Have you ever poured your heart into a personal essay only to find the piece has grown like an untended plant? You really have no idea where to begin, where it should end, and what goes in the middle. The problem isn’t with your subject; the problem is that you don’t yet have an angle.
You find the counterpart of the angle in every form and genre. In books, it’s called the premise (a woman works her way through Julia Child’s cookbook in a year). In advertising, it’s called the handle (“Trix are for kids!”). In movies, it’s the concept (humans invade the magical habitat of peaceful blue beings on another planet). In an essay, an angle is the controlling idea.
Say you want to write an essay about how you love to cook. You have a subject, but you don’t yet have an angle. Subjects invite you to write and write but give you no particular direction in which to take your writing. Angles, on the other hand, tell you exactly what to write—and that’s what makes them so essential. An angle for a piece on cooking could be that for you, reading recipes is like reading one-act plays, and preparing the dishes is like acting out the scenes. If you ask a group of people to write about the contents of their closet, each person would likely approach the same subject from a different angle. One might say, “My closet is full of clothes bought for another woman.” Another’s take might be, “My closet does not live in the present. It lives in the past.”
An angle always includes an element of surprise. For her piece in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Cathleen Calbert put the angle in the first line: “I’ve never liked men. I like guys.” Calbert surprises her readers with a twist, a conceit, that grabs their attention long enough for her to say what she wants to say. In other words, when you begin to craft a personal essay, you can’t just blurt out what comes to mind. You need an unexpected way of approaching your subject.
Once you have a good angle, the actual writing is a snap, because you know what to put in and what to leave out. In fact, once you have an angle, what often follows is the easiest thing in the world to write: a list. If your angle is that your closet lives in the past, you might start with the fur, then move on to the Lambertson Truex handbag, showing how each represents an earlier version of you.
Let’s consider some ways to find angles that will lend focus, originality, and appeal to your personal essays.
Start With the Opposite of Where Your Piece Will End
When I wanted to write about how stupid my cat was, I couldn’t just blurt out: “My cat is really stupid. Let me give you some examples.” That might be a good subject, but it’s no angle. So I began with the opposite of a stupid cat:
I watched that National Geographic show, the one that was a shameless ode to cats—their wisdom, their aloofness, their mystery. I wanted to believe it, but then I looked over at my cat, Mike, rapt in front of the reflection of the TV in the patio door. …
This angle, which I call the setup, provides a strong starting point. If you’re writing about a humiliation, you might start by being full of yourself. If you’re writing about bravely leaping from the tall rock into the pond, begin with cowering at the edge. This creates natural tension and guarantees that the piece will be about a change in the narrator. As with other types of writing, at the heart of many good personal essays is the story of how someone changed under pressure.
Make Unlikely Comparisons
Elizabeth Rapoport wanted to write an essay about how everybody wants more sleep—but it’s easy to see how a straightforward approach to that subject could have been something of a lullaby itself. Enter the angle: “Sleep has become the sex of the ’90s.” Once she had that twist, the rest came naturally; all she had to do was write about stolen naps as if they were trysts. “I’m not mentally undressing my dishy seatmate on the commuter train,” she wrote. “I’m wondering whether he’d take offense if I catnap on his shoulder until we get to Hartsdale.”
When I wanted to write that being the parent of teens requires different thinking than being the parent of little kids, I stumbled upon an angle with the potential to amuse readers while still providing some hard truths:
While children are dogs, loyal and affectionate, teenagers are cats. When you tell them to come inside, they look amazed, as if wondering who died and made you emperor.
Such unlikely comparisons keep your audience tuned in because they want to see just how similar these otherwise dissimilar ideas are. Reward them with humor and unexpected truths.
Bring in Opposing Viewpoints
Conflict and change lie at the heart of many of the best personal essays, and one way to highlight that conflict is to include an opposing point of view. For instance, you might want to write about a quirk of yours—something you always do, never do, love to do, or hate to do. Maybe you wear high heels everywhere, or you’d drive two hours just for a fresh mango. But if it’s quirky rather than, say, forbidden, the piece has no tension. You can create conflict, however, by bringing in someone who objects to that quirk. I like, for example, to do what I call piddling—taking time to putter around and check my mail, refold T-shirts, collect pennies from my dresser and drop them in the Alhambra jar marked “College Fund” and, in general, piddle around with my stuff.
By itself, this isn’t all that interesting. But my husband, Bill, is the weekend warrior who doesn’t understand the need to piddle, who wants to go for a bike ride in the park, or buy dowels for the fabric we bought or take cartons of books to the used bookstore. Now there’s conflict—opposing viewpoints on worthwhile ways to spend our shared weekend afternoons. Conflict doesn’t have to be heated or serious to make a piece entertaining or authentic—it simply has to be present.
Highlight Divisions or Categories
Creating unexpected groupings by dividing people into unusual categories can yield an angle that both lends humor and invites readers in as they think about which group they belong to.
In our earlier example, Calbert used this angle when she divided the male population into “men” and “guys.” In another, Steven Lewis writes in the Last Word column of Ladies’ Home Journal:
The world can be divided into those who will let a telephone ring off the hook when they are even mildly indisposed and those who would cheerfully trample small children and flower beds rather than let it hit the third ring.
When you use categories as your angle, you have the option of being either an observer or a participant, in which you add an additional twist by including yourself in one of the categories. I took this approach in a piece dividing the world into scolders, who frequently correct others who are breaking the rules, and scoldees (like me) who frequently need correction.
Contrast Your Tone and Subject
If an angle is always a kind of surprise (whether it’s an approach, a comparison, or an idea), then it follows that a surprising tone can be an angle in itself. We expect a new mother to talk sentimentally about giving her baby the care he needs. Instead, my student Bernadette Glenn took a tone that highlighted her contrarian point of view:
I had to face the misery of filling the day with a boisterous, self-centered little bully who had no control over his own bowels, never mind his emotions. I had imagined a small period of rest every day, but he was outgrowing naps, and he drooled on the newspaper and punched me if it looked like I was not paying attention to him.
This approach makes us perk up, not only because we’re surprised that a mother would talk about her baby this way, but because we’re engaged by her irreverence. One way to practice this angle is to write about something you hate as if you love it, or vice versa.
Another of my students, Marsh Rose, used a similar approach to write a piece about having a falling-apart rental and an indifferent landlord. We would expect a tone of complaint (and of course we don’t want to hear it, do we?), but instead of that predictably angry voice, she adopted a tone of yearning, akin to one you might use for an adored but elusive lover. This enabled her to get her point across while delighting the reader along the way:
I would like to introduce myself to you. In fact, I often sit in this dim living room—cross-legged on the floor furnace, praying for warmth—and imagine what that might be like … to introduce myself to you. I see myself racing into the street, flinging myself at your noisy green Camaro as you drive by with your gaze averted, and shouting out. “Landlady!” I would cry, “Landlady!”
The best way to get into print quickly is to hitchhike on the news of the day. Every editor wants to run pieces that are current. The governor of South Carolina is on the Appalachian Trail, and you walked it once yourself. Swine flu is coming back? Here’s the chance to send editors that essay on your near-death experience from a mysterious illness, or your formative years on a pig farm.
When Joe McGinniss’ book on Senator Edward Kennedy caught flak for putting thoughts in the senator’s head, an enterprising writer for American Way magazine wrote a piece in which he invented the thoughts of other famous figures, such as this imagined interior monologue of George Washington crossing the Delaware: “I can’t believe this. I’m their leader. I should definitely have a seat.” Add a topical angle to your piece, and you might be amazed at how quickly it makes its way through the submission pile and into print.