How to Write Winning First-Person Stories
by C.S. Paquin
The essence of good first-person narrative is sharing an
experience, letting the reader see and feel it, and reaching a
resolution from which both reader and writer grow or have an
'aha' moment. Writers often confuse essays with a recollection of
an event -- they fail to share how the experience enlightened
them, affected them, changed their opinion. An essay is an
internal journey of discovery. To work well, the reader takes
that journey with you.
What to write
The topics are endless. Almost anything can be the subject
material for an essay -- nature, climbing, sailing, death,
parenting, relationships -- but ask yourself what you feel
passionate about, or what you have experienced that has universal
appeal. Ask yourself what makes you happy, or what makes you sad.
When you have a clear idea of what you'd like to share, begin a
The draft essay is the first step in clearing your head for a
final, tightly focused piece. Don't hold back in your draft,
don't critique it, just let your emotions and thoughts run
unchecked. Write where you are comfortable; perhaps try longhand
if you usually type. Then, when you think you've said all you can
say, close the file or notebook and walk away.
When you're ready, perhaps in a day or so, read your draft.
You'll find paragraphs that make you wince, and others that shine
with brilliance. You might find you sound dogmatic or overly
emotional. It's good to recognize this now before you submit your
piece. If you don't, the editor will.
Many essays for commercial publications are not lengthy --
perhaps 1,000 to 1,200 words, often less. To share all you want
to share, you must keep focused on three elements -- the
beginning or hook; the conflict or the internal journey; and the
ending, what you find at your destination.
1. The hook
Look at your first draft and see what parts of it are crucial to
set the scene -- people, places, events -- and what will distract
the reader with unnecessary detail. The balance lies in giving
the reader enough information so they can know you at least a
little. Remember, your neighbors, spouse and children may be
familiar with you and your experience, but your readers are not,
yet are about to embark on an intimate journey with you. On the
other hand they don't want tedious details about your Aunt Marge
or her canary, unless they're coming on the journey too.
The most successful essay I've published had this introduction:
I sob in Sydney International Airport as my 5-year-old daughter
Bee and I bid our friends and family an emotional farewell. At
age 30, I am leaving my native Australia, after a whirlwind
romance, to join my husband in his native Minnesota.
Immediately, the readers (Minnesota Monthly) knew they were going
to hear about a physical journey as well as the internal one, and
the key players were myself, my daughter and husband, and a
relocation to Minnesota.
What wasn't important in this piece is what got to me the airport
-- why my daughter and I were going to Minnesota, and not my
husband to Australia, or whatever. What mattered was that I was
at the airport, and that I was leaving.
If you are writing about coping with infidelity, don't talk about
the ten good years before your ex-spouse's affair; start from
when you discovered the betrayal.
In short, begin with the phone call, the letter, the diagnosis,
the news, and the event... not what led up to it.
2. The journey
We're packed, ready and off we go. This is where we experience
your challenge or conflict with you, grapple with the curveball,
struggle to make sense or laugh or cry with you. To recapture
your emotions and make us feel them, the body must be lively and
interesting. Again, don't bog down your story with unwieldy
descriptions; keep focused on your emotions and the drama to keep
the reader moving forward. Make sure you occasionally remind of
us of the theme of the journey, but succinctly.
It's OK to pause, recollect your thoughts, or comment on where
you thought this journey may have led you, but you do have to
press on. You've taken us this far and we're engrossed, so you
have an obligation to see us to the end.
3. The destination
Aah, so we discover that it is possible to survive a Minnesota
winter; a broken heart; beat the odds; or change a belief about
yourself. Tie the ends together, remind us where we were when the
journey began and how far we've come. The ending or resolution
doesn't have to be happy, but there should be evidence of growth
or a new understanding in the author.
And if the reader can apply that growth and understanding to his
or her own life, then your essay has achieved its goal -- a
journey worth taking.
Editing your essay
Now for the hard work! You've written what you think is close to
a publishable piece, but don't be hasty in sending it off. Put
this second draft away and then reread it, removing yourself from
your experience as much as possible. Look for the following
1. Emotion vs. emotional
It's fine to be angry, sad or happy. We want those emotions, but
remember the reader is more removed from your particular
experience. If you are too emotional, you will appear to be
venting, possibly irrational and to not have grown from your
challenge. If you haven't grown, neither can the reader.
2. Passive vs. active
There is a tendency for essays to be passive because they
describe past events, which offers no immediacy to readers and
less chance to engage them. Look at your sentence structure, if
you have a lot of "was" or "by" in your essay, revise it. Look
at the following:
"I was being lied to by my wife" is passive. So break it down:
Who's doing the action? The wife: the wife is lying. What is the
verb or the action word? Lying. Who is having something done to
it? I am. Sentence structure should be subject/verb/object: "My
wife lied to me" -- offering less to wade through and bringing
the action (the verb) closer to the reader.
Writers often think if they use adverbs they're heightening
emotion when, in fact, the opposite is true. Use of words ending
in "-ly" weaken prose. If you shout because you're angry, the
reader should know that from your actions and not be told, "I
shouted at her angrily."
4. Show, don't tell
Sheila Bender, author of Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape
Your Life Experiences for the Page, says that a good essay is one
with imagery appealing to the five senses. To engage readers,
offer enough detail so the audience sees, smells, hears, etc.,
what you are describing. Don't "tell" the reader what's
happening; use verbs that "show." Don't say, "it was a hot day,"
instead, tell us, "the sun beat down."
Time to submit
Many publications like to see the essay manuscript rather than a
query. Submit your story according to the guidelines, and include
a cover letter introducing the essay, yourself, and your
publishing history. Send clips if asked. Give yourself the best
chance of success by following the guidelines -- don't send a
2,000-word piece if the guidelines say 1,000. The guidelines
state the publication's needs for good reason -- it's unlikely a
magazine will rearrange its pages and advertising to accommodate
your story, no matter how good it is. While you're waiting for a
response think of reprint opportunities. Your essay may need only
minimal rewriting to fit the guidelines for another market.
Coping with rejection
A personal-essay rejection can often be a little harder to
swallow than one for other articles because you've bared your
emotions, experiences, and yourself on the page. However, you
can take it no more personally than you would for other genres.
The best way to deal with rejection is to have an already
prepared list of markets that might be interested in your story
and send it out again.
You may get rejected three, four or five times before your piece
is accepted. Look at each rejection as an opportunity to revise
your essay and make it stronger. If it's well-written and engages
a reader, it will find a home eventually.
Copyright © Cheryl Paquin 2001
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Cheryl Paquin is a nationally published writer in both the
business and humor markets. Cheryl has a Master of Arts in
Journalism and has been writing freelance for over ten years;
she contributes regularly to publications in Minnesota.
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