Rochelle Jewel Shapiro


by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

March 2014

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink

"Angles tell you how to shape your subject and tell you how to write about it."

Whenever I am about to write a personal essay, I think of all the people who have had much more interesting lives than me, such as fire jumpers, Barnum and Bailey tight rope walkers, Navy SEALs, or refugees from war-torn countries, and my mother’s adage comes to me. “Be interesting or be quiet.”

But I’ve discovered ways to make ordinary me personal-essay-worthy and even if you are extraordinary, I think the concept of “angle” will help you not only write your essay, but get it published, too.

What is a writing angle? Angles tell you how to shape your subject and tell you how to write about it. For example, if you want to write an essay about how to teach your child manners, you might want to draw a comparison between what you do for a living, say, accounting, and how you use that to nudge your daughter’s behavior from ghoulish to girlish. Perhaps you use a system of rewards, points, tallies. Perhaps you give your daughter a monthly allowance and show her how to use a spreadsheet so that it stretches over a month. Perhaps you can teach her how to apportion her time in a similar way so that, for once, she has “enough time.”

Surprise is an important element in creating an angle. Say you’re raising a teenage daughter and you write, “I’ve always loved women, not girls.” This can help you grab the reader’s attention long enough so that he’s willing to read what else you have to say. What if (and that’s always a great question for a writer to begin with) you’re writing about your wardrobe and you begin with, “My closet is full of my sister’s style.” Hmm. Now you have the reader wondering about what’s in your closet, and what your sister is like, and what your relationship is to her.

"Make unlikely comparisons and you’ll get something fresh.”

An angle actually gives you material even when it isn’t about your clothes. Make unlikely comparisons and you’ll get something fresh. For example, instead of telling everyone that your job sucks, you may want to write a piece in which you make your boss your slave and she is the one who has to stay late every night doing your work without even a cost of living raise or a decent review, while you’re having a tryst with her husband. The reader would get right away that this was a revenge piece. But make sure you have another job lined up first.

You can bring in someone who doesn’t agree with you. For example, if you’re writing about hiring a personal organizer, you can have a very organized husband who either thinks a. you should be able to do this all yourself or b. he’ll do it for you and then, because he doesn’t know how to teach organization as a pro would, you can’t figure out his systems and are more mixed-up than ever.

You can play with tone. For example, you’d expect that a new mother would write sentimental prose about her darling. But how about beginning with diarrhea dribbling out of the baby’s diaper? Puke on the last shirt in your closet that doesn’t already have puke on it? How about the glass-breaking diva shrieks in the middle of the night? Then work your way toward appreciation, which is often the truth.

Try to be topical. If a holiday is coming up, base your essay on it, but write it well in advance. Or when Madonna was going to perform at the 2012 super bowl, I was prepared with this essay, Rock On, Madonna.


If you shape your essay with an angle, it will find its way out of the slush pile and into print!

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro






Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and the Indie Award Winning finalist, Kaylee's Ghost (Amazon and Nook). I Dare You To Write: First Aids, Warm Conforts, Sparking Advice for the Journey Ahead (Authorlink) is a collection of essays for anyone who dreams of writing. She has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.