Turning Journal Entries into Personal Essays: Twelve Tips

There comes a time when writing our stories and reflections isn’t quite enough. We long to share them with friends, in journal writing groups or online. Many people who journal on a regular basis wonder if they have what it takes to break into print. Although raw journal entries rarely catch an editor’s eye, with some work you can transform parts of your daily entries into essays that sell.

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  • Begin by rereading your journals and highlighting passages that move you. Pay close attention to those that cluster around a particular theme or that call out to be expanded.
  • Pick one incident or insight and start free writing about it. This will help you to fill in the gaps and to generate more raw material.
  • Decide on the one point you want readers to take away from you essay by asking yourself, “What did I learn from this?” Now edit out any writing that detracts from the point. Add material you think the reader will need to know in order to fully understand what you are trying to say.
  • Share your insights without preaching. The best way to do this is by revealing the challenge or conflict you faced and the steps you took to solve or resolve it. The challenge could be internal, such as fear of speaking, perfectionism, or a crisis of faith. It could be external, such as being stuck with an antagonistic employer, finding out your partner has had an affair or fighting to keep the trees on your street from being removed.
  • Remember that the most effective and interesting way to organize a personal essay is to stick to basic story structure. It has worked for centuries and won’t fail you now. You need a beginning that will introduce both you and the dilemma and leave the reader wondering what will happen next. You need a middle where the story will unfold and the challenge or conflict will intensify. Finally you need to tie everything up with an ending that will bring a satisfying resolution to the tale.
  • As the author of the essay, you get to choose what to put on paper and what to leave out. Keep in mind that personal essays aren’t true confessions. You don’t have an obligation to set forth the details of everything that happened just because it did. In fact, you do have the obligation to protect the privacy and identity of people you write about without their permission.
  • Understand the difference between essays and therapy writing. Personal essays aren’t rants. Even though you may find venting in a journal to be therapeutic, most readers could care less about your emotional catharsis. Editors, who are understandably wary of lawsuits, aren’t about to print angry ravings in any case. If you can’t tone down your writing, pick another topic that isn’t quite as charged for you.
  • Keep your essays short. The biggest demand in the current magazine marketplace is for pieces that run from 700 to 1,500 words. Enough said.
  • Write, write, write and then write some more. You wouldn’t expect to learn how to knit a sweater, drive a car or build a bookcase without a great deal of practice and a few mistakes. Why imagine you ought to be an expert essayist on your first try? You may need to write two, or five, or even a dozen essays before you are satisfied with your results. With every attempt, you come closer to your goal.
  • Read, read, read and then read some more. One of the best ways to learn to write personal essays that work is to read good writing. Immerse yourself in the words of the authors whose work inspires you. Soak up their techniques by osmosis.
  • Take classes. Many community colleges and adult community education programs offer creative writing courses. You can also find writing classes online. I’d like to help you make your writing the best it can be. To help move you closer to your publishing goals, I offer a six-week personal essay class that provides you with in-depth lessons and individual feedback.