What’s My Essay About? Tips from the Essay Incubator

The Essay Incubator is a 10-month intensive program for essay writers interested in drafting, revising, and publishing their work. Applications for the 2023-24 Essay Incubator are closed. Learn more about the program here.


Here’s the number one challenge I see students in my Essay Incubator program face: What is my essay about?

Of course, we don’t always know what we want to write until we sit down to write it. But once you have that first messy draft on the page, students sometimes find it difficult to figure out their focus.

In many cases, what I see are essays that tackle too much: my failed first relationship PLUS that story about the time I didn’t make the basketball team AND that disastrous Thanksgiving AND ALSO a rumination on the state of American politics today. 

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 are three tips to help you find that focus:


Tip 1: Ask questions

To help you grasp what holds together a personal essay and give shape to your vignettes/ideas/memories, it can help to frame your essay around a question or questions that you want to answer. 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. It can even help as you draft to type that question at the top of the page. Why does this memory haunt me? How can I grapple with the loss of my child? What is the difference between being forgiving and self protection? How did I survive high school? 

Once you’ve listed the question or questions your essay might explore, you can ask yourself: Can my list of questions be narrowed? Are some of these questions unrelated, tangential, not interesting? How might this guide my next draft?


Tip 2: Sketch a character arc 

A character arc is equally important. Remember, in a personal essay, you are the protagonist of your essay. Just like in a novel or short story, you need to take the reader on a journey, and arrive somewhere new by the end of the essay. Even if what “happens” is even a failure to achieve a goal or find an answer. 

Think about what ultimately happens to you—the “I” character– and your transformation, learning, epiphany.

Writing that “change” at the top of your draft can help you identify what story you want to tell, what part or parts of your life it covers, and what learning is revealed in the essay. 

For example, the summary of your character arc (told in third person) might look like this:

During a visit home, Gwendolyn attempts to reconcile her mixed feelings about her mother, and instead realizes that she’s more like her than she would prefer to admit. 


Tip 3: What do you remember, and forget, about your essay? 

Here's a final tip: Think about an essay you're working on. Without even looking at the essay, from memory only, make a list of all the aspects of the essay that seem important to you, that seem essential to the essay: scenes, especially the dramatic ones; passages of description or detail; passages of narrative summary, backstory, research; key ideas, motifs or themes; turning points, moments of epiphany; and anything else that you remember, that seems essential to the essay.

Now go back to the essay and notice what passages or parts that did not make it onto your list above. Consider that these passages are not as crucial and would be good candidates for cutting, or saving for a new essay with a different focus.

I hope these tips are helpful. I wish you happy trails as you find your way through your work.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2007, Ethan Gilsdorf is a memoirist, essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the award-winning memoir 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. Hundreds of his personal essays, articles, reviews, cultural commentaries, profiles, opinion pieces, short stories, and poems have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Boston Globe, Wired, Salon, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic, Brevity, Electric Literature, Poetry, The Southern Review, North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. Twice his work has been named "Notable" by The Best American Essays. At GrubStreet, Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and leads GrubStreet's 10-month long intensive Essay Incubator program; he also leads writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations. 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 presented the TEDx talk "Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life).” He studied filmmaking and creative writing at Hampshire College, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. A former editor for Frank magazine and New Delta Review, Gilsdorf is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. He has taught at LSU, Emerson College, and for LitArts RI. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he’s been featured on NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC; and in the documentary Revenge of the Geeks. More info:, Twitter @ethanfreak.

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