The Top 5 Mistakes Even Smart Essayists Make

Amy Paturel

Essay is a popular genre. Trouble is, the number of viable markets is shrinking while essayists lobbying for page space is increasing. Want to attract an editor’s attention and land a coveted spot in your favorite pub? Avoid these common pitfalls:

  1. Using essay to vent. Writers often use essay as an opportunity to express a moralistic stand, rant about a controversial issue or vent about a family member. Don’t. If you take a stand on an issue—and run it into the ground—chances are, you’ll lose your reader the moment she (or he) gets your point. Instead of stating your stance outright, challenge your reader to adopt your viewpoint by sharing your experience.
  1. Writing long. Don’t be afraid of the butcher knife. When you’re revising and polishing an essay, make sure what you’ve written is tight—that there are no unnecessary words, no superfluous anecdotes and no nonsense! And don’t be so pleased with how you’ve turned a phrase that you keep it in your piece even though it doesn’t add to or support your takeaway.
  1. Not using day-to-day life as essay fodder. An essayist’s job is to extract universal meaning from the mundane facts and experiences of life. No matter what your story is about, it should involve some sort of personal transformation that allows you to see the world differently. Will your story make readers feel something, or think about an issue differently? Will it motivate them to act (by calling their mom, for example)? If your piece makes readers recall an event or life experience of their own, chances are you’ve crafted a great essay.
  1. Being afraid of dialogue. Using direct dialogue is often more effective than telling the reader what someone said. Instead of saying, “The pediatrician told us to get rid of our son’s thumb-sucking habit,” write “’If you don’t put a stop to his thumb-sucking before he’s three, his teeth will be set and the damage will be done,’ warned our pediatrician.” Using dialogue is another way of showing the reader your story rather than telling them. Worried about the fallibility of your memory? Quotes don’t have to be exact; they just have to be exactly how you remember them.
  1. Holding back. If you’re determined to stay safely on the surface of your story, essay might not be the right form for you. To write essays, you have to put your whole self into it—your biggest hopes, greatest fears and deepest regrets. If you feel yourself censoring aspects of your experience, stop. Maybe this isn’t the right time for you to write this piece. Maybe you need more distance from the situation so you can uncover deeper truths. You have to be ready to let yourself go and know that the more of yourself you bring to your writing, the better essayist you’ll be.