Ladies' Home Journal's Tips for Writing a Great Personal Essay

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Hook your reader right away. The first three sentences should be interesting or unexpected. You don't have to start your story at the beginning. Maybe you start at a dramatic moment and then backtrack.  It definitely shouldn't be, "First A happened, then B happened, then C happened." The story should unfold emotionally, not chronologically.

Have a point to make. Many of our essayists have unusual, inspiring or heartwarming stories to tell. To make your story stand out from the crowd, you need to tell it in a unique and entertaining way. What did you learn? How did you change? Did it turn out in a way that surprised you? What did it all mean to you? Don't say, "In the end, I learned X," however. Show us!  (See the next tip.)

Show, don't tell. This is classic advice for writers, and what it means is: Make us SEE the story. Illustrate your point through an anecdote or through dialogue. Use concrete details.  For example, instead of "he was mad," you could write, "his face flushed and a muscle in his jaw started to twitch." Remember all the senses. What did you hear, smell, taste or feel? Small, intimate details can be powerful, like noting how your mom's hands were rough and smelled like bleach and how that evokes memories.

Write it the way you'd say it.  If you met someone at a party, how would you tell them this story?  Use the same kind of real, informal language when you write.

Hold the reader's attention. Figure out the most important moments in the story, and tell those in rich, emotional detail. Cut out any other parts that don't really move the story along.

Remember that essays can be upbeat. You can write about something happy or funny. Your story doesn't have to be wrenching. In fact, we'd often rather it weren't! You can find as much beauty and humor and insight in small, everyday occurrences as you can in more intense experiences like cancer or childbirth.

TOPICS WE'RE LOOKING FOR: Anything is fair game, as long as it's something that most women age 35-50 can relate to. And you can write about being a mom or a wife or a pet owner, but what we really want to hear about is you—what you learn, emotionally, within those roles. We're not looking for tips or advice. We want stories of personal growth told with insight and/or humor.

NOTE REGARDING HEALTH ESSAYS: We're especially looking for stories that have an upbeat tone or happy ending. Did you figure out your own diagnosis after years of doctors scratching their heads? Did you learn something enlightening from caregiving? Did you use humor or sarcasm to get though an ordeal? Did you finally, finally, manage to lose weight or start exercising and have funny stories or creative tips to share? Do people tell you you’re funny? Take a crack at it!


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