The best personal essays have the power to inspire and move those who read them. They can also create uncertain or unsettled feelings in the reader, and leave other questions that need answering. So, to create an effective essay, it is first important to understand how this type of writing should be structured. Then you will need to do a little brainstorming to generate some ideas so that you are fully prepared when the time comes to start writing.
Beginning the Personal Essay Writing Process
Look for the right angle
It may be that your life so far has not been filled with much drama or is not full of exciting anecdotes. However, this is not a problem. It is still possible to write an engaging and compelling personal essay provided you find the right angle for your writing. Look for a moment or experience in your life and do your best to find an interesting or unique perspective on this. This technique can transform an otherwise mundane event into something more deep and meaningful.
It may be, for example, that you decide to discuss a time you learned a valuable lesson by experiencing failure. It may be the time you did not do so well in a music quiz at your school. While this quiz may not have appeared very significant to you at that particular time, you later understood that this failure caused you to re-evaluate your educational objectives and kick-started you into making sure you got a pass grade. By taking a new angle, this unimportant failure made you more determined and helped you understand the importance of perseverance.
Choose an important moment to write about
Most worthwhile personal essays tend to explore an event that caused the writer feelings of inner conflict. Writing about these in a personal essay may well be a way to explore why and how these experiences bothered or disturbed you. Consider it as an opportunity to reflect on an important life experience and to consider how your life was impacted and/or altered by it.
The event or moment may have been something relatively small but was one that proved hugely significant later, e.g., a look of profound shock on a parent’s face when they discovered something unexpected about you. Now, dig deep into why this experience or moment disturbed or unsettled you.
Do not forget that readers usually become more engaged when the writer describes highly emotional situations. Having felt strongly about something will help you write about it with passion and get the interest of your readers.
Write about a particular moment that triggered strong emotion
You could also consider telling your readers about a particular event that made a significant impression on your mind and affected you for life. In fact, you can use various experiences to reflect on events that changed your life. So, try to choose a unique event and one that has personal meaning for you. The more unusual the circumstances you describe, the more engaging and interesting your essay will be to read.
You could, for instance, focus your essay on a time you were overcome by grief after the death of someone you loved. The idea is, essentially, to look for an important experience that helped shape you into the person you now are.
Think about someone close that you sometimes difficult to get along with
It may be that you choose to base your essay on an event or situation that is relatively light-hearted, e.g., your very first roller coaster ride or your first cruise. Whatever topic it is, just try and ensure that it is something that aroused strong emotion, whether it is joy, confusion, anger, or something else.
It may even be that you want to discuss a difficult relationship with someone close to you. Perhaps it is someone you have become distant from, have drifted apart from, or have always had a complex relationship with. You could use your personal essay to explore these complications.
You may, for instance, want to consider why you and a best friend from your childhood drifted apart or why you and a parent ceased speaking for a time, or even why a romance soured rather than succeeded.
Give your reaction to a current news event
Many successful essays of the personal variety take account of both specific and general issues as well as larger ones and current events. It can help to select a current topic or event that stirs strong feelings of passion in you. Examples of such current topics or events are the Syrian refugee crisis, abortion, and so on.
Think about a particular current event and ask yourself how that event relates to your own personal experiences. Is there a way you can use your experiences, feelings, or opinions to explore that issue?
It may be, for instance, you want to write about the Syrian refugee crisis and the camps that are continually emerging across Europe. In this case, you could focus your essay on the fact you yourself are a refugee now living in America and go on to describe how this has shaped you as a person. This should enable you to analyze this current situation from your own perspective instead of just talking about it in a detached way.
Develop an essay outline
It is usual practice to divide an essay into sections, e.g., an introduction, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion. These paragraphs are arranged as follows:
An introduction should begin with a “hook” i.e. a few opening sentences designed to catch the attention of the reader. This paragraph should additionally have a thesis statement, which is usually a type of theme that sets out the basis of your essay and connects your personal experience to a wider or more general idea.
The main body paragraphs are made up of evidence to support the main theme or central idea. This evidence can be based on your own personal experiences and your thoughts on these experiences. The body paragraphs should also indicate a timeline so that readers know how and when the events you are describing took place.
Your concluding paragraph should describe how the events and/or experiences you have discussed ended. Here, you should also reflect on the lessons you learned and/or how these impacted your life.
In times past, it was usual practice to base an essay of this type on the five-paragraph model, one as the introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. However, you need not feel restricted to five paragraphs provided you include these three essential sections.
Writing Your Personal Essay
Make the opening scene as engaging as possible
Try and make the introduction paragraph to your essay as interesting and engaging as you possibly can for your readers. Use this section to introduce all main characters and the central theme of your essay. You should also set out the main concern or question to be addressed.
Avoid using words that describe precisely what you will discuss, e.g., “In the following paragraphs, I will be exploring my difficult relationship with my parents.” Rather, draw the reader in while still providing sufficient information.
You could begin by setting a particular scene that introduces the main characters, but do this in a way that enables you to draw in the central theme or question. This format allows the reader to become acquainted with your characters while you also present the theme or area of conflict early on.
If, for instance, you are discussing a difficult relationship with your parents, you could highlight a particular time when you disagreed. This could be anything, even something seemingly insignificant.
Write your essay from your own unique perspective or voice
Although this is a personal essay, you are still free to write from a unique viewpoint or in a unique voice. Personal essays, like many other types of essay, are generally better when the writer both informs and entertains their reader. This implies using tone, syntax, and word choices to develop a compelling narrative.
The voice you choose might well be a conversational one, e.g., as though you were speaking to family members or friends. Or it may be more introspective and reflective, e.g., one where you explore and question your own thoughts and assumptions on the essay’s subject.
It is common practice to write a personal essay from the first person perspective, e.g., “I.” To give an immediate feeling to your story, you may choose to use the present tense or, when reflecting on particular moments or events, you may choose the past tense.
Make sure your characters are sufficiently well-developed and detailed
Make sure you use both physical and sensory detail to describe your essay’s characters. Although you may be drawing on real-life experience, you should still try and use story-telling techniques, e.g., characters and a plot. Elements like these help the smooth flow of an essay and keep readers engaged.
Dialog, as you recall how characters spoke, is also permissible. However, dialog should be limited to just a few lines per page as an excessive amount can steer you in the direction of a fictional rather than personal essay.
Your essay should include a plot
You can use plot as the organizational basis for your personal essay. The points in the plot should provide evidence to support the essay’s central theme or question.
Try to find a deeper meaning or truth
This involves thinking about or exploring what lies at the heart of your own experiences. Try to be honest and curious when discussing your experiences with a view to uncovering a particular truth or something you were unaware of as it occurred. The best essays often try to uncover an issue that is difficult or uncomfortable for the essay writer to confront.
An important thing to remember is that although a personal experience may seem to possess all the dramatic elements for a good essay, it may be a story that readers are already familiar with. So, watch out for experiences that are filled with the type of pathos your readers may have already experienced and are familiar with.
If, for instance, you are recalling the unexpected or untimely death of someone you loved, this may be extremely deep and meaningful to you. However, it is likely your readers will know in advance what to expect in an essay about personal grief and death, and they may not connect with your description as you expect since they will not have known your loved one as you had known them.
In cases like this, you could look for a truth that goes deeper than the fact that you were sad that someone you loved died. Consider what meaning that person had for you and what impact - both negative and positive - they had on your life. Doing so may lead you to discovering a deep underlying truth and it may make for a better essay.
How to Polish Your Personal Essay
- Try a variety of literary forms and techniques
This could mean using metaphors to describe different experiences, e.g., telling your parents you wanted to do something they opposed. You could, for instance, describe their faces as “becoming as impenetrable as a stone wall.” Alternatively, you could use similes to describe their reactions, e.g., “they were stunned and silent as if a thunderbolt had struck them.”
- Read your essay aloud
When the first draft of your essay has been written, it is highly recommended you read back through it and that you read it aloud to hear how your words sound. Read it aloud to yourself or read it to others i.e. an audience that is sympathetic to your objectives.
While reading aloud, try to pick out any words and/or sentences that are not clear or may be confusing. Look as well for sentences that seem weak in comparison to the rest of your work. Another thing you should check is that your essay’s characters are thoroughly developed and that there is a certain structure or the feeling of a plot to your essay. Think about whether you are reaching a deeper and more meaningful truth in your words and, if not, what is needed to achieve this. Your personal essay will be made a lot stronger through revision.
- Revise your work
When you are happy you have a good draft, it is important you revise it. Find somewhere quiet to sit down and do this. Look back at any notes you took when you were reading it aloud and review any feedback you received from others who read it.
During the process of revision, think again about whether your subject really is worthy, whether you have chosen a subject or topic you really do feel passionately about, and whether your readers will fully understand what you have written about. It is unlikely your aim is to confuse your readers since this can cause them to lose interest at the outset and/or prevent them from reading right through to the end.
It is also essential to ensure the themes of your essay are crystal clear. The same applies to your focus. The personal experiences you write about should be founded on one central theme, issue, or question. This is a good way of ensuring your essay is as concise and well written as possible.