The Personal Essay


What is a personal essay? YWP defines it as a piece that focuses on an insight, realization or belief about life that is significant to the writer. We believe that all good personal essays should include narrative, that is a story about a significant event -- this is what draws the reader in -- and can include what is called memoir, that is discussion of a significant relationship between the writer and an object, person or place.

But we split hairs. A pesonal essay should tell the reader something about you -- who you are, what you believe and what some of your attributes are. It should show your voice, personality and attitude. And it should entertain, meaning, that the reader actually wants to finish it. And it should have a basic structure: Introduction >> Main Body >> Conclusion. And, while there are different "schools" of thought, YWP believes the personal essay should reflect your voice, your less formal more conversational style of writing. That still means that your writing should be tight, well-edited and well-paced -- too often people confuse "informal" writing style as being casual, un-grammatical and filled with slang. No. AND, and, and... there should be a point to what you say.

So how do you get started? Well too often we are asked to get started, finish it by such and such a day, do it in this format and this is how much it's going to count on your grade.

We say: Get an idea you can get excited about. Find some people (like here on youngwritersproject.org) to give you some feedback on your drafts. And think of an audience for your work -- who might be interested? (For those applying for college or a scholarship, you know you have an audience. But what about writing a personal essay about something that happened to you or something that you care about for the local media? Or a community website?)

So let's start on idea development. Here are some ideas designed to generate some ideas and we suggest you do as many as it takes before you find an idea that excites you. Remember, your point is to focus on something that changed you, something that gave you insight and purpose.

Some challenges:
  • Memorable moments: Give yourself THREE minutes only -- a minute for thinking and two for writing. LIST every memorable moment that you can think of -- accidents, deaths, joys, sports victories, recitals, surprises... When you are done, pick one and write a story about it starting at the most dramatic moment (start later than you think you should) and ending sooner than you think you should. WRITE FAST. Do another.
  • Your roles: Give yourself THREE minutes only -- a minute for thinking and two for writing. LIST every role you have in your life -- brother (or sister), student, actor, soccer player, worker, video game player, whatever ... When finished write about the role that most feels like you. 
  • Objects: Give yourself THREE minutes only -- a minute for thinking and two for writing. LIST the objects that are most important in your life. Pick one and write about it. Why is it important? How does it define you? How did you get it?
  • Promises: All of us have been in a situation where we were unable to keep a promise we made. Write about it. Or write about when you were disappointed because someone broke a promise to you. How did you overcome it?
  • Judging: Have you ever judged someone or something too quickly -- maybe by their dress or looks -- only to discover that the person was much better than you thought or the event/task was much more rewarding than you thought? Write about it.
  • Practicing: The writer Kurt Vonnegut gave this advice: Practice becoming. What skills are you trying most to develop? Why? What do you want to become? Why
  • Challenges: What challenge or problem have you faced and overcome? Everyone has problems or challenges to overcome.
  • Mistakes: When did you forgive smeone because they made a mistake that may have had an impact on you? Tell the story. When did someone forgive you for your mistake? What did you learn?

Some basic characteristics of a personal essay:
  • Communicates the significance of a central idea or insight that has a deep personal meaning to you
  • The purpose is more reflective, although the tone may sound persuasive
  • The piece is based upon the writer’s personal experiences or anecdotes
  • Written in first person; more conversational or entertaining in style
  • It's subjective in tone
  • It rarely has documentation though often an anecdote establishes proof or change
  • More informal in tone, language, and subject matter

Some hints:
  • Use specific, senory detail to bring your narrative alive
  • Avoid being preachy
  • Cut out what is not necessary -- be firm in your edits and revision by asking "Do I really need that, or can the reader figure that out?"
  • Read your draft aloud and fix what doesn't sound like you or which ties your tongue in knots
  • Minimize adjectives
  • Be excited about your idea and point; if you aren't you can't expect your reader to be.
  • Keep to your point; make sure any tangential idea, story adds to the point
  • Write short and tight
  • Make the first sentence, paragraph captivating
  • Try to write your final draft in one sitting; don't be afraid to re-write from the beginning
  • Seek out some feedback