How to Write a Personal Essay
A good personal essay can move and inspire readers. It can also leave the reader unsettled, uncertain, and full of more questions than answers. To write an effective personal essay, you will need to first understand the structure of a personal essay. You will then need to brainstorm ideas for the personal essay so you are ready when it is time to sit down and craft your essay.
Starting Your Personal Essay
Find an angle for your essay.Your life may not be littered with exciting stories, or intense drama, but that's okay. Your personal essay can still be engaging for your reader if you focus on finding an angle for your essay. You should try to find a unique or interesting take on an experience, or moment in your life. Looking at an experience from a particular angle can turn it into deep, meaningful subject matter for your essay.
- For example, maybe you want to write about an experience where you learned about failure. You may think the time you failed a pop quiz in class. Though the quiz may have seemed insignificant to you at the time, you realized later that failing the pop quiz forced you to reassess your goals and motivated you to get a passing grade. Seen from a certain angle, your small failure became a gateway to perseverance and determination.
Write about a significant moment.A good personal essay will explore a specific experience that created a sense of conflict in your life. The personal essay can be a way to explore how and why you were challenged or hurt by the experience. Think of it as a space where you can discuss a significant moment and reflect on its impact on your life.
- This could be a seemingly small moment that ended up having a profound influence on you later, such the first time you experienced disgust as a child or the look on your mother’s face when you told her you were gay. Try to really dig into why you were hurt or compelled to overcome a challenge in this moment in your essay.
- Remember that moments charged with strong emotion will often be more engaging to readers. Having a strong reaction to a specific moment will allow you to write passionately about it and keep your reader interested in your essay.
Discuss a specific event that triggered an emotional response.You may also explore a specific event in your life that left a lasting impression on you. Often, personal essays act as reflections on an event that occurred in your life and shifted it in some way. Think of a specific event that is unique and personal to you. The stranger the event, the more likely the essay will be engaging to read.
- For example, you may focus on the day you found out your father cheated on your mother, or the week you mourned the death of a loved one. Think about a heavy experience in your life that shaped who you are today.
- You may also decide to write about a seemingly light topic or event, such as your first ride on a roller coaster, or the first time you went on a cruise with your partner. No matter what event you choose, make sure it is an event that triggered a strong emotional response, ranging from anger to confusion to unabashed joy.
Think of a person in your life that you have difficulty with in some way.You may want to explore a tenuous relationship with a person in your life in your personal essay. Think about a person you have grown apart from or feel estranged from. You may also choose a person that you have always had a difficult or complicated relationship with and explore why this is in your essay.
- For example, you may think about why you and your mother stopped speaking years ago or why you are no longer close to a childhood friend. You may also look at past romantic relationships that failed and consider why they did not succeed or a relationship with a mentor that went sour.
- This could also be about someone that you're close with. For example, you could write about a moment that tested your relationship with a close friend.
Respond to a current event.Good personal essays consider the specific, such as your experiences, as well as the general, such as a current event or larger issue. You may focus on a current event or topic that you feel passionate about, such as abortion or refugee camps, and consider it from a personal perspective.
- Ask yourself questions about the current event. For example, how does the current event intersect with your own experiences? How can you explore a current social issue or event using your personal thoughts, experiences, and emotions?
- For example, you may have an interest in writing about Syrian refugee camps in Europe. You may then focus your personal essay on your own status as a refugee in America and how your experiences a refugee have shaped the person you are now. This will allow you to explore a current event from a personal perspective, rather than simply talk about the current event from a distant, journalistic perspective.
Create an outline.Personal essays are usually formatted in sections, with an introductory section, a body section, and a concluding section. These sections are broken down as follows:
- The introductory section should include “the hook”, opening lines where you catch the reader’s attention. It should also have some sort of narrative thesis, which is often the beginning of an important event in the piece or a theme that connects your experience to a universal idea.
- The body sections should include supporting evidence for your narrative thesis and/or the key themes in your piece. Often, this is in the form of your experiences and your reflections on your experiences. You should also note the passage of time in your body sections so the reader is aware of when and how certain events occurred.
- The concluding section should include a conclusion to the events and experiences discussed in the essay. You should also have a moral of the story moment, where you reflect on what you learned from your experiences or how your experiences changed your life.
- In the past, it was advised to have five paragraphs total, one paragraph for the introductory section, three paragraphs for the body section, and one paragraph for the concluding section. But you can have more or less than five paragraphs for your personal essay as long as you have all three sections.
Writing the Personal Essay
Begin with an engaging opening scene.You should open your personal essay with an introductory section that is engaging and interesting for your reader. The opening section should introduce the key characters of the essay as well as the central theme or themes of the essay. It should also present the central question or concern in the essay.
- Don't begin with a line that explains exactly what is going to be discussed in, such as, “In this essay, I will be discussing my fraught relationship with my mother." Instead, draw your reader into your piece and still provide all the information needed in your opening line.
- Start instead with a specific scene that contains the key characters of the essay and allows you discuss the central question or theme. Doing this will allow you to introduce the reader to the characters and the central conflict right away.
- For example, if you are writing about your fraught relationship with your mother, you may focus on a specific memory where you both disagreed or clashed. This could be the time you and your mother fought over a seemingly insignificant item, or the time you argued about a family secret.
- Try to use an active voice instead of a passive voice as much as possible when you're writing your essay.
Write from your unique voice or perspective.Though you are writing a personal essay, you still have the freedom to use a unique writing voice or point of view. Like other writing genres, personal essays are often more successful when the writer uses a writing voice that entertains and informs the reader. This means using word choice, syntax, and tone to create an engaging narrative voice in the essay.
- This writing voice may be conversational, much like how you might speak to a good friend or a family member. Or, the writing voice may be more reflective and internal, where you question your own assumptions and thoughts about the subject of the essay.
- Many personal essays are written in the first person, using “I”. You may decide to write in the present tense to make the story feel immediate, or past tense, which will allow you to reflect more on specific events or moments.
- Include vivid sensory descriptions in your essay to help the reader connect with your unique perspective. Describing touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound can help the reader invest in your story and feel like they're there with you.
Develop the characters so they are well-rounded and detailed.Be sure to describe your characters with sensory detail and physical detail. Even though you are pulling from your real life experiences in your essay, you should still consider storytelling elements like plot and character. Using these elements in your essay will keep your reader engaged and help your essay to flow smoothly.
- You can also include lines of dialogue spoken by your characters, based on your memory of the event. However, you should limit dialogue to only a few lines a page, as too much dialogue can start to veer away from personal essay and more toward fiction.
Include plot in your essay.You should also have a sense of plot in your essay, where a sequence of events or moments add up to a realization or moment of conflict at the end of the piece. In general, it's a good idea to write the events in your essay in chronological order so it's easy for the reader to follow along.
- You may use a plot outline to organize your essay. The plot points should act as supporting evidence for the central question or issue of the essay.
Focus on uncovering a deeper truth.This means thinking about the deeper meanings that are at the core of your personal experiences. Try to discuss your experiences with honesty and curiosity, where you are trying to uncover a hidden truth or a truth you did not know was there at the time. Often, the best personal essays will try to expose a truth that is uncomfortable or difficult for the writer to discuss.
- It’s important to remember that though an experience may appear to have all the drama necessary to make a good personal essay, it may be a drama that is too familiar to the reader already. Be wary of experiences that are familiar and filled with pathos that a reader may have experienced before.
- If you are writing about the sudden death of a loved one, for example, it may feel important and deep to you. But the reader will likely know what to expect of an essay about a dead loved one, and may not relate to your essay because they did not know the loved one like you did.
- Instead, you may try to uncover a truth that is deeper than “I am sad my loved one died.” Think about what the loved one meant to you and how the loved one affected your life, in positive and negative ways. This could lead to the uncovering of a deeper truth and a stronger personal essay.
Polishing Your Essay
Try out different literary techniques and forms.You can add richness to your writing by experimenting with different literary techniques and forms, such as metaphor, repetition, and personification. Your personal essay may be that much stronger once you add in literary techniques that show how well you can tell your story.
- For example, you may use metaphor to describe the experience of telling your mother you are gay. You may describe your mother’s face as “impenetrable, a sudden wall”. Or you may use a simile, such as “my mother’s reaction was silent and stunned, as if she had been struck by lightning.”
Read the essay out loud.Once you have written a first draft of your personal essay, you should read through it and listen to how it sounds. You may read it out loud to yourself or to a sympathetic audience.
- As you read it out loud, you should highlight any sentences that are confusing or unclear as well as sentences that do not appear as strong as the rest of the draft. You should also make sure your characters are well developed and your essay follows some kind of structure or sense of plot. Consider if you are hitting a deeper truth in your draft and what you can do to get there if it is not yet on the page.Revising your essay will only make it that much stronger.
Proofread and revise the essay.Once you have a strong draft of the essay, you should sit down and proofread and revise it. You can take into account the notes you made on the draft as you read it out loud as well as feedback you receive from trusted readers.
- When you are revising, you should consider if your content is really worth writing about, if you are writing about a topic or subject you are passionate about, and if your reader will understand your writing. You want to avoid confusing your reader, as this can turn her off from reading to the end of your essay.
- You should also make sure the focus and themes of the essay are clear. Your experiences should center around a central question, issue, or theme. This will ensure your personal essay is well written and concise.
- Avoid relying on spellcheck to catch all of the spelling and grammar errors in your essay.
QuestionHow do I start a personal essay?
M.A., EducationM.A., EducationExpert AnswerI would start by diving right into a personal moment that connects to the story you want to convey. Try going back in time to when that moment occurred and focus on really drawing the reader in. That will allow you to expand on your story from there once you have the reader's attention.Thanks!
What is the average page length of a personal essay, and how much of a lifetime should one cover?
To write a personal essay, start by deciding on an experience that affected your life in some way, such as how failing a pop quiz in class made you change your goals. Next, draft an outline containing the points you want to make, and including an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. When writing, start your essay with an engaging scene that introduces the characters and main theme, then develop the characters in the body section so they're well-rounded. Conclude by summing up what you learned from the experience.
- To get a better sense of the genre, you should read highly crafted examples of personal essay. There are several known personal essays that are often taught in academia, including "Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin, “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf, “Shipping Out” by David Foster Wallace, “The White Album” by Joan Didion, and “We Do Abortions Here” by Sallie Tisdale.
- Ask yourself several questions as you read the examples, such as: How does the writer introduce the subject of their essay? How does the writer explore the subject for a personal perspective? What are the key themes in the essay? How does the writer connect their personal experiences to a universal theme or idea? How does the writer use humor or wit in the essay? What is the concluding moral of the essay? Does the end of the essay leave you satisfied, unsettled, curious, or all of the above?
Sample Essay and Template
Sources and Citations
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