Things you should remember when writing a personal essay
I’ve been writing personal essays ever since I first entered the world of journalism. Personal essays are pieces I enjoy writing, because I lose myself in the words.
Throughout my career in journalism, I’ve focused on topics including mental health, sex and relationships, body image, and parenting. I’ve written features and reported on different subjects, but personal essays are something that I focus my work on, because it feels like telling a story.
In all honesty, sometimes I feel like personal essays are the only thing I can write well, because I can use my experiences, meaning the words come from the heart. For me, it’s easier to write about something you have experienced yourself (a lot of the time) than to write about other subjects.
But personal essays come with risks. You are putting yourself out there to the world and telling your story with honesty and authenticity. And this can make you vulnerable to online trolling, and people that perhaps you don’t get on with very well reading about your personal life. So, I think that with personal essays, you need to ensure you are totally comfortable with the words on the page. You need to be confident that you are happy for your personal essay to be published, and that there aren’t going to be any issues afterwards.
So, I’ve created some tips for writing personal essays that I’ve learned along the way. Here they are.
Don’t divulge too much into your personal life
Yes, it’s a personal essay, but that doesn’t mean you owe the world your entire personal life. Remember that what you’re writing is going to be on the internet forever, so if you don’t want to include certain things in your essay, don’t feel pressured into doing it. Remember that your personal essay affects you — not the people reading it or the people publishing it. Take care of yourself when writing, and if you don’t want to include something personal in the piece, don’t. And don’t allow anyone to feel like you have to, either.
Make sure you feel comfortable with what you have written
The most important part of writing a personal essay is that you’re comfortable with what you are writing. Perhaps you included something and now want to remove it from the piece of work — and that’s totally okay. Please don’t allow something that you are not comfortable with to be published, because it is your name attached to the work, and your story. That means you should have total control of what is included in the piece, and what is not.
Don’t feel forced into having your name attached to the piece of writing
It’s okay to ask your editor if you can be anonymous. Sometimes, you want to write an essay, because it can be therapeutic and you want the world to know your story — without your name attached to it. It’s totally understandable because posting a personal essay can be a big step, and the internet is a big and scary place, and you are putting yourself out there into the world. If you are told no, think about whether you really want to publish the piece with the outlet that has commissioned it. It’s okay to decide that it’s no longer right for you and to move to a publication that will understand.
Have trusted open communication with your editor
Be open and honest with your editor. If you aren’t happy with some edits they have made, tell them. At the end of the day, it is your story to tell and you should be happy with the final piece. Have open communication with your editor throughout the process, so that you can get the piece to a point where it is exactly right for you.
Don’t traumatise yourself for the sake of a commission
This. Is. So. Important.
Often, personal essays can be difficult to write and might reflect on a bad time in your life. I know that writing about mental health has been hard, sharing my experiences with the world has left me vulnerable; and sometimes the comments section leaves me regretting writing a piece (tip: never read the comments section). But if you are struggling financially or you desperately want a byline in a publication, the pressure to share parts of your story that make you feel uncomfortable can be overwhelming. But please, don’t traumatise yourself for the sake of a commission. Look after yourself when writing and take breaks throughout so that you can reflect on the piece as you go, rather than rushing to write and submit it.
It is your life that you are detailing; your experiences. Writing should be a positive thing, something to help you clear your head, and look back on and feel proud of. It should be something that makes you excited and makes you feel happy. It shouldn’t be something that hurts you and upsets you as you write. When you’ve finished the piece, take a few days before submitting it, to make sure you feel content and comfortable with what you have written. There is no money in the world worth hurting yourself over.