Personal Essays: How to Write Them

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.

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
  • Show, Don't (Just) Tell
  • (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 mentioned section 49 of Keys for Writers.
    • Writing Dialogue: "Write each person's spoken words, however brief, as a separate paragraph. Use commas to set off dialogue tags such as "she said" or "he explained." Closely related narrative prose can be included in a paragraph with dialogue. If one person's speech goes on for more than one paragraph, use quotation marks to open the speech and at the beginning--but not the end--of each new paragraph in the speech. To close the speech, use quotation marks at the end of the final paragraph."  --From Quotation Marks, <>

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...] 
    • " 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.)

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