The art of the personal essay, Young Blood-style
“To write is already to choose,” Inquirer Opinion editor Rosario Garcellano said, sharing one of her favorite sayings during the Young Blood workshop at last month’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival 2017.
Garcellano, who selects the essays published in the Inquirer’s Young Blood column, said being a writer means deciding to “hold up a mirror” to one’s society.
“You are not existing outside of society. You are not just talking with yourself. You’re addressing your audience. You are relaying a message. You are choosing to say, ‘this is my stand. I am defending it,’ she added.
Together with Inquirer director for mobile and social media JV Rufino, Super editor Pam Pastor and Super associate editor Ruel S. De Vera, Garcellano was at the literary festival for the third time to give practical and invaluable lessons on writing personal essays.
The four, who are editors of Inquirer Books’ best-selling Young Blood anthologies featuring the column’s best pieces, discussed and commented on several essays submitted by writers of all ages for festival event.
As what the audience gleaned in the workshop, choosing to write is only half the battle. A crucial part of the craft is doing the actual work. Here are some of their tips on the art of the personal essay, Young Blood-style:
Hook your readers.
Garcellano said: “Readers have a very limited attention span, especially in this age. You need to keep the reader’s interest.”
“If you want to hook your reader, you have to start with something really interesting. You could start with an important moment that happened,” Pastor said.
Writers must also grab their readers’ attention from the get-go. “You really have to hook them in the first paragraph or you’re going to lose them,” Rufino added.
Make it personal and let your readers in.
“It’s very important to make it a personal experience, so again, when your readers read about your experience, it’s uniquely yours,” De Vera said.
Open up and be honest—and yes, this applies to writing about love and heartbreak. “Writing about a personal love story always takes guts. If you’re going to write about a personal love story, you might as well go all out,” Pastor said.
“Don’t write about a love story, especially one that changed you, and then keep your readers at a distance. Let them in,” she said.
“You must say it like it is. You need to be clinical in your grief,” Garcellano added.
As a final tip: Use names. “Giving a girl [or a guy] a name—not even a real name—makes them more real. If you’re writing about a person, to use their real name is a powerful thing,” De Vera concluded.
Transport your readers with words, but be picky with detail.
Pastor said: “Use your words to transport [readers] to where you are. You will hear this over and over again, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Take us there. You have the power to transport us to wherever you are and whichever situation you want to tell us about.”
At the same time, writers have to be ruthless when it comes to choosing what to include in their essays. “When you have so much detail, it becomes almost like a to-do list. The point is not to use all of the material; the point is to pick the best ones,” Rufino explained.
Give abstract concepts a face.
When you’re writing about an advocacy, “you have to make it matter to other people,” Pastor said, “one way to do that is to give it a face.”
“If you talk about any kind of mental condition or physical condition as an abstract concept, your readers will not understand. They will not recognize it,” De Vera further explained. “If you gave it a face, if you talk about a specific person, you will be able to have a more concrete reading experience.”
Reread, proofread and edit.
This means going back to the basics of writing: grammar, prepositions, tenses and punctuation, to name a few. Prepositions, the four agreed, are especially tricky. “The biggest obstacle to having your article or writing read by anyone is bad grammar, because people simply won’t want to finish it.” De Vera said.
One practical tip the editors shared that will help writers spot errors is to read the essay aloud. “When the grammar is bit off, it’s like singing out of tune,” Rufino explained.
“When you read it, you will spot your mistakes. You will also benefit from reading your essay aloud because this is a good way to find out if your sentences are too long,” Pastor added.
Writers must clean up their own writing. “You don’t want your beautiful story to be overshadowed by errors,” she said.
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