Online | Nonfiction | Independent Study

Personal Essay Independent Study: Generating Fresh Ideas for the Personal Essay

Editors always say they’re looking for new, fresh, exciting, surprising angles for personal essays. They want to see something they haven’t seen before, to approach universal topics in brand new ways. But what does that even mean, and how are you supposed to know what they have and haven’t seen before?

When you’re working from your own experiences, it can be very difficult to be objective—to look at your ideas with the critical eye of an editor and determine whether or not they rise the level of “new and exciting.” This independent study will teach you a few strategies for finding that fresh angle, digging into your unique perspective to find new ways into stories that only you can write. This course includes three idea-generating exercises as well as reading assignments that show how personal essays can be handled in unique ways, even if they are about a common topic.

This independent study is a good fit for writers who are interested in writing their first personal essay, or for writers who have some experience with the genre but feel they are out of fresh essay ideas.

This is an independent study and does not include any feedback or interaction with the instructor. 

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.


“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

“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

“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