Personal Essays: 7 Tips for Expressing Ideas in Words

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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!

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.

personal-essays

  1. Double-check the assignment
  2. Be specific
  3. Plan to revise
  4. Show, don’t (just) tell
  5. Make the important interesting
  6. Use dialogue effectively
  7. Organize your ideas

1) Double-check the assignment (follow instructions)

  • 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 (rather than general)

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) Plan to revise

You can’t expect to pick up a ball and immediately play like a pro. The star athlete has spent many hours at practice for every hour in the game. Likewise, even the best writers understand that good writing is the result of a process, and that process includes false starts, confusing digressions, and dead ends. Nobody, not even professors or novelists, churns out perfect paragraphs the very first time.

Expect to cut at least the first third of your initial draft. Maybe the first half.

Bad Example “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.)”
If you’re like most people, you’ll start spilling 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.
Good Example  “Option C will solve problem X, because…”
If your don’t end up having much to say about options A and B, maybe you don’t even need to mention them. Just go with you best idea.

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 better at writing.) Simply producing a page free of grammatical errors is not enough.

4) Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

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.

Bad Example “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, not simply to communicate the fact that you felt them.)(See this much more detailed handout on Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.)

5) Make the Important Interesting

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.

You don’t have to start with an event of worldly significance, in the hopes that it will make your essay better. I’m a college professor. I’ve read a lot of really boring essays about surviving car accidents, or winning the big game, or dying puppies. There is no sure-fire topic that will prevent you from writing a bad essay.

My own college essay was full of really bad jokes — like “Is that a camera? Lens be serious.”  I knew the jokes were corny, But rather than simply filling the page with jokes, I described how my friends and I would compete with each other; the point wasn’t to be funny, the point was simply to keep firing back, stupid joke after stupid joke, each one somehow relating to the concept of “camera” (“I’m losing focus here!” “Keep going and see what develops.” “That joke is overexposed”). I describe how I would prepare a string of jokes on a common subject (shoes, or parts of the body, or zoo animals), casually work the conversation around to that topic, and then launch a pun war. I valued my ability to think on my feet and use language, and the pun wars were ways for me to establish that identity.

If you haven’t spent a summer doing something important and striking, like knitting sweaters for abandoned baby penguins, what is something that makes you who you are? What is the thing that, when you hear it mentioned at a party, makes you perk up and want to join in?

Examples:

  • “Sure, Fishing is Boring — But That’s the Point!”
  • “How I Learned Not To Stick Things Into Power Outlets”
  • “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.)

6) Use Dialogue Effectively

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

Good Example 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.”“And…?”“For teaching me how punctuation and actions work together in dialogue.
As humans, we are built to engage with other humans. Dialogue can make an otherwise dry essay come to life.

7. Organize your Ideas

For a paper with a thesis that argues point, try a reasoning blueprint.

For a paper that narrates a story, try connecting 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 stranger sneeezed messily into her hand.”
  • [tension, frustration, and passion during a summer romance, the 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!”

Dennis G. Jerz
c. 1999 — first posted
26 Jan 2005 — minor updates
08 Jul 2006 — minor updates
03 Apr 2011 — updates
06 Aug 2015 — reorganization