5 Ways to Improve Your Personal Essay Writing

Jan 25, 2018

5 Ways to Improve your Personal Essay Writing

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

If you have ever tried to pick up a new skill – be it golf, yoga, or guitar – you’ve learned that practice is crucial for becoming a pro. Writing is very similar – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. However, being a good writer is not just about how much time you spend writing – it is also about practicing your writing skills and getting better at the act of writing. If your New Year’s resolutions include improving your writing or if you’re gearing up for another fellowship deadline, these tips are for you.

1. Have a catchy first sentence

Outstanding essays open with a “hook.” You need to catch your readers’ attention and make them genuinely interested in reading the rest of what you have to say. If the first sentence or paragraph of your essay is not funny, shocking, creative, or exceptionally clever, reviewers are not going to read every word of the rest of your essay. The worst part about that? It means that all of the work you put into the second half of your essay is going to be unappreciated or maybe even unread! So, really, writing a creative first sentence is more than just a stylistic strategy, and is basically necessary for making the rest of your essay matter.

2. Tell a story

Fellowship reviewers are going to have stacks of applications to read, and after a while, they are going to start blurring together. This is why telling a story is so important – you need to make your application stand out from all the others. Before you start writing, give some serious thought to what you want to say in your application. Make sure that your essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as opposed to functionally being a longer version of your resume or a list of your accomplishments. Talk about how you first got interested in your field of work/study, explain some of the important experiences you’ve had, and then finish with a paragraph that creatively says: “…and that’s why I am perfect for this fellowship.”

3. Use your voice

This is, in my experience, always much easier said than done. Of course, you still need to be professional at every turn, but you also want to find ways to make your reviewers hear you when they are reading your writing. Telling a story (Tip #2) helps your reviewers feel invested in who they are reading about, but using your voice makes your reviewers see you as that person! If you like to be funny, try to fit in a joke in your opening paragraph. If you have a hobby that can somehow be relevant to part of your application narrative, maybe find a way to mention it. If you have a favorite book or a really cool birthmark you’re super proud of, find a way to incorporate it into your essay! These little things, while they may seem silly, can really help your readers start to visualize the person who wrote what they are reading.

4. Make sure your essay is coherent

After you’ve incorporated all of these creative hacks, make sure that your final product is coherent. In other words, read through your essay to check that it makes sense. Ensure that the points follow logically from one to the next, that you don’t mention anything irrelevant, and that there are not places where you jump drastically between two topics without a proper transition. One way to do this is to do a reverse outline: meaning, make an outline after you’ve written the essay. Read through each paragraph and make headings for each major point, and bullet points for the minor points in each major section. When you read through the outline, are there any gaps? Does it seem to flow, when you only look at the skeleton of your writing? If not, you’ll know exactly where you need to work on transitions.

5. Edit, edit, edit

While it can get old after a few passes and you might feel like you’ve edited everything you can possibly edit, combing through your entire essay multiple times is key to sending off a polished application. If reading and re-reading it on your computer starts to become difficult, read it aloud to yourself, or have a friend or colleague read it and give you a few comments. Ask them whether there are any sentences that need tweaking or that seem irrelevant or out of place. And, of course, learn more about editing hacks for any application.

While you’re writing, don’t forget to take breaks every once in a while! Doing anything for too long without stepping away can zap creativity and make it hard to see where you might need improvements. Take your time, tell your story, take a few breaks, edit like a maniac, and you’ll be just fine.

Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.