A personal essay is a short piece of autobiographical writing. It’s nonfiction, but you can use it to practice writing fiction. Tell a story about yourself in an essay. I won’t pretend it will be easy. It likely won’t be. That’s the point. Don’t worry if you think that whatever you write is too personal, you don’t have to share it with anyone.
One of the hardest parts of the piece is choosing the topic. I wrote one I will share next week on a weekend trip I took with my sister, niece, and five dogs. I’ll let you judge the result. Suffice to say, things didn’t go well. That’s the gist of this idea. You take a slice of your own life and write it down in an interesting manner.
As with fiction, your personal essay should have a biginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning should have a hook, something to pull a reader in. The reader needs to want to read it. That’s the purpose of the hook. You need to entice them to read the piece. Once you have them interested, then you need to keep them engaged. I’m sure that sounds familiar. You may or may not have a twist for the end, but you should try to make the ending as strong as the beginning so the reader doesn’t feel cheated. A reader who feels cheated will never read your work again.
The middle needs to be rich in detail as well. Just as your fiction needs a robust middle, so does your personal essay. You need to keep it on point, add in a little conflict to move the story along. This is why the personal essay is a perfect way to practice pacing. You already have the characters and the basic plot. All you need do is describe the action in a way that hooks your reader, keeps him or her engaged, then ends the story in a satisfactory manner.
So think of a topic that’s informative, funny, or expresses some sort of strong emotion and write it up as though it was a short story. I’d recommend a thousand or so words, or a little shorter, but for the most part, a thousand to two thousand words is best. If you would like, write an outline. Then write the piece. Whether you are going for pathos, humor, or education, be consistent. Don’t switch from humor to pathos to educational and back again. That’s a good way to fail at holding your reader. Pick a good topic from your life and run with it.
Personal essays can be therapeutic as well. As I mentioned, you don’t have to share the piece with anyone else. You can just pretend you are writing the story, or that you are telling someone the story. Use all the tools in your writer’s toolbox and have at it. If your normal writing process doesn’t use an outline, try using one. Or don’t use one if you do outline. Experiment with styles. You might find that you enjoy it.