Dazzle Your Reader with a Great Essay
This week's blog post is a share about writing the personal essay - how to write it and how to reach your reader. I particularly like that these tips might dazzle my readers. I could use some dazzle in essays.
Here is an excerpt from an article in Huffington Post about writing essays by Jessica Smock. Jessica is a teacher, writer, editor and co-editor of The HerStories Project- for Gen-X Women in Midlife. See more of the HerStories Project here.
I hope these point are helpful to all my essay writing friends. If you have other ideas of what makes a good essay, please share them in the comments below.
8 Tips for Dazzling an Editor With Your Personal Essay
1. Use what you know about good fiction and storytelling. You should develop characters, settings, and plot (a sequence of events) into a story. Use sensory details and vivid description to create separate, carefully chosen scenes.
2. Combine the personal and the universal. This is your story, your life, your emotions but your writing should also express and reveal a larger meaning, a theme, a deeper truth, beyond the surface details of plot and character.
3. Find your voice. More importantly, find your unique voice that is best for each piece, or different moments of the same piece. As Kate Hopper, in the invaluable Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, explains, voice is: “the feel, language, tone, and syntax that makes a writer’s writing unique. In nonfiction, voice is you, but not necessarily the you sitting in front of the computer typing away. Voice can be molded by a writer to serve the subject about which she is writing.” It might take a while to find the best voice for a piece. Is the right voice ironic, funny, anxious, playful, breathless, or solemn? We all have multiple identities and show different parts of ourselves at different times. Use that versatility in your writing.
4. Alternate focusing in and focusing out. Choose specific and compelling moments, memories, and feelings, and hone in on them, using those particular moments to help to convey theme and purpose. Pretend you are using a video camera to focus in and out, slowing down the action, like a cinematographer, very purposefully to guide the reader toward what’s important in the piece.
5. Be specific, not general. This is what I called “The Rule of the Pebble” to my students (thanks to Nancie Atwell, my writing teacher guru). It basically means don’t write about a general topic or idea; write about one particular person, place, time, object, or experience. In other words, don’t try to write about all pebbles everywhere (or “love” or “friendship” or “football” or “sunsets”). Write about this one particular pebble (or the friend that broke your heart freshman year, or the sunset that you saw last night, or memory, or place), its meaning to you, the concrete details that shape how you think about it.
6. Experiment and play. Try out different literary devices and techniques, such as similes, personification, and metaphors. Or experiment with using different sentence lengths strategically. Use repetition, of words, of lines, of phrases. Play with imagery. Many of these devices should only be used sparingly, but, used effectively, they can add surprises and richness to your writing.
7. Learn the difference between revision and editing. You must do both. It’s easy as a writer to focus on spelling errors and sentence structure, rather than making big (painful) changes to our writing. Revision means “to look again.” You do things like: make sure that your theme and purpose for writing are clear; try out different leads (ways to begin the piece); rethink your conclusion; change the organization.
In editing, a separate stage, we do things like catch run-on sentences, fix errors in punctuation or spelling, or replace overused words and expressions.
8. Read, read, read, and read some more. What all writers have in common, as far as I know, is that they’re constantly reading. They pay attention to their favorite writer’s craft and style and try them out in their own writing. They internalize the beauty and the utility of the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the perfect metaphor.