging. Stretch the intense moments out (but don’t become tedious).
During this first draft, remember two items: One, be sure to convey the meaning or feeling you hope to get across to your readers, and, two, write descriptively in order to place your reader in the story. Sit down at your desk and free-write the story without stopping, without fixing words or sentences, till you’ve written all you can remember. Get it down with all the passion you can muster.
Once you’ve written all you can, step away from your draft, sleep on it, or go for a walk or a drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes and heart. Then read it through once, without making any marks or changes. Now make a list of general items you’d like to improve. Then, reading again from the top, make marks or changes reflecting your goals for your story or ways you’d like to improve it. Producing a second draft involves making drastic changes. Drastic changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs or moving chunks of material around. But this is also a good time to enhance the pictures and sharpen and add words.
Another way writers improve first drafts is by adding more concrete and descriptive language. They also add transitions that move the story from place to place, time to time, and point of view to point of view; they break long sentences, join short ones, and strive to create sentence variety. Let your brain have sway over the ego here. Don’t be too precious about what you’ve already written.
The third draft is about sharpening vocabulary, deleting unnecessary words or adding missing ones, and attending to mechanics—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Since, in this step, you’re drafting for your audience, read your personal story aloud, in front of a mirror, or ideally to a friend or partner. How does it sound to the ear? Natural? Fluid? Engaging? Clear? Does it make a point? Is it vivid? Make notes during or as soon as possible after reading aloud. Always be open to the possibility of improving a personal essay. Many writers continue to revise their work all their lives.
Writing a personal essay is an important act of self-revelation and meaning-making. It involves a great heave of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of a song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, then for an audience, makes sure the act is true, whole, and sound.