A Few Tips on Personal Essay Writing from BAMC16

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Collage for BAM
l-r. With Shannon Colleary (my wonderful roommate), and my friend and co-presenter Susan Maccarelli. With Susan and Jill Robbins at the hotel, with Shannon.

By Estelle Erasmus

I recently got back from a trip to Hong Kong and Thailand, which our family took over Spring Break.  I had one day at home and then I headed out to the Erma Bombeck Writer’s conference for a long, luxurious weekend of  writing immersion. I even got to meet one of my idols Adair Lara. Added bonus: in a speed dating for writer’s session, I met with writers and gave them advice on how to get their start getting published online. Here are some of the pearls from my session.

After a one week break, it was off to the Blogger’s at Midlife Conference BAMC16.  It was in Vegas baby, and I was thrilled to be presenting with Susan Maccarelli of Beyond Your Blog, with Jill Robbins as our moderator. Our talk was on the Art & Craft of Writing and Placing Personal Essays.

BAM session
The room was packed and then we began our session.

Susan and I took turns answering the questions. One of them was: How can  you tell the difference between a blog post and a personal essay? I made the point that a blog post is more casual, whereas a personal essay in a credible publication like The Washington Post, or the New York Times, or Salon, or a glossy magazine normally has an narrative arc to it, and often (although not always) more of a literary flavor (think Modern Love).

As a way to demonstrate a casual approach, I gave the example that a blogger would mention what they had for breakfast. Let’s just say that there is no fury like a blogger that feels scorned. Since I didn’t fully have time to explain what I meant, I will leave this example of  a post I wrote for BlogHer about personal essays which elaborates on what I was trying to convey.

Here are some of the other tips, I shared at the conference.

*Write the story only you can write. Actually, the older you are the better. Why? Because you have more stories to tell, more to share and wisdom gleaned along the way.

*To Find Story Ideas: Check Twitter for trending topics and follow news sources. It’s always helpful if you can peg your personal essay to a celebrity event, timely news, or something provocative that makes an editor take notice.

*Work with Your Words: Change out boring, ordinary words for more interesting words. Check  your writing and see how many repetitions are in there. Keep a thesaurus handy and switch out pedestrian words (amazing, happy, sad, glad, marriage) for others that will add to the sensual description in your essay.

Get Rid of Most ly words-adverbs. Remember: strong nouns and verbs add up to a powerful essay.

Create a Structure. When my editor at the Washington Post assigned me an update on a story,  My Child is Out of Control, I struggled on how best to do it until I came up with the idea of a report card and grade for each of us.

How Should You Pitch a Publication?
In general, keep your pitch to 250 words or less.  Start by complimenting the editor on a piece they have written, or that recently ran.  Then explain your idea—which should be an idea,  not a topic . Don’t say, “I’d like to write about the conflict in the Middle East.” That is a topic.  Say, “I’d like to write about the astonishing relationship between an Israeli amd Arab family and how in the midst of war they managed to unite their neighborhood through their share-a-ride service through the toughest parts of town.  I have access to both sides plus commentary from the local rabbi and emirate who were against it at first but have now banded together to support this peace-making endeavor.” See the difference?

BAM sponsorsI loved the sponsors at the conference: Madison Reed, helped me touch up my gray roots before I went on the podium to speak, Galderma gave me lots of ideas for stories about cosmetic procedures, Chicos offered us a lovely tote bag (which ended up holding my makeup, after my makeup bag broke), Feedblitz gave great email marketing lessons, Boiron provided homeopathic help (and a fabulous app), and so much more.

Thanks to Anne Parris, Teresa Kindred, Beth Rosen and Sharon Greenthal for having me speak at the conference, and for doing a stellar job with the event.

Also, before I forget…

See: if  you go to see one movie for mothers day, make it the Mother’s Day movie (with Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts,  Jennifer Anniston and a slew of other popular actors). Courtesy of #SertaMoms I not only saw the movie but had a front row seat to Kate Hudson and Gary Marshall (who is a legend). Kate spoke with great intelligence of her role in the movie and her hopes and dreams for her son.

Read: Also, many of you know that before I was a magazine editor-in-chief, I was a beauty editor.  And looking good is never too far from my mind. Check out this piece I recently wrote for Zwivel.com about a Thermage treatment I had that compressed the years, in real time.

Next Up: I will be co-moderating (and participating in) a panel at the ASJA meeting next month. Check out the fabulous speakers and my wonderful co-moderator. ASJA flyer

For information on my writing coaching services (and why I’m called
“publishing on steroids”  go here).

And finally, check here, for all my Publishing/Writing Advice Tips.

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16 thoughts on “A Few Tips on Personal Essay Writing from BAMC16”

  1. Well this is convenient and saves me squinting at my furiously scribbled notes. You three were superb — could have heard a pin drop — and it was very nice to meet you afterwards. I’m excited to receive the newsletter.

  2. Well you have certainly been busy! Thank you for the advice and I’ve picked up quite a few ideas from you. Pity I live in Australia BAM sounded like fun.

    1. Hi Sue, Thanks for writing. I’m so glad that you picked up some ideas. If you sign up for my newsletter, you will get even more. I have relatives in Melbourne and Perth by the way.
      Best,
      Estelle

  3. This was such a good session. As a new blogger I learned so much. And I knew what you meant and didn’t feel scorned! So many good tips and I feel that my writing since is improving. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks Sherry. Glad you enjoyed it! If you sign up for my newsletter, I will be sharing lots more publishing tips and tricks based on my 20+ years of experience as a former magazine editor-in-chief.
      Estelle

  4. “*Write the story only you can write.”
    I needed to hear that this morning. I am struggling with a personal essay, its there – I can sense the words. Thank you for including the link to your article on personal essays, I went back and read that again. Thank you for your insights and generous sharing of your experience and knowledge. You have helped me tremendously.

  5. A fun recap of your words from BAM. I LOVE that Madison Reed rescued you. It was convenient to have them on site, wasn’t it? Hopefully our paths will cross again in 2016.

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