Online | Nonfiction | Bootcamp

4-Week Online Nonfiction Bootcamp: Writing Personal Essays with Substance

Personal essays have gotten a bad rap in some circles, decried as hyper-confessional, self-indulgent diary entries. And the truth is, a lot of them are. But there’s so much more to personal-essay writing than that unfortunate trope. Successful personal essays don’t just recap something wild that happened to you -- they bring the reader through the story with vivid details and active scenes, and show how the experience changed you. In this class, we’ll look closely at personal essays that accomplish that resonance, break down the specific elements that make a personal essay great, and complete writing exercises around each of those elements. Students will come away with one completed essay that’s ready to submit to the best personal-essay markets out there, and the tools to write many more with confidence.

This course is open to all levels, whether you’re a new writer, accomplished in another genre but unfamiliar with writing about yourself, or an experienced writer of personal essays looking to take your work to the next level.


Each week, at the end of the craft lesson, you'll be assigned writing exercises that will build toward an essay. (And selected essays to read, that illustrate the craft element you'll be working on.)

During the Salon, you'll discuss the readings, any general questions about the craft element of the week, and the writing assignments. This is where students can ask questions and get feedback from the instructor, talking through the progress of their essays and any specific challenges therein.

Optional: Post your writing assignments in the comments section of the Craft page and comment on each other's work as you go. Please only post your work here for peer feedback if you're also willing/able to comment on your classmates' posted work.

After three weeks of craft assignments and Salons, the final assignment is to put together everything you've written and discussed into a full draft of your essay to submit in the Workshop section for feedback from the instructor. You'll get specific line notes in the document on the Workshop platform, and a 10-minute one-on-one phone conference with the instructor to talk about your essay and what it needs to be polished and publishable.

Important note about the final assignment: The deadline for submitting the essay draft is a firm deadline (the night before the day of the final class—it will be posted on the Workshop page and you'll get a reminder email). Work that is not submitted by the deadline will not receive feedback from the instructor.  


-A greater understanding of techniques to make your personal story stand out; draw the reader in with a compelling, active scene; and leave the reader with a powerful takeaway, without overstating your thesis

-Greater familiarity with some of the best personal essays being written today

-Personalized feedback from an experienced writer and assigning editor


Week 1: Meaningful first-person writing vs. “it happened to me.” Identifying unique angles. Video lecture. Assignment #1: list of possible essay topics/angles.

Week 2: Narrative arc and active scenes. Read a selection of successful personal essays. Assignment #2: outline and a scene.

Week 3: What’s your point? (The “big picture” takeaway.) Assignment #3: submit a full draft of your essay.

Week 4: 10-minute one-on-one feedback phone calls about each student’s essay.

Lilly Dancyger

Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as one of the winners of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, and the editor of Burn it Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women's anger from Seal Press. Lilly's writing has been published by Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. Find her on Twitter here.


“It demystified the writing process a little bit, and made it feel like writing is more tangible, and less abstract – something I could achieve. Ms. Dancyger gave great feedback. She was approachable, engaged, and encouraging.”

former student

“Lilly Dancyger is an enthusiastic and passionate instructor. She was well organized and provided a rigorous program for us to follow. Her criticism was honest and constructive.”

former student

“Lilly is a thoughtful, considerate editor who combines her developmental skills with skilled line editing for a holistic editorial approach that makes the story sharper and cleaner, the narrative more compelling, and the piece's purpose clear. Lilly knows what makes a story effective, and how to employ the writing techniques that will sharpen even the best and most vulnerable personal narratives. She's attentive to the writer's needs, and knows how to ask questions that will direct the writer toward the best story possible while retaining their own artistic voice. Lilly's editing helps take the personal essay from personal to universal. It's not often I feel like an editor isn't afraid to give it their all in editing a vulnerable topic, but also isn't hunting for just the most shock value and ‘universally appealing’ parts of a story, all while wanting the narrative to actually be strong, tight, compelling, and effective.”

NARRATIVELY contributor

“Ms. Dancyger understands the craft of the personal essay, how to weave narrative with theme, how to make the personal resonate. She draws the reader into the scene, evoking our senses and emotions.”

Erin Khar Managing Editor, RAVISHLY

“Lilly Dancyger is a lovely, incisive writer attuned to the emotional core of a story and the evocative details that bring it out. She’s able to be expressive while smartly avoiding sentimentality, and she's well attuned to structure.”

Jennifer Bleyer Senior Editor, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

“Lilly has an innate understanding of what makes a memoir piece pop, which is evident both in her own writing and in her work as an editor. She is uniquely skilled at helping writers pull out the most interesting angles of their own personal experiences and present them in a way that reels in the readers.”

Brendan Spiegel Editorial Director, NARRATIVELY