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Writing Essays: Making the Personal Universal

via Skillshare


Don’t believe the occasional backlash/anti-hype: the personal essay category of writing is stronger than ever. When written well, these slices of memoir can be incredibly moving and relatable. They can generate awareness, identification, and empathy, and even lead to social change. 

Personal essays can also give new writers who have few, or even zero bylines a way to break in — because the one thing everyone is an authority on is their own experience. And when we write about our experiences with plenty of emotional detail, candor, and observation, they speak to readers, allowing them to identify with us.

In this class you’ll learn how to write personal essays in such a way that readers will relate to your story and be moved by it — whether or not their lives are anything like yours. I believe that no matter how different our backgrounds and experiences have been, there are aspects of our stories that can resonate among even those whose very different from us.

We’ll work with writing prompts and exercises that will help you to interpret your personal experiences in so-called “universal” ways, amplifying aspects readers will identify with. We’ll heighten that universality even further in places by stepping back in our writing and articulating the ideas, observations, and burning questions our stories illustrate — a great way to add another dimension and elevate a piece from a mere personal remembrance to something much more powerful and resonant.

In this class, I’ll guide you toward writing personal essays in which you’ll share moving stories and elucidate some of the most recognizable aspects of your experiences — essays that will truly resonate with others.

Some skills you will learn:

  • How to mine your memories and experiences to find the stories most worth sharing.
  • How to write those stories in compelling, relatable ways, from brain-dump-first-draft, to a polished draft you can submit to publications.
  • How to add depth and dimension to your essays by illuminating the bigger, or more “universal” ideas, observations and questions your experience illustrates.
  • How to edit your writing. 

Who is the class for? 

This class is for anyone who is interested in writing personal essays that are more than individual remembrances, and which have lasting resonance with readers. It can be helpful whether or not you have a lot of experience as a writer.


Why is the class useful?

This class — taught by the essays editor for Longreads and the editor of the popular anthologies Goodbye to All That and Never Can Say Goodbye — will help you add depth and dimension to your personal essays. This can make your writing more resonant for readers, and more sellable to publications. In addition, doing the exercises can help you make new sense of your own experiences and beliefs.


I will provide links to some classic essays by Joan Didion, Colson Whitehead, Cheryl Strayed, and Nicole Chung, along with some analysis of them. 


  • Introduction
  • What is a Personal Essay?
  • Example 1: Goodbye to All That
  • Getting Started on Your Personal Essay
  • Prompts for Story Generation
  • Example 2: Lost and Found
  • Connect the Personal to the Universal
  • Exercise: Writing from your Convictions
  • Example 3: The Love of My Life
  • Exercise: Incorporating Questions
  • Example 4: How to Write a Memoir While Grieving
  • Exercise: What You Resist Persists
  • Putting It All Together
  • Revising
  • Pitching Your Essay
  • Takeaways & Closing Thoughts

Taught by

Sari Botton


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