5 Things Your Personal Essay Needs To Have

Editor's Note: Put Gilsdorf's advice into practice in his upcoming class, "Writing Great Scenes for Your Personal Essays"!


Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs—and tips to share—along the path to becoming a freelance writer.

Here are some questions I often get: “What makes a great personal essay?” “What’s a good topic for a personal essay?” “I don’t even know what goes into a personal essay.” And so forth. 

Personal essays can take all sorts of forms, and they can contain all sorts of ideas, emotions, themes, scenes, moments, musings, and other content. There’s no one way to write one or structure one, and I don’t have all the answers. But as you do begin to write, or before you write, or as you go back and look at that necessary but messy first draft, you might do some strategic thinking.

Here are five things that you might consider.

1. A question to explore

What’s a good topic for a personal essay? In my experience, it’s something that poses a question, that you want to answer. A personal investigation. Why did you behave a certain way on that first date? What explains that lousy relationship with your father? There’s some dark matter, some problem with heat, that needs to be uncovered. The question you crave an answer to can be a guiding force for self discovery on the page. Make it interesting for YOU to investigate it, to write it, and it will be interesting to read.

If it helps as you draft, type that question at the top of the page. In the draft itself, you can insert an implicit hint or direct reference to what you want to explore. How did I become such a jerk? How did I survive that time in my life? Who is my tribe? Etc.

Stories only you can tell are the best. Remember, the marketplace demands unique stories. Be strategic. Think of  essay topics that are sensational, unique, thoughtful, dramatic, and risky.

2. A something at stake

What is at stake for you? When I talk about this idea of what's at stake for you, what I means is, What is the reason we as the reader going to care about you? What happens to you? Are you in danger, physically, emotionally, or psychically?  Or is the risk simply being willing to face, or re-view, or revise, some aspect of how you see your life, or admit to a fault, or see a situation from another perspective? There has to be a sense of risk or danger -- bad things might happen to you if you don't come to some fresh understanding, or change your life, or make that leap to new place in life.

3. A clear scope of story and theme

Many personal essays fail because they try to take on too much: the time I didn’t make the basketball team + my anger about that disastrous Thanksgiving + my thoughts on forgiveness + that crappy period of depression. It’s important to make sure your essay has a tight theme and limited scope. Don't try to talk about your entire relationship with your mother; focus on a particular time or aspect of your relationship with your mother that was trying, like when you found yourself still hearing her voice in your head as you raised your children. It's almost always better to go deep on a smaller topic, theme or thread from your life, and use a smaller frame, than it is to cast a wide net.

Here’s one idea to help you focus: Try to summarize your idea and theme in one title and subtitle. These examples come from

Keep your comments off my baby
As a blogger, I could take the Internet's wrath. But when I decided to have a kid, I wondered: Was it time to quit?

Never show them your back
I hid those moles, because they were hideous. But the worst part of your body can look different to someone else

My sexual awakening at 70
I was a nice, Jewish girl taught to believe sex was dirty. Fifteen years after my husband died, all that changed

4. A character arc

Sometimes in essays, the writing is lovely, the images are fresh, the scenes are exciting. But it all goes nowhere. Nothing much happens that’s interesting. When that happens, the problem is that there is no character arc.

Remember, in a personal essay, you are the protagonist of your essay. Just like in a novel or short story.  So the “character of you” needs to face conflict, and be challenged by it, and be changed by it. Your understanding your life in a new way might be the thing that changes, or it could be something more dramatic, like you lost your left leg in an accident, and that has made all the difference. Take the reader on a journey, and arrive somewhere new by the end of the essay. In short, be the change you want to write about.

5. A Beginning in the middle

Some essays begin too slowly. They meander. It’s not clear what’s interesting because the writer has given us too much backstory, or is seemingly compelled to detail the ugly truths of every character in a family constellation or, perhaps worse, every detail about the writer’s childhood. But there’s no action. No forward motion.

One solution to this problem is to begin the essay as if the reader is just overhearing a scene or a story that’s already happening. Begin in scene, in the midst of things (AKA in medias res), into the middle of a narrative, without preamble. Give us some of your best stuff first. Something shocking. Make a bold statement. Grab our attention by presenting a hint of the problem that’s going to be dealt with soon.

This can often be handled by a compelling move right out of the gate. Here’s some examples of a few first lines:

“There’s the night that Veronica knocked her front teeth out.” (“Veronica’s Teeth,” by Joshua Mohr, The Rumpus)

“Sometimes those who live near seem far off.” (“The couple next door,” by Shuo Zhuang, Boston Globe Magazine)

“I used to flash my bra when I was good and drunk.” (“Never show them your back,” Sarah Hepola, Salon)

You get the idea. In other words, get us on board – intrigued, fascinated, worried, unbalanced. Tease us just enough, and we’ll keep reading.

I hope this handful of concepts, tricks, and approaches helps you focus, shape, and get your personal essay headed in a fruitful and satisfying direction. Happy writing.


*Photo by Enouch Lau. Used Courtesy of Creative Commons License.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf
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