Keep your ‘I’ on the page

March 31, 2014 by Kathleen Gibson

Each life conceals a library of priceless lessons learned through experience. Though you may be uncertain how best (or even whether) to share them, your own stories can enrich and change the lives of others. They may even generate welcome provision—or win contests along the way.

In 2009, Word Alive Press honoured me by choosing my book, Practice by Practice, The Art of Everyday Faith, as their non-fiction winner. That win, however, was preceded by years of studying and honing the craft of penning personal essays—a craft I’m still learning and practicing (on my days off from my day job, where among other tasks, I write letters and speeches for a Member of Parliament.).

If God has motivated you to publish chapters of your life in public pages, read on. Though the craft of writing personal essays is often overlooked and underrated, these few pointers may launch your writing, too, on a winning road.

Where do I begin?

I’ve published hundreds of first-person columns and articles in media outlets worldwide – print, online, and broadcast. But not all my—or your—experiences are worthy of a permanent public record. To choose which stories may fly into people’s minds and hearts, begin by asking the following questions. The more affirmatives, the greater your chances of writing—and subsequently selling—something worthwhile.

  1. Is this experience common, but with some uncommon elements? Common experiences must be ignited by the uncommon to stand out. “I brush my teeth every night,” won’t attract readers. But if that experience contains an unusual nugget of wisdom, surprise, insight, empathy or direction, it has the possibility of interesting others. “Every night, I brush my teeth while holding my toothbrush with my toes,” may pique readers’ interest.
  2. Is this experience highly unusual? If so, it will interest others, including many editors.
  3. Does this experience contain enough emotion and/or drama, humor, tension, action, etc. to make an interesting read? If your experience holds your friends’ attention when you tell the story, write it with excellence and your readers won’t take a breath till they reach the last period.
  4. Did this experience teach me anything? If you’ve learned something valuable from living your experience, others will too, if you tell it well.
  5. Can I be (at least somewhat) objective regarding this experience? Be sure when considering any personal writing that you have enough distance from the raw emotion of your experience to write about it effectively. (From-the-heart writing that portrays appropriate feeling wins readers. Maudlin or melodramatic writing loses them.)
  6. Would my family and friends mind my using them in this writing? Be considerate of others’ feelings. Ask permission before revealing someone else’s life details, even if they’re entwined with yours. You may want to consider a name change (yours or theirs) when writing about highly sensitive issues. Don’t ask me how I know this.

    Never forget that though your article may seem subjective, in the end you aren’t writing for yourself. Effective personal writing must be as much about the reader as the writer. I call that the “identification factor”. Give your readers a gift: words that validate their own stories. Entertain. Motivate. Inspire. Humour. Teach, but don’t preach. Warn, but don’t nag. (Not all in one article, of course, especially if you only have a few hundred words. Books leave more room for all those.)

How do I present myself?

Writing is equal parts structure and story, and personal essayists have numerous choices when packaging their life experiences. Here are a scant few ideas to help you begin:

  1. Relay your experience by a) using a consecutive timeline or b) starting in the middle or ending, then flashing back.
  2. Center a devotional, article, chapter or entire book on a single experience, using it as a springboard for deeper insights.
  3. Use one memorable experience as the basis for a service piece: an article (or book) that helps others learn what you’ve learned without having to live a similar experience.
  4. Insert multiple related experiences into the body of an article or book centered on a single theme.
  5. Include a single experience as a sidebar to reinforce the theme of a longer article.
  6. Cement your take-away by including quotations from experts, or including others’ experiences.

How do I polish my story?

Along with writing well throughout the body of your work, pay special attention to assembling your opening and closing sentences with excellence. Grab your readers with a sentence that immediately beckons one deeper. Leave them with a memorable concluding statement. Examples of strong endings include reflecting the story opening or asking a thought-provoking question. An effective ending may also stir a reader’s emotion, or share a valuable insight.

Excellent writers hold their words loosely. Don’t be afraid to axe yours. Editors will love you. A tightly edited piece makes less work for them. Hunt out and eliminate clichés, unnecessary words, lame adverbs and excess adjectives. Weed out the passive voice wherever possible.

I often give myself the challenge of chopping finished (even published) pieces in half. Try it. The resulting strength and focus of your writing will surprise you.

This I know…

A personal essayist must be a truth-teller. Your words will follow you the rest of your life. Be sure of their integrity. Whether you self-publish or plan to submit a work based on personal experience to a magazine or publisher, be prepared to provide references and contacts for fact-checking, if asked.

Just as scriptures provide numerous examples of world-changing first-person writing, God can use your experiences to change and enrich lives—perhaps even your own. Occasionally I catch my Simple Words radio spots on our local Christian radio station while driving to or from the office. It embarrasses me to tell you how often God uses my own words, some written years earlier, to convict or challenge me.

Write with boldness, for God’s glory. And keep your “I” on the page.

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About this Contributor

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Kathleen Gibson, writer and broadcaster, describes herself as “a practicing Christian…and in this case practice doesn’t make perfect!” Her book, Practice By Practice: The Art of Everyday Faith, features a collection of favourite faith and life columns from her long-running newspaper column, Sunny Side Up. She is also the author of West Nile Diary—One Couple’s Triumph Over a Deadly Disease¬. A former magazine editor and freelancer for Reader’s Digest, CBC Radio, and other major media, Kathleen’s work has received numerous awards and been published worldwide. Learn more about her at Simply Life with Kathleen Gibson.