Knowing When to Call It Quits

When the editors are reading the grids looking for the best of the best, one of the things we often find ourselves saying is, “That essay is great, but I wish it ended two paragraphs earlier.” Maybe it’s just two sentences, or one, or three paragraphs, but the point is that often we find the essays go on a bit longer than necessary. As if that commonality isn’t enough, we’ve also found that the reason the essays go on too long is often the same for many writers. The desire to end the essay cleanly, wrapped up in a bow, with a summary of the original thesis compels many writers to tack something on at the end that simply isn’t necessary.

Let’s take a step back. When you first learned to write a persuasive essay in school, you were probably told to state your premise, give your reasons, address possible opposition, then summarize. For example:

Coconut pancakes should not taste like onions. Onion flavor does not mix well with coconut flavor. Many people like the savory-sweet combination, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, but onion-flavored coconut pancakes don’t have the same appeal. This is why I think coconut pancakes should not taste like onions.*

When it comes to writing for the nonfiction grid, you must first decide if you’re writing a personal essay or a persuasive one. A personal essay or anecdote doesn’t need to follow this sort of convention. You can circle back to your opening thought, but you need to be clever, not simply say something you’ve already said. Consider the example above. What if I took that last sentence off? Then I’d be ending it on a funny** note. The reader remembers the beginning and knew all along where this was going, and I can let them get there without holding their hand.

The other reason a personal essay doesn’t need that recap like a persuasive one does is that your essay should be telling a story. When the story ends, your essay should. If you have the essential rise and fall in action, if you address the central conflict with a clear beginning, middle, and end, you don’t need the summary. Trust your reader to understand where you’re taking them, to relate to your story, and say, “Oh, hey, she felt grossed out and I would, too!”

More than that, trust your reader to understand the logical conclusion. Again using the above example, let’s say I changed the last line to say, “Even though I was emotionally scarred by the onion-flavored coconut pancakes, I ate non-onion-flavored coconut pancakes the following week, and they still tasted good.” Why is this no better? If I really liked coconut pancakes, it stands to reason that if they didn’t taste like onions, I’d still like them. If I swore off onions, coconuts, pancakes, and all of breakfast forever and ever, that might be an interesting ending***. But “they tasted better next time” is precisely what any reader would assume, and that’s why you don’t need to say it.

As you write this week, take a step back from your essay for a little while. When you revisit, find the logical end of the story. If there are more words after that, take a hard look at them – why are they there? If it’s to make you feel better or justify why you wrote this or feel this way? Cut it. If it tells us what you already said, cut it. If it’s an important detail, examine why you didn’t include it inside the story (either it’s not really important, or you should move it). Don’t leave your reader hanging with an unfinished piece, but don’t tack on an unnecessary conclusion, either.

*This anecdote was inspired by actual events.
**Yes, I know that wouldn’t actually be a funny ending, but work with me here.
***Probably not. [Ed’s note: definitely not. What you’re looking for is a way to put your protagonist back in front of a plate of mystery pancakes at a family event, ideally something extra-awkward like a funeral breakfast. /rbg]

Nonfiction Know-How: Emotional Misuse

As essayists, we like to give our readers All The Feels. But sometimes too many feels can get in the way of the reads. Learn how to balance the emotions in your writing to produce more complete and accessible works and to make strong emotion stand out in this month’s Nonfiction Know-How.

How to submit and fully participate in the challenge:

Basic YeahWrite guidelines: 1000 word limit; your entry can be dated no earlier than this past Sunday; nonfiction personal essay, creative opinion piece or mostly true story based on actual events.

1. In the sidebar of this week’s post, please grab the code beneath the nonfiction badge and paste it into the HTML view of your entry;

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the recent WordPress updates, there’s a paste bug that affects some (but not all! Yay!) themes. If you see double quotes (“”) in your HTML view, those should be single quotes (“) not (‘) though. Here’s the exact code you’ll need for your badge this week: <a href=””><img src=””/></a>

2. Follow the Inlinkz instructions after clicking “add your link” to upload your entry to this week’s challenge grid;
3. Your entry should appear immediately on the grid if you don’t receive an error message;
4. Please make the rounds to read all the entries in this week’s challenge; and
5. Consider turning off moderated comments and CAPTCHA on your own blog.

Submissions for this week’s challenges will close on Wednesday at 10pm ET. Voting will then open immediately thereafter and close on Thursday at 10pm ET. The winners, as always, will be celebrated on Friday.

Thank you for sharing with us your hard work! Good luck in the challenge…

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About the author:

Michelle submitted her first entry to YeahWrite in March 2012 and they haven’t been able to get rid of her since. After nearly 20 years in the insurance/employee benefits industry, she decided to give it all up to pursue writing full time. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post and xoJane, as well as several local sites near her northern NJ home. She blogs at Michelle Longo.

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