- Brainstorm. Use the issues you generated in the last exercise. Let this be the sloppy part. You’re creating and there’s no way to be neat and right about it. Brooke recently took a wonderful photograph of her nephew Axel painting a blue picture. There’s blue everywhere: on his arms, in his hair. That’s what you’re doing here; getting blue paint all over yourself and writing so fast that your critic can’t offer an opinion. You’re discovering your own material.
- Edit. Clean up the blue paint and see what’s in the picture. Let your critic out. Ask yourself if there’s a story here. Did you feel deep emotion? (And remember deep emotion can be funny: the crazed frustration over ordering a jacket on-line that makes you look like a beige box and then trying to return it. Humor can come out of exaggeration; anything trivial that you over-react to.) Check your spelling and word count.
- Study the market. Look through your favorite magazines and newspapers (especially those in your own hometown) to see if they publish personal essays. Study magazines wherever you go. (Doctor offices, airlines etc.). Buy a copy of Writer’s Digest Writer’s Market or Writer’s Magazine The Writer’s Handbook or subscribe on-line. You’ll be amazed at how vast and varied the market is for essays.
Questions to ask yourself as you edit:
- Does your opening get right to the subject of the essay? Will it draw he reader in? Does the first paragraph set up accurate expectations for the rest of the essay? If not, cut. It might be lovely writing but it's besides the point. (Though often you need to write your way into the essay, and by overwriting you figure out what the essay is really about.) Try to recognize now where your essay truly begins. Cut to the chase.
- Is your writing specific and concrete? Not "a lovely day" but a specific day with the sky a specific color, or temperature, or smells in the wind. Find the one detail that will nail that specific day, face, room, meal. Cut all adjectives and adverbs that don't give essential information. Focus on verbs because that's what carries the energy in your writing.
- Does something happen in your essay? Is there forward motion to it, action not musing? Is there at least one specific incident or anecdote?
- Is there specific feeling/emotion in the essay? Do you care deeply about what you're writing?
- Is the essay about something specific? Is there a theme? Does it have a conclusion? A point? Is there a new awareness or change at the end? (Even if it's only the awareness of things not changing.) Or do you have a humorous take on something frustrating?
- How does your essay sound when you read it aloud? Often your ear will pick up something that your eye misses.