The reader is not interested in your life
Let’s face it: personal stories are the hardest to write.
You might argue that because they flow straight from the heart and come out in their rawest form, they are easy for the author.
But, as someone who has written 700+ answers on Quora (most of which are personal stories), let me tell you this: nobody wants to read your story.
You might really bleed, bare your heart and soul in front of the world, be so honest that it feels like you’re walking naked, and even then, readers would just click on another of the ten tabs open on their screen and leave your story behind, forgotten.
So, what is the secret ingredient, the magic that makes personal stories work?
In this article, I am going to discuss precisely that. The following are my experiences based on everything I learned after spending five years and amassing 12 million+ views and 57,000+ followers on Quora.
1. Don’t Write For Yourself
This might sound counter-intuitive, because you are writing a “personal” story, after all. But, if you want people to read your work, you cannot write about yourself.
You have to write for the reader.
Make the story about the experience so that anyone who is going through something similar can relate to it.
Your story has to either educate the reader about how they can get rid of what is presently troubling them, or inspire them to move on.
You can do this by making the story about how the experience shaped you and what you learned from it. Don’t forget to include an actionable takeaway: something the reader can apply in their lives to become better versions of themselves.
2. Include A Hook In The Beginning
You might have noticed you are willing to read the first line of anything, but if that line does not interest you, you won’t read further
When you are writing a personal story, remember this: you are writing a blog post for the world, not a journal entry. To make a reader interested enough to keep reading, you have to include a hook in the beginning — something that intrigues them enough to make them want to know more.
You can offer insight or raise a question for the reader to chew on. You can add drama and mystery, play with the reader’s curiosity, and pique their interest.
Another approach is to have a first line that tells us about a trait of yours that would have changed by the time we reach the end of the piece.
Here are some examples of great opening lines from memoirs that act as great hooks:
If my father caught me he would cut my neck, so I just kept going.
~ A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs
Why would the father cut the narrator’s neck, and why can’t he catch him now? There is mystery, a sense of urgency that makes a promise to the reader that their questions will be answered if they read on.
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
~ Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
What a great line! How beautifully it makes the reader question: Who is Giovanni? Do they kiss the author by the end of the book?
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. In China, your father had a sister who killed herself . . .
~ The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
I confess I haven’t read this book yet. But, just looking at the first line makes me want to quit writing this article and pick up that book to find out what happened to the father’s sister and why she killed herself.
3. Title and Structure
When you write a personal story, format it like you would format an informative piece or creative non-fiction. Here are some of the elements you can focus on to make your account more attractive to the readers.
Choose a creative title
One of my favourite writers here on Medium who has perfected the art of telling a captivating personal story is Tara Blair Ball. Her titles are so intriguing that I spent the better part of an hour last night binge-reading through her articles and ordering her book on Amazon. Some samples-
- How I Told My Partner I Cheated on Him (And why I didn’t tell him about every encounter)
- It Was Only a Matter of Time Before I Cheated on My Husband
- The Beginning of the End of My Marriage
Your title has to let the reader know exactly what they can expect from the article. Something like “An Ode to My Mother” is not a very good idea. Yes, we understand you love your mother and want to honour her in your writing, but what would the reader gain from reading your article?
Format it like your life depends on it
I am reminding this once again: you are writing a blog post, not your journal. If the reader hits a massive wall of text on opening your article, they will lose interest.
Add blank spaces, include bulleted lists, put in headings and sub-headings — in short, make the article look easy to read and eye-pleasing.
Don’t forget the flow
There should be a specific introduction, content, and conclusion (with a clear takeaway) in your article. Before you set to write it, it is best if you have a clear idea of what you are trying to convey.
If the only point of your article is to introspect and figure out something about yourself, maybe it belongs in your journal and not on the internet.
Making an outline before starting to write helps. No one wants to read rambling train-of-thought like pieces that begin and end randomly. Structure your articles like you would structure a novel, and I promise you, no reader would be able to take their eyes off the screen.
Debate, Don’t Rant
Avoid generalisations as much as possible. If you are writing about a topic you feel strongly about, add in facts to convince the reader. Don’t lecture them or make them feel like you are whining or complaining too much.
The Bottom Line
You can get famous writing personal stories online. That is what I did on Quora for five years with considerable success.
The only thing you need to remember is that you are writing for the reader, not yourself. So, be empathetic, have a hook in the beginning, and include a takeaway that would be helpful to the reader. A catchy title and proper formatting also go a long way in making sure a person does not lose interest while reading.
These were the tips and hacks I learned after spending so much time on Quora. I hope you will find them useful on your journey towards writing the perfect, most captivating personal account.