Article by Ben Feuer, photo by jarito

What to write about?  Many people find this the most intimidating question of all when they first sit down and get to work.  After all, most people know (or think that they know) how to string a few words, paragraphs or sentences together.  But it can be very hard, living in the moment, to have any sense of what the key themes are in your life, let alone how they’ve changed or evolved over time.

And yet, those are precisely the questions you need to answer, and answer with precision, if you want to write a great personal essay for college, graduate school, your next New York Times opinion piece or anything else.  Personal essay writing, or short stories drawn from your life experience, follows many of the same rules as all good writing.  You need to know what you’re trying to say, why you’re trying to say it, and how your audience is likely to approach your work.  You need to have patience with ideas and themes as they develop, rather than settling for the first thing that comes into your head.  You need courage to face the times when you get stuck, or just can’t think of anything to say.

So are there any tricks, tips or ideas that can help you generate new topics, or new approaches to old topics?  Fortunately, the answer is yes!

Get a fresh perspective.  If you’re stuck, ask a friend or a relative, a mom or a dad, someone who knows you and your topic pretty well, for advice.  Don’t show them your essay or tell them what you’re planning to do – that might pollute their own memory.  Just ask them, in an open-ended way, to share their experiences and memories about a certain time or topic.  You’ll be surprised to learn that their memories often differ substantially from yours, both as to what happened and how people felt about it at the time, and they just might inspire something you didn’t consider earlier.

Take advantage of flow and focus.  Before you write, read something that inspires you for fifteen minutes – some writing you consider top-notch (and something that is in the same style as what you intend to do).  Then take a deep breath and forget it – after all, you’re not trying to copy, just feel motivated.  Once you’ve got your motivation, work in silence or with some light background noise (classical music works well for me) in a concentrated block of approximately 45-50 minutes, taking breaks not to think about other things, but to perform mindless tasks like stretching, taking out the garbage or shaving.  Approaching writing in this manner will clarify your intentions and help you to write exactly what you are thinking in that moment.

Start over.  It takes distance to evaluate writing, and if you’re trying to evaluate your own writing, that can be particularly hard to achieve.  So once you’ve finished a draft, pat yourself on the back and go do something else for a day or so.  Then return to it and try to figure out what you were writing about, what you were saying.  Force yourself to sum up everything you ACTUALLY WROTE (rather than what you were intending to write) in a sentence.  What message have you conveyed with these words?  Is there growth, progression, change?  Does it start quickly and end with a fun surprise or an emotional payoff?  If your sentence doesn’t correspond to what you were imagining (or if you’ve since come up with a better idea), start the process over fresh with a brand new document, rather than trying to rewrite.  You can always mix and match your favorite parts later.

Of course, there are many other things you can do to improve your ability to write on themes, but these are a few of the most helpful core ideas.  If you’re still struggling and want some guidance, feel free to reach out to us – we’re always happy to help.