This step-by-step process will take the pressure out of writing about yourself.
“Tell me a little about yourself?” This request sounds so simple, a real softball question, but it leaves many people tongue-tied. Whether it’s a job application cover letter, a brief biography for a website, a blog entry with a personal touch, or countless other situations, periodically, you will face the challenge of writing about your own life.
If you’re a memoirist, you might even be challenged to write three hundred pages about yourself. But, on the other hand, it may be even tougher, to sum up the entire subject on which you are the world’s foremost expert (yourself) in just a few sentences.
Regardless of the length or format, creative writing about yourself doesn’t have to be a daunting task. The following six steps will help you tackle any personal writing project with ease and confidence.
Step 1: Identify The Reader And Their Expectations
Apart from journaling, most of the time, when you write about yourself, it’s for a practical reason. If there’s a reason for writing, then there is also an intended reader.
The intended reader might be one specific person or group of people, such as a scholarship committee or hiring manager. On the other hand, it might be a large unknown audience, such as anyone who follows your blog or searches for a specific topic. Or it might be a targeted unknown audience, for example, a cancer survivor who writes a memoir essay meant to inspire other people fighting cancer.
Regardless of the form or purpose of your writing, you should always start by identifying the reader. Then keep their perspective in mind as you plan and write. You want to give them what they expect, but at the same time, you must not give them what they expect. What does that mean?
You must give the reader(s) what they expect. Why is the reader bothering to read your writing about yourself? Stay focused on delivering on their expectations. The Costco hiring manager isn’t interested in how your family members beat cancer, and the cancer-surviving memoirist would be foolish to include a long digression about her breadth of customer service experience.
At the same time, you must not be predictable or rely on cliché. Your cover letter is probably in a stack of hundreds, and memoirs are not in short supply. Your goal is to deliver on the reader’s expectations, and at the same time to surprise them with the detail that makes your story unique.
Step 2: Identify Your Goal
Sometimes this is easy. In a cover letter, you want to persuade the reader to offer you an interview, and ultimately the job. In a dating profile, you want the reader to swipe right.
Other times the objective might be a little less transactional. For example, in comments on your blog articles, perhaps you’ve noticed that your readers respond positively when you include personal anecdotes, and you want to improve real-life engagement. Or maybe you just want to make some stranger with an experience similar to yours feel a little less alone.
Another way to look at it is to identify the particular emotion you want to inspire in your reader. If it’s a cover letter, perhaps you focus on conveying your competence and enthusiasm. If it’s a scholarship application, you might want to inspire sympathy and belief in your potential. If you are presenting a seminar in a crowded time slot at a conference, you want your program bio to be impressive and intriguing.
Thinking about your writing’s purpose concretely is an essential step in choosing the right tone, style, subject, theme, and details for your writing.
Step 3: Choose Your Topic
You might think that once you’ve identified the audience and purpose for your writing, this question answers itself, but that isn’t true. Often prompts are so broad that they allow you to approach the answer in many ways.
The first rule when writing about yourself is that your first thought is rarely your best thought. Force yourself to write a list of at least ten ideas. Even if you believe that your first or second idea is what you want to write about, forcing yourself to make a longer list can help you find unexpected connections that will elevate your writing from cliché to insight.
Check out this article ADD HYPERLINK for more suggestions on brainstorming and developing ideas for writing about personal experience, including prompts.
Step 4: Dig For Details
When I was a kid, my father explained the impact of a vividly evoked memory by quoting Firesign Theater: “Then it all came rushing back to me, like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist.” Thirty years later, I remember that quote. Details have an impact; generalities don’t.
Just like when you choose a topic, the first detail you think of is rarely the best. Usually, it is a cliché. Same with the second and third. Stick with it.
It is of paramount importance to be specific and creative and choose the right details. Not all details are useful. Some are distracting. Some might be offensive. Some are mundane. The right information provokes a reader to react, not just generally but in the way the author intended.
For example, as a legal aid lawyer, I applied for many program grants. I learned that it was ineffective to write, “Our program has provided legal representation to 243 demographically diverse victims of domestic violence in family law cases.”
On the other hand, it was effective to write something like, “Louise became a client of our program at age seventy-eight when she sought help in divorcing her abusive husband the day after her first great-grandson was born.” Both statements were factual, but only one used detail to enable the reader to understand that truth at a gut level, and so only one brought in grant money.
Vivid, personal, targeted details slow the reader down. They focus the reader’s attention. They provoke an emotional response. But, above all, they are memorable.
Step 5: Self-Promote With Humility
Usually, if you’re writing about yourself, it is a form of self-promotion. Maybe it’s an author bio to be published with your byline, which you hope will inspire people to check out more of your writing. Perhaps it’s a personal statement for a grant application. Maybe you’re creating an online dating profile that will help you find your true love. Regardless, you are portraying yourself in a positive light for a purpose. You are selling yourself.
It can be a challenge to walk the fine line between egotism and confidence and to show the right amount of humility. Here are a few tips.
- Use specifics rather than generalities.
Avoid: I am a writer with years of experience.
Instead, try: I wrote my first spooky story at age six and have worked on my craft ever since.
- Leave out anything unnecessary.
Avoid: The following is a list of my accomplishments, beginning with my second place ribbon in the junior high science fair…
Instead, try: Among other awards, last year, I won second prize in a robotics competition using technology related to the project I would pursue if hired as your postdoc.
- Focus on external metrics, not only your subjective opinion.
Avoid: You won’t find another server with better customer service skills.
Instead, try: I was the highest-tipped server at my previous job, ten out of the last twelve months.
- Inject humility, vulnerability, and humor where appropriate, without undermining yourself.
Avoid: My blog is based on my experience as a world-renowned expert and influencer regarding feline breeding, temperament, and training.
Avoid: Don’t listen to me; I’m just a crazy cat lady!!
Instead, try: I may have literally “written the book” on training cats, but even I can’t get my cats to scoop their own litter box.
Step 6: Write With Style
Your style should be consistent with the intended reader and the purpose of the writing. A short author bio for your blog is a good place for whimsy. An application for a federal research grant is not.
A cover letter for a Halloween costume store and a cover letter for a law firm have the same purpose (to get a job interview), but the style should be different because the intended reader is different. The Halloween store manager is looking for reliability and a deep appreciation of the spooky, while the law firm is looking for a professional with strong attention to detail. Your cover letter’s style (even when separated from the content) should demonstrate that you understand the job.
Sticking with a clear, easy-to-read style is almost always the right choice. Your primary expression of style should be through your choice of details. However, the standard rules of good writing apply. Vary your sentence length and structure for pacing and emphasis. Choose active verbs. Avoid cliché.
Above all, be brief. As tempting as it may be to write a three-page cover letter or a twenty-page personal essay about your dying cat, nobody wants to read that. So when you write about yourself, use restraint. Then cut your draft by half. Then cut it some more. Then even more. If you end up too short, that’s great! Now you have space to add in one or two of the shiny new details that occurred to you during the revision process. You might also find our guide on how to write a business proposal helpful.
The Final Word On How To Write About Yourself
It is a cliché that most people’s favorite subject is themselves, but that doesn’t make it easy to write about yourself under pressure. However, if you stay focused on your audience and the purpose of your writing and use well-selected details, you’ll get it right.
FAQ About Writing About Yourself
Should I Write About Myself In The Third Person?
Write in first person unless either (1) the prompt specifies that you should use third person, or (2) there is an established convention in that genre for third-person writing.
For example, if your boss asks you to write your mini-bio for the company website, and all the rest are written from the third-person perspective, use third-person for your bio. For most purposes, however, it is not appropriate. For example, a cover letter written in the third person could get mixed up with letters of recommendation and confuse the reader, costing you a job.
Being creative and memorable is great when it is consistent with the purpose of the writing. But, at the same time, you want to avoid standing out for the wrong reasons. For example, a cover letter for a retail job written in the third person or the form of a poem might make your cover letter memorable, but in the way a glitter bomb is memorable.
Your content is where you want to stand apart, rather than your form. Unless experimental writing style is a qualification for the job, keep it simple. Stick with first-person.
That said, sometimes it feels awkward writing about yourself, and in that situation, writing in the third person can be a great first draft strategy. Write about yourself as if “yourself” was actually not you but a friend you are proud of and happy to recommend. Or choose an actual friend, and imagine how they would write your bio. Then create a second draft by rewriting it in the first person.
What Should I Write In My Introduction?
Some writing has no real introduction. A sixty-word mini-bio, for example. When writing a longer piece, however, you need to give a lot of thought to your lead-in sentences.
Not knowing where to start a piece can be a huge stumbling block. For some writers, this happens because of a lack of ideas, but the problem is often too many ideas. I’ve written dozens of different beginnings for a project before settling on one.
For many writers, that is a workable process. No writing is wasted if it is a step on the path to a good final draft. That said, eventually, you will have to make a decision.
While the choice of where to start your first paragraph is entirely personal, here are five examples of ways you could approach the problem of the introduction.
For some more specific prompts for writing about your own experiences, check out this article on Writing About Personal Experience.
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