Rogue Ink

October 9, 2008

Assaying the Essay

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 3:20 am
Tags: ,

Just because I know what both of those words mean. Alliteration for everyone!

Short post, about personal essays and how to get one down on paper. Ten rules, for your consideration.

Rule #1

Rule #1 never changes, and it is always this: do not be boring. Do not be boring. Do not be boring. Thank you for your attention regarding this matter.

Rule #2

Do not be – I think we’ve run that Fight Club joke into the ground, don’t you? Yes, me too. See Rule #1. No, this rule is different, and it is: pick a personal topic. You would be surprised how many people try to write a personal essay and forget to be anything resembling personal. You can rant about politics or social whatever, but you have to bring it back to you. This is required. I require it. So do editors. So does the genre. ‘Personal essay.’ You see? Right there, with the P.

Rule #3

Write every single thing on the topic that comes into your mind. Seriously. Just write. Don’t try to put it in logical order, you will totally fail. Or if you succeed, you will be one of those writers that all other writers hate, which means that you can never come on this blog and tell me I’m wrong, it is possible to write in a coherent plotline, because all the rest of us will rise up and destroy you. So. Freefall it. Write everything down.

Rule #4

Now make a plotline. Open a new document, line the two up side by side, and type it into an order that resembles a plausible plotline. Note: the first time you do this, you will get it wrong.

Rule #5

Smooth out the transitions. The transitions are the bits where a new paragraph starts. Or when a new subject starts, but seriously, if you’re starting new subjects in the middle of paragraphs you’re not ready to write essays yet. Stop reading and go pick up a good manual of style, catch up, and come back later. The post will still be here. It’s all good.

The transitions WILL be shaky the first time you go through with your new plotline, because you’re essentially cut-and-pasting from a thought process that didn’t have a logical plotline to begin with. So they’ll be shaky. That’s why you smooth them out now. Don’t panic. It’s not like your writing will ever know what your brain is up to, anyway.

Rule #6

Have someone else read it. I picked Naomi and Stephanie. I would have asked James, but he was too busy. Something about his daugther’s birthday. Lame excuse, but whatever. Stephanie edited, Naomi gave me a general impression of whether she thought it was on the right track. Here’s what Naomi sounds like when she gives feedback.

“Wow. I really wanted to hate it, but it was good.”

Naomi is subtle. She also said ‘it felt long, but they like long’ and I asked her if she felt bored. Which brings us to Rule #7

Rule #7

Ask your readers direct and unflattering questions about your writing, and be prepared to hear the answers. I asked Naomi if she was bored because I suspected ‘it felt long’ was the nice way of hinting just that.

She said, in an unusual display of Naomic tact, “a little,  but it got better when you mentioned Craigslist guy.” (We’ll get to Craigslist guy later.)

Rule #8

Figure out a possible solution to your readers’ objections, and ask them while they’re still captive to your will. Otherwise you’ll have to ask new people, and they will have other objections, and you’ll never get anything done.

“Would it be better if I flipped the whole plot back to front and started with the guy?” I asked.

“Now you mention it, yeah. That’s exactly what you should do.”

The really great part about asking people if you should do something when you haven’t already done it is that they will usually tell you if you are about to take a long walk off a short pier. If you’ve already done it, they start saying stupid stuff like, “Well, you’re a little wet, but it’s nothing to worry about.” Before the mistake, they’re much more likely to say something like, “Look, why don’t you just go to the edge of the pier and dangle your feet in the water? I think that’d be better.”

Rule #9

Follow up on their suggestion immediately, otherwise you will lose momentum. The personal essay stops being compelling the exact same instant you become disenchanted with your own subject. The disenchantment happens when you spend too much time thinking about writing it and not actually writing it. Stepping away from the personal essay while it is still in plot format is the best way to kill it. Once the plot is there in order, you can step away and come back and fix the adjectives. That’s totally fine.

Rule #10

Take your own advice.

I gotta go fix this essay. Play nice while I’m gone. Anyone written a personal essay out there? Got something to share? Bring it on.


  1. Hey, yeah, I do that thing you said not to do in rule 3. Sorry. Don’t hate me. Good advice though, in a nice numbered list. I have to write a lot of essays, so dead useful.

    Comment by Shang — October 9, 2008 @ 4:24 am | Reply

  2. Tei, awesome advice. I do not typically write personal essays but have sometimes toyed with the idea. Your post makes me want to give it a whirl but not until after NaNo which may be fodder for an essay. 🙂

    Comment by Karen Swim — October 9, 2008 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  3. Tei, what’s a plotline in this context? I mean, for a narrative it’s obvious, but an essay, less so…

    I hate transitions. (As I just proved.)

    Comment by Mark V. McDonnell — October 9, 2008 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

  4. This roughly resembles my writing process…OK, very roughly. It’s actually really helpful to see it laid out in steps, and it makes me want to write a personal essay. Will you be sharing yours?

    Comment by Zoe — October 9, 2008 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  5. Shang: You have totally just signed your own death warrant. Doom shall befall you. Doom!

    Karen: You should, but may I advise taking a really unusual slant to it? I see a lot of essays about NaNoWriMo after the process because everyone’s feeling writerly. If you have an original slant, editors are way more likely to pick your piece out of the pile. Look around online for essays about it and try to figure out a slant no one else has done.

    Mark: Usually, for a personal essay, you’re going to describe an experience you had an relate it to a greater context. In the essay I just wrote, I took the idea of marketing as ‘selling oneself’ and made it a big extended metaphor for literally selling oneself, as in prostitution. I related that back to an experience I had with a guy I met on Craiglist. Plot went: here’s the big picture, here’s how it relates to the world, here’s a singular experience. In retrospect, I decided to switch that plotline up, but hopefully even that original one gives you an idea. It’s how your persona experience is going to weave in and out of the larger context for the piece, basically. Gods, I’m giving a lot of advice today. Usually I’m just snarky.

    Zoe: I will if they publish it – I’ll send you all on over there with a link.

    Comment by Tei — October 9, 2008 @ 3:25 pm | Reply

  6. What I like best, I think, is that you only asked two people. Any more in the mix and you may have ended up frustrated. I tend to make that mistake a lot.

    I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t mind the length, but I was also editing as I went along, and a plain readthrough after would have probably told me what Naomi saw, as well as shown me what to cut. On the other hand, it might not have. So I’m really glad you totally went with your gut, not only in deciding to change the order of things but first off asking Naomi if she had been bored. Going with your gut on your own writing, so long as you’re not clouded by anything else, is so important. I like to encourage that of clients. Editors are not always right, and editing with someone should be a discussion, not a one-person thing. You’re good at that, with the questions and stuff.

    Comment by Steph — October 9, 2008 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  7. That should read “asked only two people,” btw. Not, “only asked two people.”


    Comment by Steph — October 9, 2008 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  8. PS. Sorry. I just wanted to add that I thought this post great. I’m glad you’re writing more, too.

    Comment by Steph — October 9, 2008 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  9. You should consider marketing this post to high school students looking for help on their college applications! The last time I had to write a personal essay was then, and I’m sure that college admissions officers would love to get some essays with actual thought put into them!

    Comment by Kathleen — October 9, 2008 @ 7:21 pm | Reply

  10. Off topic comment but I have to vent.
    If I see “walla” instead of “voilà” on one more blog— I believe that I will hoist myself on my own petard.

    Comment by Muffy — October 9, 2008 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  11. The Fight Club joke will never die. That’s sacrilege.

    Comment by Jamie — October 10, 2008 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  12. I fail at #7.
    Big time.

    Nevertheless, true (with truly fabulous commentary).

    Comment by Holly — October 22, 2008 @ 2:35 am | Reply

  13. Love your blog, and good advice too! It’s going on my list of favorites, for sure. Thanks for the entertainment!

    Comment by The Crusty Curmudgeon — December 5, 2008 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: