The Blog of John Hewitt

How to Write Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces

All I wanted was a pair of boots for plodding around my muddy garden. The local shopping mall offered rubber boots for girls, boys, and men. And low-cut high-gloss “fashion boots” for women. The outdoors shop had a good stock of rubber boots for kids, steel-toed boots for men, and hiking boots for women. At the secondhand store I found rubber boots for men, rubber boots for children, and a pair of women’s pink nylon boots that wouldn’t get me through the first puddle. I finally found a yellow pair of rubber sailing boots at the ship chandler’s, but I had no intention of wearing $89 dollar boots in the potato patch.

So, instead of working outside in the yard, I wrote an essay about looking for wellies. My vegetable garden didn’t get dug that year, but I did make a few dollars for the essay (which paid for the boots I finally did track down).

Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces Sell

There’s a great market for personal essays in magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Everyone, it seems, wants a glimpse into everyone else’s life and is eager for their opinions on just about anything. Consider the growth of ‘reality TV’ — you no longer have to be a celebrity to find voyeurs peering over your windowsill or past your shower curtain.

Personal essays (sometimes called opinion piece, or personal narratives) allows you to have your say, get your gripes and raves off your chest, and have a shot at publication. Many new writers first get published with an essay on child rearing or job hunting or how they helped a family member cope with a serious illness.

Perhaps you have strong feelings about the invasive use of cell phones, or want to share a compelling story about how one saved your daughter’s life. You might feel strongly about environmental issues, or want to relate how your handicapped son learned to ride a bike. You may have a story to tell about a personal crisis, or a high point in your career.

A Wide Range of Topics

Whatever you care about is fair game for an essay topic.

And that’s the first point. Be sure your essay is about something you care strongly enough about to wax eloquent and passionate about it. Readers wants to know what you know, feel what you felt, and understand where you’re coming from.

Conversational topics that get you excited, or news stories that make your blood boil or get you laughing out loud, are likely to be provide good fodder for essays. Small gripes and observations also offer worthwhile material.

However ‘big’ or small the subject is, however important or trivial it might seem on the surface, make sure you set it in a frame that allows your reader to identify, empathize, and be involved.

Ever got stuck talking to a bore at a party? They regale you with their life and opinions, but don’t leave enough air or space to let you in to trade tales; they relate their story to nothing bigger than their own experience.

Whether you’re writing about your kid’s first day at school or nursing an Alzheimic grandmother, winning a scholarship or finding the first spring bulb in your garden, make the frame wide enough to allow your reader to find parallels between your experience and theirs. Give them the opportunity to say, “Ah! Yes. I’ve never been there or done that, but I can relate to what the author’s talking about.”

Opinion Pieces

Perhaps you feel strongly about the use of fireworks. Set your opinions against the account of the day your box of fireworks exploded, or support them with statistics on fireworks sales, how many injuries are reported each 4th. of July or Halloween, what it costs the local police department to patrol the streets on those nights, or share your memory of the first time you held a sparkler.

If you’re writing about the “small” personal occurrence — a move, your first pet — put it in a context that gives the reader insight to both the small moment and the wider perspective.

Details draw the reader in, generalizations keep them out. Be specific. Avoid using abstract expressions and phrases such as “the best day of my life”, “my happiest moment as a parent”, “I’d never known greater grief” to describe emotions of love, loss, anger, joy, satisfaction, etc. Make these emotions real and immediate by noting specifics and details that draw the reader into the experience, rather than just setting them aside as observers. The old “seduction not instruction” rule — showing rather than telling — makes for a more compelling essay, as it does almost any piece of writing.

Personal Essays and Craft

While personal essays allows for the use of many fictional craft elements — dialogue, setting, point of view, characterization – if you use facts to anchor your piece or as a springboard for your opinions, you need to double-check them for accuracy. One factual error can prevent the reader from believing much else that you have to say.

Here are some guidelines to help you write essays that strike a chord with the reader.

  • Personal essays by definition contain a personal perspective. You should be there. Watch your construction. If every sentence begins “I”, you need to rephrase to provide a better rhythm and pace to your piece.
  • No extra points for the number of facts you include. Academic essays contain more facts than opinion, personal essays contain more opinion than facts. But ensure the facts you use are accurate. Check names, spellings, numbers. Two sources of confirmation are better than one.
  • Make connections. If you’re writing about a global theme (poverty, unemployment, child abuse) bring the subject closer to home by relating it to specific, individual examples. If you’re writing about more mundane subjects (left-hand turn signals, the search for the best French Fries, your daughter’s graduation) again, set your views against a wider backdrop or perspective so the reader can relate to it.
  • Writing essays in a great way to get your opinions off your chest, but avoid philosophical rants which make no connection to your reader’s experience. Again, keep it personal while relating to a wider world.
  • The hook is the device you use to get your reader’s attention. It’s the doorway through which you welcome and orient them to the piece. Try using:
    • A question. (“When was the last time you went without a meal?”)
    • A quotation from someone famous or something you’ve read/overhead. (“Be careful” were the last words my father said to me each time I left the house.)
    • A strong statement that your essay will either support or dispute. (“If you eat enough cabbage, you’ll never get cancer.”)
    • A metaphor. (“The starlings in my back garden are the small boys in the playground, impressing each other with their new-found swear words. The crows all belong to the same biker gang. You need to know their secret sign to join their club.”)
    • A description of a person or setting. (“Michael once mowed the lawns around Municipal Hall wearing a frilly apron, high heels and nylons, with a pillow stuffed under his sweater so he looked pregnant. And it wasn’t even Halloween.”)
  • Write as evocatively as possible. Employ all the senses. Using sight comes naturally to most writers; push harder to convey ideas and images through sound, taste, touch, and hearing.
  • Think of your essay as a camera lens. You might start by describing a fine detail (your personal experience or perspective, a specific moment in the narrative), then open up the lens to take in the wide view (the general/global backdrop), then close the piece by narrowing back to the fine detail. Or go the other way. Start with the wide view, focus in, then open up to the wide view again.
  • Take your ideas from wherever you can. Note your reactions to everything, pursue passing preoccupations and distractions, consider what makes you, glad, angry, passionate in what you read, see and hear. Mine your own past for incidents, images, lessons and epiphanies.
  • In a personal essay you have the freedom to think what you like on a subject, but your reader should go away with a good idea of why you feel that way.

Personal Essay Markets

A range of markets are hungry for submissions of personal essays. The US print magazine Newsweek carries one a week and pays $1,000; its Canadian equivalent, Macleans, publishes “Over To You”. The CBC am radio program This Morning regularly airs “First Person Singular”, and I’m sure the public radio stations in other countries have spots for them, too. Writers Digest has recently taken its print essay Chronicle online, and pays $100!

Don’t overlook smaller, less high profile markets. Many consumer and commercial magazines publish essays, as do organization and business newsletters. Most local and regional newspapers carry essays on their op-ed pages, and more and more literary websites include them.

Before you submit essays, you should first check writers’ guidelines for word length and the range of topics the market considers. You don’t need to query; send the complete piece, and include an SASE and/or the required return information. You might consider multiply submitting essays to non-competing markets (publications whose distribution areas do not overlap), but do mention to the editors that you’re doing this. Individual publication guidelines will often tell you if this is acceptable.

Many forms of writing require authors to keep themselves out of the story. Writing personal essays and opinion pieces allow you to have your say, and guarantees you an audience who’s willing to listen.

Lois J. Peterson has published essays in a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Her piece The Road to Basra is currently online at Eclectica. She is coordinator of the Surrey Creative Writing Program in British Columbia, and has recently published ’101 Writing Exercises To Get You Started and Keep You Going’.

Write a poem that follows the three rules of the imagists

The Imagism Movement

For the past week or so we have been discussing meter and rhythm as a framework for creating poetry. Today I want to move in another direction. The use of the image as the primary driving force behind your poem. Image driven poetry began with the Imagism movement in the early twentieth century. The movement began with poets such as Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and eventually dovetailed into the Modernist movement as exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for which Ezra Pound was the editor.

There are three basic rules that the imagists followed:

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Ezra Pound’s most famous application of this concept was the poem:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The concept, as exemplified in Metro, was to reduce a poem down to its most essential images, leaving out all the chaff that traditional poetry, especially iambic pentameter, seems so prone to. This does not mean that most poems should only be two lines, but rather that poetry should not waste time or space.

The Imagist and Modernist movements began the path that eventually led to today’s widespread use of free verse over meter and rhyme. While the Imagist movement itself was fairly short-lived and not widely embraced (Wallace Stevens famously commented that “Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this”) it opened up the possibilities of poetry and influenced future movements such as the Objectivists and the Beats.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a poem that follows the three rules of the imagists.

Today’s Featured Poet

Jane Gentry is the poet Laureate for the state of Kentucky, and her poetry is strongly influenced by the region. She writes poems about nature, family, and the everyday world. I felt she was appropriate for today discussion because the title poem of her newest work, Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig, is a reference to one of the original modernists, James Joyce.


A Garden in Kentucky

Portrait of the Artist As a White Pig

Sample poems, including Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig

How to Calculate Potential Book Profits

Most writers have no idea how much money they can expect when their book is published. The formula, however, is fairly straightforward. To begin with, a writer generally receives an advance. An advance is payment, in advance, based on the expected initial earnings of the book. It is a negotiable amount, but once the publisher pays this to the writer, the advance belongs to the writer whether or not the book ever sells a copy. Advances range from a few thousand dollars to over a million dollars for well-known celebrity writers. If you are an unknown writer, your advance should range from nothing to about twenty-thousand dollars in the United States. Some first time-writers negotiate more, but that is the usual range.


In order to make the writer more money than the advance, a book has to sell well. If it does, your payment as the author comes from royalties, which you can calculate using the system below. A book that sells moderately well, but is not a bestseller, may or may not make the author a few extra thousand dollars. Royalties (ranging from 4% to 8% in most cases) are generally based on the cover price of the book, but that does not include books that are discounted or remaindered. So, for the sake of argument, say you sold 20,000 full-price copies of a paperback priced at $7 (I know it would more likely be $6.95 but I am going to use round numbers.) If your royalty percentage were a generous 8% you would make a total of $11,200.

Now remember that your advance is an advance on these royalties, so your publisher would subtract the initial advance from the $11,200. If your initial advance equaled $10,000 you would eventually receive $1,200 in additional royalties. An author who makes a total of $50,000 or more from a fiction book should consider himself or herself to be doing very well. For the sake of argument, however, let us say that Oprah Winfrey chooses your book for her book club and you sell 500,000 copies of your book. With this same formula, at 8% you would make $280,000 and would have no trouble finding a publisher and getting a big advance for your next book.

Where the money goes

Surprisingly, the publisher does not make most of the money from your book. The party that makes the most money off the sale of a book is the retailer. By the time a publisher pays all of the related expenses of publishing a book (production, distribution, salaries, promotion, etc.), they generally clear a profit of about a dollar a book for a book with sales of about 20,000. Therefore, the publisher made more than you, but not that much more and they took on all the risk. Remember, if the book never sells a copy, you still get to keep your advance.

For this reason, the market for mid-range books (under 100,000 copy sellers) is very tough, and major publishers are looking for books they expect to sell in large numbers. This is why it is hard to get a fiction book published in today’s market. A first-time author or even an author with modest previous sales is going to have a hard time finding a publisher. When they do, they can expect very little by way of promotion because the publisher expects so little return for their investment.

If you do get your book published, and you want it to sell well, be prepared to spend a great deal of your own time marketing the book. Most authors think it should be up to the publisher to promote the sale of the book, but the author is the one who really needs to be out there making phone calls to bookstores, lining up press interviews and setting up readings and signings.

College majors for aspiring writers

MFA programs are great for graduate students, but what about students who are just entering college with a writing career in mind? There are so many directions for students to go in. Some people even think that writers should study something besides writing. For example, a person who studies history will get plenty of opportunities to write while in college, and by learning about history they will learn about something that they could actually write about. Choosing a major is a difficult task for any student, aspiring writer or not. If you are interested in studying writing, here are a few majors that you should consider:

Creative Writing

This is the most common and highly recommended major for writers. Students take reading and writing courses in fiction, poetry, drama and composition. They also take several literature courses. This major is a solid preparation for a variety of writing careers, but is more artistically oriented than journalism, media arts, marketing or communication. If your goal is to become a novelist or a poet, this major is probably the best fit for you.


This major is focused on writing for newspapers, magazines and in some cases broadcast news. Classes focus on reporting, editing, publishing, photojournalism, design, Internet research, ethics and media law. While the world of journalism is not necessarily in opposition to creative writing, the emphasis here is on discovering, working with, and presenting factual information in a news setting. If you are interested in a career as a reporter, this is the major for you. You might also consider it if you want to enter the field of public relations.

English / English Literature

The English major is all about reading, understanding and forming opinions about literature. The focus is on the analysis of such aspects of literature as cultural influence, historical perspective, rhetoric, symbolic meaning and the development of language. Students gain an in-depth knowledge of classic (and sometimes modern) literature and learn how to analyze and write about literature in an academic setting. While this major is less focused on writing than journalism or creative writing, it will give you an excellent perspective on literature. Potential novelists and poets should give this major some consideration. It has the added benefit of preparing people to teach English.

Theater Arts

Theater Arts focuses on the the entire theater production process from writing to performance to stage building and show promotion. While some creative writing programs have play or screen writing aspects, this major delves completely and thoroughly into the performance arts. If you hope to write for the stage or the screen, this is a major you should consider.

Media Arts

Media arts focuses on film, video and new media. You will study media history, theory, and criticism as well as film and video production. If you are looking to write for television or film this is an excellent major. It can also be beneficial if you are looking to move into public relations or advertising / marketing writing.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts is a broad major that offers students the leeway to study topics in several different departments. For example, a liberal arts major may take several classes in English, languages, philosophy, humanities, religion and even business or economics. If you are looking for a well-rounded education that allows you to focus somewhat on writing, you should consider a liberal arts major.


Linguistics is the study of human language, encompassing particular languages and properties common to all languages. Linguistics majors must generally become conversant in multiple languages. Unlike an English or creative writing major, this major allows you to focus on how language works. It is more scientific than creative, but a deep understanding of language can contribute to your writing skills in many ways. Because linguistics focuses on such language fundamentals as PhoneticsMorphology andSyntax, linguistics can be a surprisingly good choice for aspiring poets and people who wish to approach writing from a deeper level.


This is the study of communication and social interaction — its processes and effects. Students analyze interpersonal communication, social influence and persuasion and the social effects of media and information technology. This is a rare and rather specialized major for most creative writers, but it can provide a solid background for writers interested in technical writing or persuasive writing such as speech writing.


If you plan to write sales material, you should either major or minor in marketing. This subject will prepare you for every aspect of developing and promoting a product or service. While marketing isn’t as romantic a writing field as poetry or fiction, it is an excellent way for writers to pay their bills.

Technical Writing

Technical writing majors are growing in popularity. These majors teach document design, audience analysis, editing, project management and communication on a technical level. Many new programs are springing up because of the demand for people who can write in a technical or professional manner. The field is broader than it looks on the surface. Besides the obvious technical writing fields such as software documentation, a technical writing major can also prepare you to write about science, medicine or the law. A technical writing major teaches you how to communicate complex subjects in a clear and concise way. If you have interest in these areas of writing, give a technical writing major a try. It isn’t glamorous, but it will help you pay your bills.

Improving your imagery

One of the most common pieces of advice you will see is to use all five senses. Writers tend to rely on the visual almost exclusively. It is a good idea though, to think about how things smell, taste, sound and feel. You can train this by training yourself to write without visual descriptions. If you leave visuals out, you force yourself to think in terms of the other senses. If you do this long enough, you should eventually turn this into a habit. Once you are used to including the other four senses, you can work visuals back in. Then you can work on the quality of your modifiers.

Not all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) are created equally. There are really two types of these modifiers, the descriptive and the evaluative. A descriptive modifier provides information without judgment (or with just a little judgment). Evaluative modifiers provide judgment over information. If you say that a dessert was “sugary” you are describing the taste. If you say the dessert was “delicious”, you are evaluating the taste. Evaluative modifiers are less interesting and evocative to the reader than descriptive modifiers.

The next key to improving your imagery originality, which is usually a product of specificity. Specificity separates your images from other poet’s imagery. When you are creating an image for your poem, ask yourself what information you can give that will differentiate your image from everyone else’s description of that image. Find your own way to describe something. Don’t rely on what has been done before.

When you are editing your poem, concentrate on eliminating any tired descriptions from your work. If you think you have heard a description before, the chances are pretty good that you have, and so has your reader. Find a way to change it and make it your own.

Today’s Poetry Prompt

Find an original way to describe a chair and make that the first line of your poem.