The staff at The Writer is really excited about our new
essay/memoir contest. Even though the deadline isn’t until Nov. 30, it’s not
too soon to start thinking about topics and working them out on paper (or on
As editor of our magazine’s Off the Cuff column, I feel
lucky to read many personal essays related to writing and the writing life and
to select some of the most thoughtful, moving and occasionally humorous ones to
share with our readers. I’ve learned a lot from reading them—and those that we
don’t publish—and I hope that you’ll find these suggestions helpful in writing
memorable essays of your own:
Have a takeaway for the reader. I heard another editor say
this at a conference, and this may be the most important piece of advice when
it comes to writing essays. Sometimes I see well-written pieces by writers who
are passionate about their subject—but, unfortunately, they’re only writing for
themselves and not offering much for their readers. It’s perfectly OK to write
for yourself first, but then you should go back and ask yourself what readers
might get out of your essay. If what you’ve written is a rant, could you soften
it a bit and add some advice for others who may face a situation similar to the
one you did, for example? Or maybe you could keep what you’ve written in your
journal and come back to the topic after some time has passed. You might find
that your perspective has changed, and that might interest readers. You don’t
have to move readers to tears—laughter is a great alternative—but you should
move readers to feel something. After all, wouldn’t you say that’s why you read
Use your senses to provide descriptive details. You’ve heard
this before, but writing that reflects all of the senses really does put the
reader right there in your story with you. Writers are often good at
incorporating visual elements, but smell is powerful. Even taste can be useful.
Recently, I edited an essay in which the writer describes a (modest) sugar and
wine binge after a disappointment, and you could feel the bad taste it left in
her mouth, imagine a headache.
Don’t be afraid of incorporating dialogue. Certainly not
every essay needs dialogue to be effective. Yet a patch of dialogue can be
refreshing for the reader of essays, just as it is a nice way to break up
exposition in longer works. Perhaps you can include a funny exchange in an
otherwise serious piece. Play with the idea of dialogue, and, if it doesn’t
work, you can take it out.
Let your personality show. Just as the voice of a character
narrating his or her story in fiction can charm readers, so too can your voice
cast a spell. Earlier today I turned down an essay for the magazine that wasn’t
quite right for the column, but the narrative voice was so strong I felt
compelled to relay that to the writer and encourage her. I’m not suggesting
that you adopt a voice other than your own, but if you see the comic side of
things or have a quirky take on events, let that shine through. That’s what
will make your essay stand out.
You can find out more about our essay/memoir contest as well
as read full-length articles about writing memoirs and essays right on this site. Plus, we have a
terrific set of articles to help you get started writing and publishing essays,
which we’ve packaged in a convenient download.
We look forward to your contest submissions!
C. Lange, associate editor