Online | Nonfiction | Workshop

6-Week Online Nonfiction Workshop: Crafting the Personal Essay

"Zaina Arafat is a writer of singular candor and intimacy, scuba-diving in subjects, political issues, and raw feelings that most people wouldn't even let themselves think about for too long. Her work manages to address multiple axes of identity—gender, race, sexuality, nationality—while never allowing them to encumber the individual. Take her class." - Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear," essayist Joan Didion once wrote. Indeed, personal essays allow us to make sense of our lived experiences. But have you ever sat down and tried to translate a raw, emotional experience into an essay, only to find that what you’ve written just feels like a recounting of that experience, an anecdote without any deeper resonance? Successful essays often have two levels of about-ness: what that essay is about on the surface, and what it’s truly about (otherwise, readers and editors are left asking, “so what?!”). And by speaking to the specifics of an experience, you can get at a universal theme or truth.

Through a range of published essays, in-class writing prompts, and workshops, we will learn how to create essays that speak to both the specific and the universal, and how to craft personal experiences into artful, layered essays. We will also examine the ways in which distinguishing your unique voice can help to establish your platform as a writer and build your writing career, along with the process of pitching, submitting, and getting your essays into print. Writers of varying levels can benefit from this course; those who are new to the form, as well as those who have a substantial publishing record and seek to deepen their essay writing practice.

This class will meet over our video chat platform. You will need to use Google Chrome and a computer to join your class meetings.


- Exposure to a range of successful/published personal essays, and a more fully developed sense of the narrative possibilities inherent to the form

- Drafts of two essays that have received in-depth critique by peers and the instructor

- An individual conference over phone or Skype with the instructor, during which students can discuss their work, ambitions as writers, and practical advice about taking the next steps (MFAs, residencies, submitting work, cultivating an essay collection, contacting agents/editors)

- A guide for how to proceed with their work - both in terms of craft and publishing


Each week, we will read 1-2 assigned published essays before coming to class, which we will then discuss in terms craft, themes and subject matter. We will also workshop 1-2 student pieces per week depending on class size, with a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages, and no minimum page-count. Pieces can be stand-alone essays or excerpts from longer projects, and students will have the opportunity to submit work to the class twice. Students should come to class ready to engage in workshop (I will provide useful guidelines for what “workshopping” a piece entails and what workshop discussions look like), and to provide an editorial letter of feedback for each author (generally 2-3 paragraphs). We will also do some in-class writing exercises, just to get our creative minds flowing and to generate essay ideas.


Week One: Intros, Workshop Guidelines & Schedule.

Week Two: Theme. How do we effectively achieve the two levels of about-ness needed for an essay to be successful? How do we balance the specific and the universal? How do we embed themes into our work in a natural and seamless way?

Week Three: Point of View, Narrative Distance, and Persona. How do we establish our narrator’s presence on the page? How do we create narrative distance from an experience, and allow room for introspection? How do we distinguish ourselves as individuals/writers from our narrative personas?

Week Four: Structure. How do we know where an essay should begin and where it should end? How do we decide what particular structure best serves the experiences we are rendering? How do we establish the narrative arc and chronology of a piece?

Week Five: Tone. How do we create consistency of tone? How do we establish a tone that matches or contradicts the content in revealing and artful ways? How can the tone of a piece mimic/speak to its content?

Week Six: Submitting & Publishing Our Work. I will provide an overview of the process of submitting and publishing essays that includes specific literary journals, magazines and websites, how to find an agent, etc., and answer any questions students may have.

Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat’s essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Virginia Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and NPR, among others. She is a regular contributor to VICE. She holds an M.A. from Columbia and an M.F.A. from Iowa, where she taught writing and was selected as one of the most influential teachers on campus. She has served as an editor for various publications, and currently guest edits for The Margins. She grew up between D.C. and the Middle East and now lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on a novel and a collection.


“At once illuminating, incisive, and empathetic, Zaina Arafat’s work reveals her crystalline mind and the warm heart that beats beneath the sentences. I’ve been a fan of her essays and fiction for years.”

Natalie Brown author of THE LOVEBIRD

“Zaina is an inspired writer and a great collaborator. She has a wonderful ear for dialogue, a hilarious sense of humor that manifests on the page and a highly precise sense of language. She always finds the perfect bit of dialogue or character detail that takes the writing to the next level.”

Gabrielle Demeestère filmmaker/screenwriter, YOSEMITE

“Working with Zaina as my editor was such an enriching experience, both for me as a writer and for my essay: I trusted her editorial instincts completely, and that’s never easy to find. Her notes on my drafts were deep and thought-provoking, her edits incisive and smart. She worked with me to fully realize my vision for the piece by cutting through the fat and honing in on what I was really trying to get at.”

contributor at THE MARGINS

“I have had the good fortune of working with Zaina in two settings—first, when I was a student in one of her fiction writing workshops, and then (because her instruction was so outstanding), when I reached out to work with her for one-on-one writing coaching. Without a doubt, working with Zaina has been the best investment I could have made in my writing. From the invaluable feedback and suggested edits she gave me, I was able to rewrite one of my pieces to a fine polish. I feel prouder of this particular piece than any other story I’ve written so far, and I’m currently submitting it for publication. Not only did my writing improve dramatically by working with Zaina, but I feel empowered and encouraged to keep working towards a career as a writer. Needless to say, I can’t recommend Zaina highly enough!”

former student

“Zaina is an exceptionally enthusiastic, warm, intelligent and generous reader, editor, and teacher. Her knowledge of the craft and her insightful, incisive critiques made better writers of us all. Additionally, the prompts she gave and the workshop format were really conducive to writing, as was the environment that she created in the room. I had trepidations about a personal essay class—after many years as a journalist—and I truly cannot imagine a more beneficial experience.”

former student

“Zaina’s passion for writing is infectious. She brings so much life to the classroom, and her personality just shines. She herself has so many overlapping identities that inform her writing, and has read so much, all of which she applied to the course. She brought us all into the conversation and to engage with each other’s work, and pushed us to really go deep in our writing, straight to the heart of a piece. She has been my far my favorite writing instructor.”

former student