The Key to Writing a Powerful Opening for Your Personal Essay

When you’re sending out a full piece for an editor’s consideration, there are many parts that work together and make a difference. The headline. Your pitch. Your short bio. They all matter. But one thing that could possibly make the biggest difference is your opening.

This is where you want to stand out.

The opening is what really grabs the editor’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. It has to be good. It has to be compelling.

Here are a few things you can do to help you craft a really strong opening to your personal essay.

Start in the middle of the action.

When you’re writing a novel, it’s common for writers to start when the character’s world changed. A similar approach can be taken to writing a personal essay. You want to start with something happening so that the reader wants to continue reading. You want them to NEED to know what is going to happen next.

Use a lot of description and detail.

Use compelling language and imagery to paint a scene for the reader. Make it engaging. The detailed information and background to the story can come afterwards, but right now—in the opening—you want to create a scene for your readers.

Play around with your words.

But PLEASE don’t go all Sean Penn when writing a personal essay. (Here’s a blurb from his novel if you haven’t heard about his writing yet: “There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations.” I’m sorry… WHAT????)

It’s a delicate balance. Using really common words can make your essay blend in and not really stand out. But going too ‘experimental’ makes it difficult for the reader to stay with you and understand.

Here are a few examples of personal essay openings. What I love about these is that they demonstrate excellent use of description and detail, interesting language and often starting right in the middle of a scene.

A few examples:

I can’t remember the name of the bar, but I remember I was twenty-two, and I was having the time of my life on Halloween night with my then-girlfriend in Greenwich Village. At twenty-two we could drink like beautiful androgynous unafraid fish. Young badass women in love in the bohemian capital of the world. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. She was a student at New York University. I wasn’t anything, having flunked out of college. We had plans that spanned continents. Youth foreshortens everything—faces, lives.

-Lydia Yuknavitch’s Woven


The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up. She’s staring at me with her head slightly tipped to the side, long nose, gazing eyes, toenails clenched to get a purchase on the wood floor. We used to call her the face of love.

-Jo Ann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter


In a New York cab on a rainy afternoon in Union Square last June, an hour before I was to appear on British national television, I opened the travel makeup palette I had just bought from Sephora while the car was stopped in traffic. In the clean, untouched mirror, I looked at my unremarkable face, and tried to decide whether to make myself beautiful.

-Meredith Talusan’s My Year Without Makeup


The trick in foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps. The only way to be sure is to rub each clump between your thumb and index finger, which makes a mess of your hands. For some twenty minutes this morning, Ginny and I have been hunting in the kitchen trash can for the top left front tooth of our seven-year-old granddaughter, Jessica. Loose for days but not yet dislodged, the tooth finally dropped into a bowl of Apple Jacks. I wrapped it for safekeeping in a paper napkin and put it on the kitchen counter, but it was mistaken for trash by Ligaya, Bubbies’s nanny. Bubbies (James) is twenty-three months and the youngest of our daughter Amy’s three children. Sammy, who is five, is uninterested in the tooth search, and Jessie is unaware of it. We would prefer to find the tooth, so that Jessie won’t worry about the Tooth Fairy not showing up.

-Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast 


I love reading examples of good writing because I find it not only inspires me to write, it also helps give me direction as to how to write stronger. I hope this helps you, too.