by Joss Lake
Strong personal essays help their reader connect to the writer’s life. In “Unstuck: Becoming Fluent as a Bilingual Writer,” Ruoqi (Rachel) Li shares her process of learning to write comfortably in English, using a number of techniques that help the reader connect to and understand her experience.
After reading Li’s essay, try imitating her strategies in your own writing:
Use a conversational tone
Sometimes, I felt strongly connected to the prompt, like creative writing or some topics I have great curiosity about. However, in most cases, my mind goes blank when I first look at a topic, and this blank feeling remains throughout the process of writing. I often wonder: is my fluency in English the reason I get stuck in the middle of a paragraph? Well, the first thought that comes to my mind is: of course!
When writing a personal narrative, you can use a more relaxed voice to tell your story. Here, Li walks us through her writing process in a conversational tone. Instead of beginning with a defined, argumentative thesis, she starts with uncertainty. She also poses a question and answers it, which alludes to the presence of a reader.
Be specific to bring the reader further into your experience
As I wrote, I imagined myself living in an underground tunnel, my life surrounded by surprises, dangers, and survivalists. After I finished my first draft of a creative writing paper, “the Mole People,” I felt like I just ran a marathon. My eyes were sore, my neck was in pain, and my brain cells were dead.
In this passage, Li offers vivid details about her creative piece (“The Mole People”) and how she felt after she wrote it. Instead of a vague statement about how she was tired from writing a story, Li brings us closer to her life by providing specifics. Furthermore, details about how she’s feeling help us imagine her experience—can’t you feel the eye pain, the neck soreness, the sense of brain cell depletion?
Use imagery to make connections
The writing in front of me was like pieces of garbage floating on the sea, chaotic and disorganized.
In this sentence, Li compares looking at her writing to looking at trash in the ocean, showing how her impression of its quality changed overnight. The precision of her figurative language—“pieces of garbage, floating on the sea”—draws our attention and piques our curiosity more than if she’d said, “My writing looked like garbage.”
Guide your reader with transitions
When I first started writing, I was dumping all my thoughts into the paper and typing down whatever came to my mind. It was more like a brainstorming process instead of an essay-writing one. However, I realized that the first draft isn’t garbage. It is this “thought-dumping” process that would become the foundation of my future essay revisions. After I revised again and again, checking for structure and grammar, the final draft was accomplished.
“first” > sequence transition
“However” > contrast transition
“After” > sequence transition
Though personal essays can be less formal, we are still responsible for guiding our reader. We sometimes forget to put up signposts and to orient the reader in time because our own ideas feel clear when we write them down. By adding sequential transitions and transitions that show the way ideas relate to each other, you will help the reader to get a more cohesive view of the story you’re telling.
Organize your essay into sections
Even though the road to becoming a good English writer takes more effort because it is my second language, the way to be proficient at writing is the same — to train my writing muscles. Nowadays, I open my journal every morning. Like chatting with a close friend, I confess my mood and all the things going on in my life. Language learning is a slow process, and learning to write well in another language requires consistent effort. But every thought I set down and every sentence I compose becomes an indispensable building block on my pathway.
This paragraph concludes the short personal essay, which is broken down into an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. By the end, we learn how Li came to think differently about her writing process and how she now enjoys journaling and training her “writing muscles.” With a clear structure, the reader can follow how her writing process has evolved and witness her new sense of confidence.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
But I knew that I had accomplished the best piece of work on the planet, and all the hard work was worth it. The next day, I took a look at my draft, shocked. Where did the marvelous essay go?
It’s common to want to put our “best foot forward” in writing and hide any mistakes or miscalculations. However, showing vulnerability invites readers to relate. Here, we become more invested in learning about how she reconciled these two perceptions of her writing.