Nonfiction | Workshop

6-Week Nonfiction Workshop: What's The Point Of The Personal Essay?

"As an editor, Haley Mlotek is precise and thoughtful, her ability to empathize – to see the story you see, to care just as much – uncanny. (And, as a Canadian, she is freakishly patient and kind.) At the Hairpin, where I had the the honour to learn from her, she carved out a fun, experimental place for writers to find and hear themselves." - Jazmine Hughes, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine

When I was the editor of The Hairpin, I spent most of my time receiving pitches for personal essays and editing the ones I accepted. Completely subjective and wildly distinctive, no two were ever the same — the best personal essays only share a simple invitation to the reader. This class is for writers with a story they absolutely have to tell. Whether the topic is universal or specific, there are lots of reasons to structure ideas and insights as a personal essay, and each class will examine how and why that choice determines the process of writing and the act of reading. Intermediate and advanced writers will come to the first class with an idea, a written pitch, and we’ll spend six weeks turning that story into a completed first draft of a personal essay. Students will act as first readers for each other, offering critical feedback on the essay over three workshops sessions.

Every student will get two one-on-one sessions with the instructor, the first to discuss the idea itself and the second to receive personal and detailed notes on the draft. A syllabus of selected readings will anchor class conversations about key principles for writing personal essays, and a practical session on self-editing first drafts will allow each student to leave the class with a high-quality submission ready to pitch the editor or publication of their choice.


- The ability to develop ideas and stories into strong pitches

- The practical tools necessary to self-edit first drafts

- A completed personal essay ready for editors and publication

- One thorough workshop of an essay developed in class


Week 1: Introduction, Pitches, and Readings

Students will come to class with a written pitch for the personal essay (instructions will be provided by email before the course begins). Pitches will be shared with each other and briefly workshopped. Review of reading list and principles for the course.

Week 2: Beginnings

Discussion about starting a personal essay, and what draws readers in past those first few paragraphs. Workshop of student’s opening paragraph. This week, students will meet with the instructor for one-on-one conversations about the pitch.

Week 3: Form & Structure

Review of different styles of personal essays, with examples. Workshop of rough drafts/outlines. Class discussion about how to choose the best style of personal essay for a writer’s story.

Week 4: First Draft

Workshop of completed first draft. Individual meetings with the instructor to review student feedback and receive edits and notes.

Week 5: Self-Editing & Peer Editing

Review of key principles for self-editing a draft. Students will be paired up to practice both top-editing and line-editing skills.

Week 6: Final Notes & Review

Final workshop. Students will discuss plans for the essay, reflect on their finished draft, and discuss further selected readings.

*no class May 28th

Haley Mlotek

Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, T Magazine, The Globe & Mail, Hazlitt, The Pitchfork Review, Canadian Art, The New Inquiry, n+1, and The Awl.

Previously, Haley was the style editor of MTV News, the editor of The Hairpin, and the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal


"Most writers dream of interacting with an editor like Haley Mlotek. Besides her casual brilliance, it is her sensitivity to both argument and style that qualify her as one of the best editors working in media today. She honors the writer’s instinct, while challenging and strengthening their execution."

Doreen St. Felix staff writer at THE NEW YORKER

"Haley's the best kind of editor - one who meets your work on its own terms, and often understands what you are actually trying to say before you fully see it yourself. The most widely-read piece I've ever written - one that still gets me compliments from strangers - is one she edited. The first draft of that essay was awkward and distant, circling tentatively around a deeply personal subject. I wanted to write about it, but I didn't know how. Haley's empathetic and thoughtful guidance made me feel supported enough to approach it directly, in the first-person - and then her meticulousness helped me ensure the piece was the best possible version of itself. Every time I've worked with her, I've had some version of this experience; the rigor and generosity she's applied to my work has given me a degree of confidence in my own voice that I don't know I'd have otherwise."


“Haley’s work as a writer and critic is nothing short of completely devastating.”

Matt Buchanan executive editor of Eater

“Very few essayists working today are as insightful as Haley Mlotek. Her clarity of expression and depth of thought are enviable, whether she’s considering film, fashion, or the wider world. It’s rare to finish reading something she’s written without wanting to underline multiple sentences and annotate them with exclamation marks or the word ‘yes.’”

Simon Vozick-Levinson freelance writer and editor

“Haley Mlotek writes the kind of first-person essays that I return to again and again, because in her hands the form becomes something communicative, rather than just expressive. The generosity of her style matches the generosity of her person. Too many personal essayists are stuck on transmit. Mlotek is a two-way radio. She's a master of the form, and anybody working on personal essays should leap to take her class.”

Josephine Livingstone culture staff writer at The New Republic