Writing the Personal Essay: A Noob’s Guide

You might be wondering about writing the personal essay. You may be aiming to write for a column in a national publication such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, or elsewhere. You could be targeting a widely-read literary journal or book collection (8Letters, Santelmo, CCP’s Ani, and other publications come to mind). Maybe, you are aiming to be published in an international outlet – the sky’s the limit!

This guide is intended for the person who wants to write a personal essay, but has no idea where to go or how to go about it. Of course, the undergraduate or master’s student might have some use for these tips, though it should be said that most of the points in this piece have most likely been covered by your professors, mentors, or tutors.

With that being said, here is the noob’s guide for writing the personal essay!

What is a personal essay?

There are many types of definitions of the personal essay, but they pretty much boil down to one thing: They should be readable and they should be anchored in one’s reality – thus the research part (you’ve got to make sure that you have the names and dates right…)

A personal essay comes from both your life and your imagination. At the same time, it should bring light to a reality of life in such a way that it makes the reader read it from the start to the end. It should also bring a realization of some sort at the very end of the piece, whether it is a cathartic, educative, or an emotive one, though the realizations are not related to the above-mentioned examples.

As a result, there are many approaches to the personal essay – they can be funny, prosaic, entertaining, interesting, mind-blowing, heart-breaking, face-shattering, and so on.

What does it look like?

Just as with any traditional essay, a personal essay, regardless of the type, has three rough parts: an introduction, a middle portion, and an end. Typically, these narratives go from as low as 500 words to as high as 5000 words (and possibly even higher).

However, since a personal essay is a form of creative nonfiction, the essay should also adhere to the basic tenets of fiction writing, such as a protagonist, a plot, a conflict, a climax, and so on. A naturally written personal essay would already more or less have these elements even in minimal form; it then becomes a matter of editing the whole thing.

What should I have in my piece?

Since it’s personal, the “I” would always exist as a narrator, speaker, persona, or character in the piece. Also, the raw emotions that you experience should always be a part of your text – it’s up to you how to process these emotions and turn them into text.

For models of various personal essays that are easy to find nowadays, get a copy of Gideon Lasco’s “The Philippines is Not A Small Country” or Ronnie Baticulon’s “Some Days You Can’t Save Them All”. Also, another suggestion would be to read them directly from the Young Blood, Young Star (they publish anthologies), Rappler, (or any other periodical that you have access to) and literary journals such as the Bangsamoro Literary Journal, Dagmay Online, and the like.

People like Nick Joaquin (well, he’s a newspaperman through and through, so you’ll be able to appreciate the language used in his nonfiction pieces) and George Orwell (there’s a reason why “Homage to Catalonia” and “Essays” are widely read across the world) are some other examples. If you want to see how “complicated” topics are simplified, read William Langewiesche’s essays from The Atlantic and elsewhere.

If you are simply unable to have a good enough Internet connection (and want to see more local examples from local writers without having to use an external website), try reading the essays that 8Letters and Transit Dialog have published in the past on Facebook. Since they are text-based, it means they’re free to read even with Free Facebook! 

How can I improve my personal essay?

One can improve through vigilant and smart practice, as well as constructive and selective feedback from friends that could read your essay and beta readers.

Unfortunately, it means some hard work when it comes to grammar and mechanics of the English language, plus knowing context and usage on top of having to expand one’s vocabulary. 

Also, research helps. Even if you already know, say, Zamboanga City or Luneta Park by heart, it’s always best to see them through a pair of fresh eyes.

Finally, make use of things like Grammarly, Google Docs, and Office 365 – they help you avoid amateur mistakes. No, seriously, they serve as a neutral pair of eyes that would allow you to refine your work accordingly; yes, they may not be perfect, but at least you’ll avoid having to go through neck-breaking grammar edits.

Yes, you will have to put in the hours. There’s no going around it!

What should I remember when writing my personal essay?

Always remember that you are not just writing for yourself. You should know that you are writing for a potential reader (or a set of potential readers), which means that you should shape and edit accordingly, without compromising the way you want to present the personal essay to the world around you.

Also, you should know that even if you write a very good essay, there are times when the editors simply don’t like it, or the piece doesn’t fit their vision/editorial policy/preference. Don’t worry, you’ll find a home for your personal essay – I can personally attest to this one from experience.

Can you describe the process of writing the personal essay?

It’s not easy, but it’s not hard either.

Whether you are working methodically or working with bursts of energy, writing a personal essay requires focus and determination, as well as some mental fiber that you use especially during editing. However, one way or another, the essay beats the deadline, and regardless of whether it is accepted or not, you could be happy about the fact that you have finished a work of writing!

Where can I submit my personal essay?

If you are in the Philippines, there are many places where you can submit your personal essay.

As for writing for an international audience, it’s a different ball game – however, it should be said that as long as you have a powerful piece that it is relatable to your potential audience, follow their submission instructions to the letter, and that it has been edited to the most rigorous extent possible), you stand a good chance of having your personal essays accepted for a proper literary magazine abroad.

Where can I apply the skills I use in writing the personal essay?

Simple. You gain copywriting, editing, and critical reading (and thinking) skills that are needed in nearly any industry nowadays – though I personally don’t agree with gaining skills for a particular workplace. As for your research skills and methods that you have learned along the way? They’re pretty much useful in every facet of life.

Also, it’s important to note that writing requires focus, stamina, determination, resourcefulness, and sharpness (of language), which are all desirable traits in the 21st century world.

Of course, if you are lucky to find your way into the writing world, you’ll be a writer, with all the pros and cons that it entails.

I am a kid and I want to write…how do I go with it?

For children who are not of high school age, the word requirements are typically shorter. Children in the fourth grade are expected to be able to write somewhere between 150-200 words in a coherent manner (without major and basic grammar mistakes), while children in the sixth grade. Of course, these are not numbers set in stone, but this should give everyone some sort of idea how to go around it.

Focus on effective description and having a strong introduction/narrative/ending. After all, the goal for you all is to be able to make your readers feel something and read your piece until the very last word.

Most importantly, good spelling and grammar helps a lot at this age. Get the fundamentals right at your age, and you’ll be more or less set for the rest of your life!

What are the other tips that you could give about a personal essay?

Read books. Read more books. Read lots of books, even the bad ones (they’ll help you see how not to write, what to write, how to go around them, etc.) then write, write, edit, write, edit, and write and submit. Being in the ball game means winning half the fight; it’s just a matter of being able to close it out.

Also, take care of yourself. No, seriously. Eat healthy food. Live a balanced life. Go get hobbies, learn new things, be with your friends and family, and live a life with a purpose.

Finally, if you are lucky to have access to books on creative writing (and a teacher/mentor who can teach you), then learn as much as possible and apply the appropriate lessons to your writing. Other than that, good luck and enjoy your writing journey!


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