What's a great process for writing a personal essay?

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Answered by: Rick, An Expert in the Rhetoric, Style and Interpretation Category
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 thinking, remembering, 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 the 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.

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 hike or drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes. 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. This step involves making drastic changes. Typical changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs that include material with which they were warming up or trying to find their real beginning.

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 matters of 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 sigh of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, and for an audience makes sure the act is whole and true.

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