Most people love to write about themselves - a personal essay allows for just that. It is a form of autobiographical writing in which a story is told about oneself or in which personal experiences and opinions are expressed. The personal essay is often requested as a part of the college admissions process but also may be constructed for subjective reasons. At one point or another many writers will tread the path of self-disclosure and decide to write a personal essay
. Its a wonderful adventure that may involve a lot of self-exploration, collecting and organizing of thoughts, identifying and re-defining oneself and craft-fully relaying to the world a slice of you.
In this article we will review the purpose of the personal essay, facts and tips on its formulation and examples to guide you along.
Choosing a topic and a purpose
Unlike other essays, the personal essay may require that you work backwards and identify a purpose before choosing a topic. Think about it. Your entire life is a story and therefore you have a vast amount of topics at your disposal. So where do you start? A great place to begin is to ask yourself, Why am I writing?
With personal essays
your purpose may be either to inform
. If you decide to inform, you should provide your readers with real factual information, such as an event that occurred in your life or personal opinions and judgements. If your essay is meant to entertain readers possibly for a blog or other venue, you may decide to include lively and exciting characters or inject a bit of humor.
In re-creation you will be providing readers with very detailed sensory descriptions, similar to what you would find in a descriptive essay. This purpose is often fused with the first one in which authors will inform readers of a tale in such a detailed manner that its as if the reader witnessed the event themselves. The following is an excerpt of a personal essay by Jonathan Franzen featured in The New Yorker of an author recreating a scene from his childhood;
"In 1969, the drive from Minneapolis to St. Louis took twelve hours and was mostly on two-lane roads. My parents woke me up for it at dawn. We had just spent an outstandingly fun week with my Minnesota cousins..."
This example illustrates a common form of the personal essay - the personal narrative
. It includes personal pronouns such as "my" and describes an event that occurred in the life of the author. Here we see the author informing us of a real event that occurred in his life in 1969.
Gathering details for your essay
Self-disclosure is a very important part of writing a personal essay. One way to get things started is to complete a self-interview. Interviewing yourself may seem odd at first but just as you need to gather information for a news story or research report, you also need to gather details from yourself to formulate an essay. If you're writing a specific event that occurred you may want to ask yourself a few questions;
- How did this event change my life?
- What did I learn?
- Why is it special; why did I choose to write about it?
- If I could choose one word to describe it what would it be and why?
- Is there anyone else that experienced the same thing? How do they feel about it?
After you gather the necessary information you'll want to start figuring out how you will organize your essay. If its a story, this step is very easy, you would organize chronologically - though if it is an opinion paper or other type of personal essay you'll want to identify how to set up your paper.
Some things to consider:
Will you start off with an engaging statement, observation or thought?
Are you going to introduce a problem and then provide the solution?
Or are you go to write in a comparison-contrast or cause-effect style?
These are all great ideas to examine while drafting your essay.
Tips on the personal narrative
It's a real story!
So you're writing about your life. Remember that even though the events you are writing about are factual you still need to include the elements of a good story. A story is made up of distinct characteristics and include the following (a) setting (b) plot (c) characters (d) theme
and (e) point-of-view
(which would be first-person).
In personal writing
one area that may be neglected is having a clear plot. A plot is comprised of a rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. You may want to only focus on a the climax of your story because it is the main action that you personally experienced, or the focal point of your memory. Even though it is tempting you want to provide your readers with a full picture. To properly engage your audience you must provide them with the appropriate details that lead to the climax and then falling actions or events that lead to the conclusion.
Be honest with yourself and the reader
One aspect of constructing a compelling personal essay is to be honest and truthful about your ideas, thoughts, and experiences. Lies are fiction. People may decide to continue reading your essay simply because they are intrigued by one of your real-life experience that perhaps they can also relate to or other feelings and statements that they feel people often do not share. Sometimes the most memorable stories we read are those that we have a connection with. So to assist you in providing your readers with that personal relationship you can try to (a) identify a topic that you are comfortable with sharing all or most of the relevant facts about
and (b) provide your readers with vivid adjectives and phrases to describe your emotions and experiences.
Other types of personal essays
Another popular form of the personal essay is for the author to explore a particular subject providing personal opinions and ideas as well as factual evidence and individual advice or recommendations. This type of essay may be also be best described as a 'conversation' with the reader.
For example; you're having coffee with your father and begin discussing with him your opinion of growing up on a farm or in a rural area. You decide to take the position that children that grow up on a farm may seem deprived because they are missing out on the 'city-life' and its conveniences but in reality they are better off than 'city-children' because they are exposed to from fresh air, nature etc.
In the course of your conversation you may pull from a pool of resources including your own personal experiences growing up on a farm, other children that you knew growing up and so on. You may also point to specific evidence that you may have read or heard that discussed the poor air quality of the city and its effects on the body and development. You then bring the discussion to a close by concluding that farm children have better childhoods than city children. As you can see there is no hard evidence here but just general life experiences. This conversation with your dad is very similar to a personal essay. You explored a subject, provided evidence to support your main objective and left a clear conclusion to leave the reader with.
Lastly, in forming a personal essay you have to take careful consideration to ensure that your ideas are clear and engaging and do not come off as jumbled and confused to the reader. A personal essay is not simply freewriting where you just write, but is form of expression that though it is intimate and intriguing should also be structured and readable. Fluency, paragraph format, sentence structure, and other mechanics are still just as important when writing a personal essay as it is in a formal report. A good question to ask yourself is, Would I want to read this? Hopefully by posing this question you will respond by preparing a presentable, well-organized yet astounding and engaging personal essay for your readers.