Personal Essays

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Wondering how to write a personal essay? Is your personal essay due tomorrow morning? If so, here are some quick tips. Good luck!

Personal Essay Tips

Your instructor is not going to grade you on how much you loved your deceased family member, how wonderfully you played in the big game, or how narrowly you escaped death. Your instructor wants to gauge your ability to focus on one specific incident — even a routine happening — and tell it in an engaging way.
  1. Double-check the assignment.
    • If you were asked to reflect on a single specific experience, providing a list of six or seven interesting things (with little or no reflection) won’t be very valuable.
    • If you were asked to create a mood, or persuade the reader, or describe a change, then a bunch of interesting, accurate, and loosely connected facts won’t be very valuable.
  2. Be specific. Of the following, which is more interesting?
    • “There are many things that come to mind when I think about what I did on my summer vacation”
    • “On the three-mile hike from my uncle’s cabin to the swimming hole, I expected to get back to nature, but I didn’t expect to get tired, get ticks, and get lost.”
  3. In order to get specific, expect to cut at least the first third of your initial draft.
    • If you’re like most people, you’ll start churning out words before you have any real idea where your paper is headed.  That’s actually fine — its part of the writing process.
    • But a sketchy “I don’t know what to write about” opening should never make it into the paper you submit.
      • Sketchy: “There are many ways to respond to problem X. (Details about X.) Some people may choose option A. (Details about A.) While others may choose option B.  (Details about B.) If I had to choose, I would probably choose option C. (Here, the paper finally begins.)”
      • Direct: “Option C will solve problem X, because…”

The Importance of Showing Specific Details

If your writing teacher asks you to write a personal essay, rather than submitting a laundry list of every detail you can remember on a particular subject, satisfy your reader by delivering a sustained development of a single, vivid incident that shows your reader what the experience was like.

Choosing to write about the death or illness of a relative or pet, a close call in an automobile, or an account of the big game may make it easier for you to conjure up and identify the emotions you want to express, but be careful. Writers who get too caught up with expressing their own emotions can sometimes forget the needs of the reader.

Watch out for lists of emotions: “I’ll never forget how scared I was.” (If you’re aiming for an emotional effect, your job as a writer is to make your reader feel those emotions, no not simply to communicate the fact that you felt them.)

Maybe your topic is important to you not because it was a single, huge, momentous event, but rather because it’s part of your everyday life. Perhaps it’s something that you’ve never really examined in detail before.


  • “Sure, Fishing is Boring — But That’s the Point!”
  • “How I Learned Not To Stick Things Into Power Outlets”
  • “Five Sure-Fire Ways to Ruin a First Date”
    (Essays that are organized around lists can be effective if the items in the list build to a climax, or if taken together the different items join to form a cohesive vision of a single concept.)
  • “My Love Affair with Mac and Cheese.”
    (A long list of ways you use this food will be less interesting than a well-presented story of one particular story that stands out in your memory.)

Typical Assignment Objectives:

  • Show, using vivid details. Make every word count.
  • Recognize Crisis vs. Conflict
  • Focus. Demonstrate the ability to isolate and develop a single theme, free from distracting details or rhetorical flights of fancy that are unrelated to the conflict you are depicting.
    Note: Spell-checkers are no substitute for a dictionary, close inspection, and time.

Helpful Readings:

(Showing is not just telling with colorful adjectives.  Read the handout and study the examples.)

  • “If your essay includes quoted speech, punctuate the dialogue properly,” said the helpful professor, who also recommend the handout Writing Effective Dialogue.”

    The old man nods. “Punctuating dialogue properly is important, but actions speak loudly, too. When I offered you tea, and you unlaced your boots at my hearth, we didn’t need any words stating that there was a comfortable lull in our conversation. The careful placement of details created a little pause. It was a good example of showing rather than telling.”

    Outside, the wind howls. The old man puts another log on the fire. I sip my tea, feeling it warm my insides.

    “Thank you.” I say. “For sharing your hermitage on such a stormy night.”


    “For teaching me how punctuation and actions work together in dialogue.

Organization and Drafting Issues:

  • Connect the beginning and the ending. A satisfying essay will introduce an idea, an image, or even a word, without fully revealing its significance until the end.  This connection can be explicit:
  • “I never knew how important having a handkerchief could be, until that beautiful woman sneezed messily into her hand.”
    [passionate romance, stormy breakup, a chance encounter years later…]
  • “And to this day, I can’t look at a handkerchief without shuddering.”)

or it can be subtle:

  • “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
  • [“Bah! Humbug,” visits from three spirits, Tiny Tim doesn’t die…]
  • “…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”
  • Seek out and apply constructive criticism. Read a draft of your paper aloud to a friend. Even better — have your friend read it to you. Don’t jump in and explain things that your friend doesn’t understand… figure out how to revise your writing so that the next reader won’t be confused.
  • Take your revisions seriously. If you are fortunate enough to have an instructor who lets you revise your work, don’t expect that he or she will circle every mistake and tell you exactly what you need to “correct”. (I habitually fix a typo or supply a word here or there, but I am much more interested in engaging with student writing, intellectually and personally, to challenge students to become a better writer.) Simply producing a page free of grammatical errors is not enough.

Rough Draft Reflection

The best writing is always re-writing. Don’t worry about punctuation and grammar until you’ve done some serious revising. Did you hit upon a really good idea at the bottom of page two? If so, great! Cut the first two pages and start over again with a new focus..

  1. What is the dominant idea you wish to linger in the reader’s mind? (If your answer is something like, “I want the reader to know that a lot of very interesting things happened to me last summer,” then your paper is probably not focused enough.)
  2. Resist the temptation to begin with a statement that introduces three points, spending one paragraph on each idea, and end with a summary. (That format is great for high school papers, but a college instructor will probably expect you to demonstrate the ability to develop a single idea more deeply.)

Dennis G. Jerz
c. 1999 — first posted
26 Jan 2005 — minor updates
08 Jul 2006 — minor updates
03 Apr 2011 — updates

Related Links
Showing vs. Telling
If you write “I was very excited that I had finally won something,” then you are telling.If you write, “I was so excited my blood was pounding in my ears. For the first time in my life, I won something! I couldn’t believe it,” you are still telling (with more details).If you write “I leapt onto the table, knocking over trays and juice boxes. ‘Who’s laughing now, Mr. Super-Jock? I’ve captured your queen, and your king’s little white plastic ass ismine ! Bwaa haahh hahh hahh!'” then you are showing.

Crisis vs. Conflict
A good story depends on a battle of opposing wills or a complex interior struggle that changes the protagoist. A detailed description of a harrowing car accident or an important sporting event is not, by itself, enough to make an engaging story.


9 thoughts on “Personal Essays

  1. Ummmmmm……..this was I guess good information. LOL just kidding this info is great, you should give more. You helped me a lot on my paper and I totally aced it. Soooo……I guess this is where the thank you comes in so thanks!!!! (I guess)

  2. Thank you for information. I submitted an article which was rejected for lack of a good hook and the editor told me to research the subject. Your details are helpful.

  3. Hello, I am writing a compare contrast paper on personhood, I am haing a hard time coming up with a good thesis statement. The body plays no role in personhood. It is simply a vessel to help us function while we exist. Personhood has no clear meaning. It is a label set in place to determine who society sees deemed to be persons. Is that a thesis statement or not please let me know.
    Thank you

  4. Hello, Im preparing myself for an in class essay on why do I attend college I have a few reasons why i choose to attend college but i cant seem to make a reliable thesis statement that can be incorporated into my body paragraphs i really need your help pls.

  5. Pingback: Sometimes, college writing comes down to glitter glue, Sharpies, and smiles. — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

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